Tibet is a safe place to travel and crime rates are low.
- Most dangers come from the physical environment, notably the altitude.
- Frequent checkposts, mind-numbing speed restrictions and entrenched officialdom can become wearing, especially to independent-minded travellers.
- Travel regulations are liable to change on a whim. You'll likely face a battle visiting a little-known temple or making even a small detour off your itinerary if it's not pre-arranged. Permission to visit a site may be denied at any moment.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)
If you are exploring remote monasteries or villages on foot, keep an eye open for dogs, especially at remote homesteads or nomad encampments, where the powerful and aggressive mastiffs should be given a very wide berth. Travel with a walking pole or stick if possible and try not to walk alone.
Tourists can be caught up in Tibet’s political violence and backpackers have even been injured in crossfire in the past. If a demonstration or full-blown riot breaks out (as it did in 2008), it’s safest to stay in your hotel. If things get really bad, local authorities or your embassy may organise emergency flights out of Lhasa.
Tourists sometimes forget that Tibet is a very tightly controlled place. Do not bring into Tibet pictures of the Dalai Lama, publications by the Dalai Lama, Tibetan flags or anything that could be construed by the Chinese authorities as pro-Tibetan political activity.
Plain-clothes police officers are everywhere in Tibet, and even some monks and monastery officials work for the security services (every monastery has government security personnel posted there), so be very circumspect about political conversations with anyone you don't personally know.
Theft is rare in Tibet, which is generally safer than other provinces of China. Trekkers in the Everest region have reported problems in the past with petty theft, and pickpockets work parts of Lhasa.
Small padlocks are useful for backpacks and dodgy hotel rooms. Bicycle chain locks come in handy not only for hired bikes but also for attaching backpacks to railings or luggage racks.
If something of yours is stolen, you should report it immediately to the nearest foreign-affairs branch of the Public Security Bureau (PSB). They will ask you to fill in a loss report, which you will also need to claim the loss on your travel insurance.
Lonely Planet Guidebooks
Travellers flying into Lhasa from Kathmandu or crossing overland from Nepal should be aware that customs officials at Lhasa airport and at the border often confiscate Lonely Planet guides to Tibet. The best way to avoid this is to travel with an e-book or PDF pre-loaded on your tablet or smartphone. Travellers flying into Lhasa from airports in China report no such problems. PDFs are available for purchase and instant download at http://shop.lonelyplanet.com.
On the Road
Simply travelling through Tibet brings its own frustrations these days. High-priced admission tickets for monasteries and even some lakes (and passes!) can be a source of irritation, especially when coupled with locked monastery chapels and ever-increasing travel restrictions.
Driving on Tibet's roads entails stopping at dozens of checkpoints; some check passports and permits, others check the driver's papers, and still others act as speed controls. On many sections of road your driver will be given a fixed time before which he cannot arrive at the next checkpoint, leading to dozens of cars parked by the side of the road just before the second checkpost as they wait out the remaining 10 minutes on their time chit. The 250km section of road between Lhasa and Shigatse currently has at least 20 separate checkposts.
It's unlikely that you will even get close to speeding. Most tourist vehicles these days have built-in webcams and speed-monitoring devices that tell the driver in a robotic Chinese voice that he is driving too fast every time he approaches 80km/h. The result is that you will often find yourself trundling along at 65km/h on a perfectly smooth, straight and empty highway, as heavily laden trucks and buses overtake you at speed. This can be especially frustrating on long journeys out to western Tibet. Try to have patience with your driver, who probably doesn't like the restrictions any more than you do but will face fines if caught speeding.