Tibet’s transport infrastructure is poorly developed and, with the exception of the Friendship Hwy and the Qinghai–Tibet Hwy, most of the roads are in rough condition. Work is being undertaken to improve this situation – a vital aspect of Chinese plans to develop Tibet – but it is unlikely that travel in large parts of Tibet will become comfortable or easy in the near future.
The main problem for travellers short on time is the scarcity of public transport. There are no internal flights (except to Chamdo, a closed area) and only a handful of buses and minibuses plying the roads between Lhasa and other major Tibetan towns such as Shigatse and Tsetang.
Most travellers band together to hire a Land Cruiser to get around Tibet but this isn’t absolutely necessary. Minibuses run to most monasteries around Lhasa, and to Shigatse, Gyantse, Sakya and Lhatse. Hitching is another possibility; you will still have to pay, but only a fraction of the amount for a Land Cruiser. You’ll need to be more self-sufficient and prepared to wait perhaps for hours for a ride. Hitching in Tibet can be the best way to get around but it can also be very frustrating, and there are risks.
Those with more time can, of course, trek or cycle their way around the high plateau. A combination of hiking and hitching is the best way to get to many off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t necessarily recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. That said, in Tibet hitching is often the only alternative to hiring an expensive Land Cruiser and so has become a fairly established practice.
Few foreigners travel long distances by truck these days. The authorities impose heavy fines on truck drivers caught transporting foreign travellers and may even confiscate their licence. Sometimes you can get a lift on a pilgrim truck or an organised passenger truck.
If you are headed out to fairly remote destinations you should be equipped to camp out for the night if you don’t get a ride. One guy we heard of waited so long for a lift to Mt Kailash that he built a chörten from stones out of boredom. By the time he got a ride it was more than 1m tall!
There are also plenty of half-empty Land Cruisers heading down the Friendship Hwy to pick up a group, or returning after having dropped one off. It’s a wonderful feeling to finally get a lift in an empty Land Cruiser after being rejected all day by a stream of dilapidated trucks travelling at 30km/h!
Normally you will be expected to pay for your lift, especially in a Land Cruiser. The amount is entirely negotiable, but in areas where traffic is minimal, drivers will often demand quite large sums.
It’s a good idea to start hitching a few kilometres out of town because then you know that traffic is going in your direction and is not about to turn off after 400m. This is especially important if there is a checkpost nearby. It’s best to walk through the checkpost yourself and wait for a lift out of sight on the other side.
The most common hitching gesture is to stick out one or two fingers towards the ground and wave them up or down.
If you are hitching long distances without a permit you’ll have to lay low at checkposts. Perhaps your best chance is to hook up with a truck that is itself slightly illegal and therefore inclined to drive through the checkposts at night. Apart from the checkposts, the likeliest place to be caught is at a hotel.
Renting a Land Cruiser (plus driver) and splitting the cost among a band of travellers has become the most popular way of getting around in Tibet. Tourists are not permitted to drive rental vehicles in Tibet.
Prices depend largely on the kilometres driven (roughly Y3.50 per km) not the time taken, meaning that you can often add an extra day to your itinerary for minimal extra cost. Prices are higher on trips where a permit and both guide and driver are needed. Guide fees are normally calculated at around Y150 per day and permits generally cost around Y150 per person.
Land Cruisers have room for four passengers (plus a guide) and their luggage. Even then, someone will have to sit on a fold-up seat in the back. The guides provided on budget tours are normally useless. The best learned their English in Dharamsala but don’t have a formal guide licence (the government won’t give licences to Tibetans who have travelled to Dharamsala).
The best place to hire vehicles is Lhasa. Before organising a vehicle, check the notice boards at the main budget hotels. The most popular destinations are the Nepali border, Nam-tso and Mt Kailash, but there will probably be a few notices about more-obscure destinations. The availability of vehicles has improved recently, but in the peak months of May, August and September there can still be a squeeze and prices can rise.
Hiring a vehicle is subject to a few pitfalls and we get many complaints from travellers over the quality of the car, the guide and problems relating to reimbursements after an unsuccessful trip. If possible, it is a good idea to reach an agreement that payment be delivered in two instalments: one before setting off and one on successful completion of the trip. This gives you more leverage in negotiating a refund if your trip was unsuccessful (one reason why agencies are loathe to do this).
Drawing up a contract in English as well as Tibetan or Chinese can be a good idea and your agent may already have one. List your exact itinerary, the price and method of payment and pin down in writing any detours or monasteries you want to visit. Once you are on the road your driver will be reluctant to detour even a few kilometres off the listed itinerary.
Above all, get together with the driver before the trip and go through the main points of the agreement verbally. You are likely to have far fewer problems if you can reach friendly terms with your driver by treating him with respect – giving him some cigarettes or some kind of small gift – rather than waving a contract in his face.
Remember, it may be worth spending a few hundred yuan extra (it’s not much spread between four people) to hire a vehicle from a bigger and more reliable agency. Note that most higher-end agencies can only arrange your trip if you book it from outside Tibet, so that they provide the original TTB permit to get you into Tibet.
Bus travel in Tibet is limited but with some time and a little effort you can get to most places in this book by bus or minibus,. Most services originate in Lhasa or Shigatse and run to any town that has a sizeable Chinese presence. Smaller towns may have just one daily bus that runs to Lhasa in the morning and returns in the afternoon.
Many bus stations in Tibet will not sell bus tickets to foreigners, which leaves you in the hands of private or pilgrim bus services. Even the larger private buses may be reluctant to take foreigners (notably between Lhasa and Shigatse) because they don’t have government permission and/or insurance to take foreigners. Accidents do sometimes happen: in 2007, 13 tourists were killed when their tourist bus crashed between Lhasa and Shigatse.
On a long-distance bus you will probably be required to stow your baggage on the roof if you have a bulky backpack. If possible, check that it is tied down properly (bus drivers normally do a good job of checking such details), lock your pack as a precaution against theft and make sure you have all you might need for the trip (food, water, warm clothes etc). Try to see what everyone else is paying for the fare before you hand over your cash. You can expect to spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for minibuses to fill up.
Most travellers to Tibet hire a Land Cruiser, with a driver and often a guide, to effectively arrange their own do-it-yourself tour within Tibet. For detailed information on ‘do-it-yourself’ tours, see p343 and above.
If you want a fully organised tour into and around Tibet, an internet search will trawl up hundreds of companies offering upper-end package tours. Travellers have recommended Shangrila Tours (www.shangrilatours.com), Shigatse Travels (www.shigatsetravels.com), Visit Tibet Travel and Tours (www.visittibet.com) and Nepali-based Roger Pfister (www.snowjewel.com), the latter for trips to Mt Kailash.
A couple of towns in eastern Tibet have motorised three-wheeler rickshaws that take passengers around town or to destinations (eg monasteries) just outside of town. Negotiate the fare before you set off.
One result of China’s economic infusion into Tibet is the large number of taxis now available in most towns, even Ali in western Tibet (you have to wonder how they got there!). Taxis in Lhasa, Shigatse and Ali charge a standard Y10 to anywhere in the city; for longer trips negotiate a fare. Fixed-route passenger taxis (which you can pay for by the seat) run between several cities, including Lhasa and Tsetang.
Tractors can be an option for short trips in rural areas, especially in the Yarlung Valley. For a few yuan, drivers are normally quite happy to have some passengers in the back. Rides of anything over 10 minutes quickly become seriously uncomfortable unless on a tarmac road.
Long-distance cyclists are an increasingly frequent sight on the roads of Tibet, especially along the Friendship Hwy, though also increasingly through eastern Tibet. In theory cyclists face the same travel and permit restrictions as other travellers, though local authorities often turn a blind eye to travellers on bikes, unsure of what to do with them.
You can rent Taiwanese-made mountain bikes in Lhasa for around Y30 per day, which are fine for getting around town. Test the brakes and tyres before taking the bike out onto the streets. An extra padlock is a good idea, as there is a problem with bicycle theft in the capital.
Most long distance cyclists bring their own bikes to Tibet, though a few buy mountain bikes in China or Lhasa. Nowadays it is possible to buy a Chinese-made or (better) Taiwanese-made mountain bike in Lhasa for about Y500 or, if you are lucky, a good quality Thai bike for around Y2000. Standards aren’t all that bad, although you should check the gears in particular. Do not expect the quality of such bikes to be equal to those you might buy at home – bring plenty of spare parts. Bikes have a relatively high resale value in Kathmandu and you might even make a profit if the bike is in good shape (which is unlikely after a trip across Tibet!).
Tibet poses unique challenges to individual cyclists. The good news is that the main roads are in surprisingly good condition (the Friendship Hwy was recently upgraded and roads everywhere are under improvement) and the traffic is fairly light. The main physical challenges come from the climate, terrain and altitude: wind squalls and dust storms can make your work particularly arduous; the warm summer months can bring flash flooding; and then there is the question of your fitness in the face of Tibet’s high-altitude mountainous terrain.
A full bicycle-repair kit, several spare inner tubes, and a spare tyre and chain are essential. Preferably bring an extra rim and some spare spokes. Extra brake wire and brake pads are useful (you’ll be descending 3000m from Lhasa to Kathmandu!). Other useful equipment includes reflective clothing, a helmet, a dust mask, goggles, gloves and padded trousers.
You will also need to be prepared with supplies such as food, water-purifying tablets and camping equipment, just as if you were trekking. Most long-distance cyclists will probably find formal accommodation and restaurants only available at two- or three-day intervals. It may be possible to stay with road repair camps (known as daoban in Chinese) in remote places.
The Trailblazer guidebook Tibet Overland: A Route and Planning Guide for Mountain Bikers and Other Overlanders, by Kym McConnell, has useful route plans and gradient charts aimed at mountain bikers, with a notice board at www.tibetoverland.com.
There are several good accounts of cycling in Tibet in the ‘Travelogues’ section of the website www.bikechina.com.
Obviously you need to be in good physical condition to undertake road touring in Tibet. Spend some time acclimatising to the altitude and taking leisurely rides around Lhasa (for example) before setting off on a long trip.
On the plus side, while Tibet has some of the highest-altitude roads in the world, gradients are usually quite manageable. The Tibetan roads are designed for low-powered Chinese trucks, and tackle the many high passes of the region with its low-gradient switchback roads.
The most popular touring route at present is Lhasa to Kathmandu, along the Friendship Hwy. It is an ideal route in that it takes in most of Tibet’s main sights, offers superb scenery and (for those leaving from Lhasa) features a spectacular roller-coaster ride down from the heights of the La Lung-la into the Kathmandu Valley. The trip will take a minimum of two weeks, although to do it justice and include stopovers at Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya, budget for 20 days. The entire trip is just over 940km, although most people start from Shigatse. The roadside kilometre markers are a useful way of knowing exactly how far you have gone and how far you still have to go.
If you are travelling via Kathmandu, Nepali mountain bike agencies such as Massif Mountain Bikes (www.massifmountainbike.com), Himalayan Mountain Bikes (www.bikeasia.info) and Dawn Til Dusk (www.nepalbiking.com) can offer tips, equipment and also organised biking tours in Tibet. It’s currently not possible to cycle independently from Kathmandu to Lhasa due to the fact that you have to enter Tibet on an organised tour; you’ll have to take your bike to Lhasa and cycle back.
Keen cyclists with good mountain bikes might want to consider the detour to Everest Base Camp as a side trip on the Lhasa-Kathmandu route. The 108km one-way trip starts from the Shegar turn-off, and it takes around two days to Rongphu Monastery – less once the road is paved in 2008.
Other possibilities are endless. Tsurphu, Ganden and Drigung Til Monasteries are relatively easy trips and good for acclimatisation (though the road to Tsurphu is rough and Ganden has a fierce final 10km uphill section). The Gyama Valley is an easy detour on a bike if you are headed to Ganden. Cycling in the Yarlung Valley region would be a wonderful option if it were not for permit hassles. Some cyclists even tackle the paved road to Nam-tso, although the nomads’ dogs can be a problem here.
Cycling in Tibet is not to be taken lightly. Dogs are a major problem, especially in more remote areas. You may have to pedal like mad to outpace them. Children have been known to throw stones at cyclists. Erratic driving is another serious concern.
Wear a cycling helmet and lightweight leather gloves and, weather permitting, try to keep as much of your body covered with protective clothing as possible. It goes without saying that cyclists should also be prepared with a comprehensive medical kit.