The Tibet Autonomous Region is often considered as one of those bucket-list destinations that is a must-visit for ardent travelers in Asia. Known as the Roof of the World, Tibet lies on the world’s highest plateau, and is surrounded by the world’s highest mountains and mountain range. Lying at an average altitude of around 4,800 meters above sea level, this high-altitude land is one of the most unique locations on the planet. And if that is not enough to tempt you to visit, then the wealth of ancient Buddhist monasteries, lofty snow-clad mountains, beautiful crystal-clear lakes, and vast open prairies filled with unique plateau wildlife may just make you change your mind. There are some things that you need to know before considering a trip to the roof of the world, which can help make planning and executing this incredible journey much easier.
When is the best time to travel Tibet?
Tibet is a region that can be visited all year round, and the monumental number of things to see and do make it an ideal place for both summer and winter visits. Tibet has a typical sub-tropical plateau climate with four seasons, and is also a monsoon-affected region, lying directly between the northeast and southwest monsoon regions of Asia. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit for those that want to experience clear skies and half-decent weather, when the temperatures reach up as high as 12-15 degrees during the daytime, and drop only just below freezing at night. This is also the best time for trekking on the plateau for those with a taste for adventure.
Summer is the monsoon season in Tibet, but thanks to the shadow effect of the Himalayas, very little rain actually reaches the western end of the plateau. And even in the central and eastern areas, the rain usually comes in showers in the late afternoon and evening, and is not enough to slow you down on your exploration of this unique Buddhist land. Winter is not as bad as many people think either. While it can get extremely cold in some western and higher areas of the plateau, for most of the places you will visit on the standard tour, it is not too cold to travel. Temperatures can get down to around 5-6 degrees in some places, in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the average winter temperature ranges between 11 and 7 degrees during the day. And with bright sunny days for most of the winter, there is no better time to visit for those on a budget Tibet tour or to avoid the crowds of the peak season.
What documents are needed for travel to Tibet?
Tibet is a place where independent travel is not permitted, and all tourists to the plateau region must be on a pre-arranged tour with a registered Tibetan tour operator like Explore Tibet. And it is the tour operator that obtains the many documents that you will need to get into and around the region, with the exception of the Chinese Entry Visa for those entering from mainland China. This must be applied for in person from your local Embassy of the People’s Republic of China prior to booking your trip to Tibet, as it will be needed to apply for the other permits.
The Tibet Travel Permit is the main permit for travel to Tibet, and is obtained by us on your behalf once you have booked your tour. Using scanned color copies of your passport and visa (if entering from China), we will make the application with the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa, which can take up to 15-20 days. Once received, your permit will be forwarded to your hotel in China ready for your departure to Tibet.
For those traveling outside Lhasa, you will also need the Alien’s Travel Permit, for visiting the “unopened” areas of Tibet, and the Frontier Pass, for visiting the areas of Tibet close to the Chinese border with Nepal, including Mount Everest. For those intending to take a long trip to sacred Mount Kailash in Ngari Prefecture or visit the delightful countryside of Nyingchi, you will also need the Restricted Areas Permit. These are also obtained by us, and will be ready for you before you travel outside Lhasa.
For those entering from Nepal, we will obtain all the permits using just your passport, and your visa will be issued as a Chinese Group Visa once you reach the Nepali capital of Kathmandu. Our agent will meet you at your hotel when you arrive, and make the application for the visa on your behalf from the embassy in the city. Processing takes three working days, so you need to be in Nepal at least five days before your expected date of departure.
How to get to Tibet – by flight or by train?
There are two options for travel to Tibet for international travelers. You can take the flights from one of many cities in China that offer direct flights to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, or from the Nepali airport in Kathmandu, or you can take the train from one of seven gateway cities to Tibet in mainland China.
Flights depart from more than two dozen airports across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi’an, and many more. The cost and travel time of the flights varies depending on where you are departing from, but the most popular departure locations for flights to Lhasa are from Beijing and Chengdu.
There are also flights to the famous Lhasa Gonggar International Airport from Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. AS the only international airport in the world with direct flights to Tibet, Kathmandu is a popular departure point for tourists to the plateau. These flights range in price depending on the season, but take around 90 minutes to reach Lhasa, crossing directly above the summit of Mount Everest on their flight plan.
Trains to Lhasa depart from seven cities across China, including Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Lanzhou, and Xining. These unique trains are fitted with oxygen systems to combat altitude sickness on the journey up to the heady heights of the plateau, and take from 22 to 55 hours to reach the Tibetan capital railway station. Xining is the closest departure point for Lhasa, and is the start of the high-altitude Qinghai Tibet Railway, the highest railway in the world. Sleeper cabins are available for the trip to Lhasa, and are comfortable and inexpensive compared to flying.
Altitude Sickness in Tibet
Altitude sickness is a major concern when traveling to Lhasa, as it lies at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level. For those coming from most of mainland China and Kathmandu, that is an increase of more than 3,000 meters in one go. Despite some myths on traveling to Tibet by train, the oxygen pumped into the carriages after passing Golmud on the way to the plateau usually prevents any acclimatization on the long journey.
Once you reach Lhasa, you will need to acclimatize to the higher altitude and thinner atmosphere, and your body will take a couple of days to adjust and get used to having less oxygen per breath than it is used to. This is not dangerous, and as long as you take plenty of rest, avoid alcohol, smoking, coffee, and strenuous exercise, and remain hydrated as much as you can, there should not be any problems with acclimatizing to the altitude. Most tours take a couple of days in Lhasa to view the sights, and this is a good enough time to allow you to adjust before traveling to other places outside the capital.