High Road on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
Self-Drive tours in China are becoming a very popular way to travel around the country. A number of international tourists are taking on this amazing adventure to experience China like a local, driving yourself around. However, self-driving in Tibet is another matter.
Self-driving is possible in Tibet
It is possible to take a self-drive tour to Tibet, though you may need to plan more carefully to meet the requirements of a self-drive experience on the Tibetan plateau. The one thing you cannot do is self-drive alone. Independent travel is prohibited in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and all tourists to the region are required to be on a pre-arranged tour with a registered Tibet travel agency. Even those wanting to self-drive across the plateau. However, instead of being part of a large tour group, you will have your own guide to help you travel in Tibet more easily.
Planning a self-drive tour to Tibet
If you are planning to take a self-drive Tibet tours, then there are a number of factors to consider in your preparations for the trip to Tibet, from licensing and vehicles to Tibet travel permits, visas, hotels, etc. And even the route you take through Tibet has to be well-planned out before you travel.
Requirements for self-driving to Tibet
The first thing you need to do is obtain all the documents you will need for your self-drive tour. Aside from your typical Chinese Entry Visa, you will also need to have a Chinese Driving License. China does not permit holders of the International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive locally.
Your Chinese Entry Visa must be obtained from the Chinese Embassy in your home or resident country, and processing normally takes around 3-5 working days. You can make the application in person, or by mail of the embassy permits, providing all the relevant documents for a standard tourist (L) visa. The requirements do depend on your country of origin, but the standard requirements for a Chinese Entry Visa are:
•Valid passport with at least 6 months validity remaining and one blank visa page
•Completed visa application form (Form V.2013)
•Recent passport photo with bare head, full face, and light background
•Proof of round-trip flights and proof of hotel bookings in China (do not include Tibet)
•Payment of the relevant visa fee, depending on your country of origin
The Chinese temporary driving license can now be applied for in just a couple of hours. Known officially as the China Provisional Driving Permit, this is the easiest way to get a temporary driving license for driving in China, including Tibet. As of September 2019, it is now even easier to get the driving permit, removing some of the previous requirements. All you now need to do is make the application for the temporary driving permit, which no longer includes things like medical reports and exams. You can normally obtain the driving permit at the airport or traffic police department in the city you are in, and processing can take a little as 1-2 hours. You need to provide them with:
•National driving license (of your home country)
•International Driving Permit.
•Chinese translation of the foreign driver’s license
•Completed application form.
•A hotel booking for at least one day.
•Three one-inch colored photos with white background.
Once your permit has been issued, you will be able to drive in China, and hire vehicles from local rental companies. You should carry both licenses with you at all times, in case you are asked to produce them at checkpoints. And the license will only be valid for the period of your Chinese Entry Visa.
Contact a travel agency for a self-driving tour in Tibet
A registered travel agency for travel in Tibet is required for all international tourists planning a trip to the region, and you will need to contact a Tibet travel company to help you arrange your self-drive Tibet tours. Once you have found the right agency, you can start to plan your trip. All international tourists to Tibet must be on a pre-arranged tour. The Tibet Travel Permit is the main permit for all tourists to Tibet, and is required for entry to the TAR and travel in the area around Lhasa. You also need the Alien’s Travel Permit for travel outside Lhasa, and the Frontier Pass for the Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp tour and other areas close to China’s borders with Nepal, India, and Bhutan.
Routes for self-driving to Tibet
As well as planning your license application, your entry into Tibet, and the car and guide for your tour, you need to decide on where to go on your lifetime self-drive tour of Tibet. There are a number of options you can choose from, and while you do have the choice of where to go, there are some limitations to where you can travel to Tibet.
There are a number of easier routes that you can undertake, across Tibet only or ones that you can take from inland China into Tibet. The route from Lhasa to Kathmandu is a popular one for many travelers, and you get to visit some of the most amazing destinations in Tibet, including the stunning Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp. Or you can include a trip north from Lhasa to visit Lake Namtso, the Heavenly Lake.
For those with a bigger sense of adventure, you can choose to drive into Tibet from inland China along a number of routes, including the Chengdu to Lhasa route along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and the Xining to Lhasa route along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway.
Best time for self-driving to Tibet
If you are planning to self-drive in Tibet, you really need to choose the optimal time for doing so. The best time for self-driving is in the spring and autumn, from April to May and September to October, when the weather is mild and pleasant, with almost no rain and warmer weather. It is not advisable to drive in Tibet in the summer monsoon months or the winter months unless you are very experienced in driving here during those periods. Spring and autumn have mild weather, dry road conditions, and better visibility, to make your trip as pleasant and safe as possible. Monsoon rains have been known to wash away roads in the remote areas of Tibet. And winter snows can block high passes and make driving on icy conditions dangerous for inexperienced drivers.
Packing for self-driving to Tibet
Another part of your planning for the self-drive tour of Tibet is to know exactly what to pack for the trip. While spring and autumn are warmer times of the year, the nights can still get cold, so you will need to bring warm clothes to wear in the cooler periods, normally at night. You should also make sure that you have more than one pair of shoes. Hiking boots or sturdy shoes may be good for wandering around the plateau’s many attractions, which can be rough and rocky, but are not good for driving. Bring a comfortable pair of shoes for driving, so you can change when you get in the car to feel more comfortable. Clothing for driving should also be loose-fitting and comfortable, as you will be sitting for long periods in the driving seat.
Most rental companies will provide you with all the things you need to complete your drive, including spare wheel, jack, etc. However, you might want to bring a portable tire inflator with you, in case of low air pressure in remote areas. And bring or buy large bottled water, which you can keep in the car. Staying hydrated is important when driving at high altitudes.