Tibet in detail

Planning

Introduction

Tibet offers fabulous monasteries, breathtaking high-altitude walks, stunning views of the world’s highest mountains and one of the most likeable cultures you will ever encounter.

A Higher Plain

For many visitors, the highlights of Tibet will be of a spiritual nature: magnificent monasteries, prayer halls of chanting monks, and remote cliffside meditation retreats. Tibet’s pilgrims – from local grandmothers murmuring mantras in temples heavy with the aromas of juniper incense and yak butter to hard-core professionals walking or prostrating themselves around Mt Kailash – are an essential part of this experience. Tibetans have a level of devotion and faith that seems to belong to an earlier, almost medieval age. It is fascinating, inspiring and endlessly photogenic.

The Roof of the World

Tibet's other big draw is the elemental beauty of the highest plateau on earth. Geography here is on a humbling scale and every view is illuminated with spectacular mountain light. Your trip will take you past glittering turquoise lakes, across huge plains dotted with yaks and nomads’ tents, and over high passes draped with colourful prayer flags. Hike past the ruins of remote hermitages, stare open-mouthed at the north face of Everest or make an epic overland trip along some of the world’s wildest roads. The scope for adventure is limited only by your ability to get permits.

Politics & Permits

There’s no getting away from politics here. Whether you see Tibet as an oppressed, occupied nation or an underdeveloped province of China, the normal rules of Chinese travel simply don’t apply. Restrictions require foreign travellers to pre-arrange a tour with a guide and transport for their time in Tibet, making independent travel impossible. On the plus side, new airports, boutique hotels and paved roads offer a level of comfort unheard of just a few years ago, so if the rigours of Tibetan travel have deterred you in the past, now might be the time to reconsider.

The Tibetan People

Whatever your interests, your lasting memories of Tibet are likely to be of the bottle of Lhasa Beer you shared in a teahouse, the yak-butter tea offered by a monk in a remote monastery or the picnic enjoyed with a herding family on the shores of a remote lake. Always ready with a disarming smile, and with great tolerance and openness of heart despite decades of political turmoil and hardship, the people truly make travelling in Tibet a profound joy. Make sure you budget time away from your pre-planned tour itinerary to take advantage of these chance encounters.

Why I Love Tibet

By Bradley Mayhew, Writer

For me Tibet is a uniquely spiritual place. Those moments of peace, fleeting and precious, when everything seems to be in its proper place, just seem to come more frequently here. Despite the overpowering pace of change and a sobering political situation, underpinning everything for me are the Tibetan people, whose joy and devotion remain deeply inspiring. Tibet is a place that will likely change the way you see the world and remain with you for years to come. And that for me is the definition of the very best kind of travel.

Daily Costs

Budget: Less than US$75

  • One-way hard sleeper Xining–Lhasa train: US$75
  • Room without bathroom: US$8–12
  • Meal in local restaurant: US$5

Midrange: US$75–150

  • One-way flight to Lhasa from Kathmandu: US$280–400
  • One-way flight to Lhasa from Chengdu: US$180–260
  • Daily shared vehicle rental per person: US$50–60
  • Double room with bathroom: US$30–60
  • Potala Palace entry ticket: US$30

Top End: More than US$150

  • Boutique or four-star hotel in Lhasa: US$90–150
  • Main course in a top restaurant in Lhasa: US$8–10

Highlights

Mt Kailash, Ngari

Worshipped by more than a billion Buddhists and Hindus, Asia’s most sacred mountain rises from the Barkha plain like a giant four-sided 6714m chörten (Buddhist stupa). Throw in the stunning nearby Lake Manasarovar and a basin that forms the source of four of Asia’s greatest rivers, and who’s to say this place really isn’t the centre of the world? Travel here to one of the world’s most beautiful and remote corners brings an added bonus: the three-day pilgrim path around the mountain erases the sins of a lifetime.

Barkhor Circuit, Lhasa

You never know quite what you’re going to find when you join the centrifugal tide of Tibetans circling the Jokhang Temple on the Barkhor Circuit. Pilgrims and prostrators from across Tibet, stalls selling prayer wheels and turquoise, Muslim traders, Khampa nomads in shaggy cloaks, women from Amdo sporting 108 braids, thangka (religious painting) artists and Chinese military patrols are all par for the course. It’s a fascinating microcosm of Tibet and a place you'll come back to again and again.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

There are moments in travel that will long stay with you, and your first view of Lhasa's iconic Potala Palace is one such moment. A visit to the former home of the Dalai Lamas is a spiralling descent past gold-tombed chapels, opulent reception rooms and huge prayer halls into the bowels of a medieval castle. It's nothing less than the concentrated spiritual and material wealth of a nation. Finish by joining the pilgrims on a walking kora (pilgrim circuit) of the entire grounds.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

The atmosphere of hushed awe is what hits you first as you inch through the dark, medieval passageways of the Jokhang, Lhasa's most sacred temple. Queues of wide-eyed pilgrims shuffle up and down the stairways, past medieval doorways and millennium-old murals, pausing briefly to stare in awe at golden buddhas or to top up the hundreds of butter lamps that flicker in the gloom. It’s the beating spiritual heart of Tibet, despite some damage caused by a fire in 2018. Welcome to the 14th century.

Views of Mt Everest

Don’t tell the Nepal Tourism Board, but Tibet has easily the best views of the world’s most famous mountain from its northern base camp. While two-week trekking routes on the Nepal side offer only fleeting glimpses of the peak, in Tibet you can drive on a paved road right up to unobstructed views of Mt Everest’s incredible north face framed in the prayer flags of Rongphu Monastery. Bring a sleeping bag, some headache tablets and a prayer for clear skies.

Samye Monastery

Tibet’s first monastery is a heavily symbolic collection of chapels, chörtens and shrines arranged around a medieval Tibetan-, Chinese- and Indian-style temple. The 1200-year-old site is where Guru Rinpoche battled demons to introduce Buddhism to Tibet and where the future course of Tibetan Buddhism was sealed in a great debate. The dreamy location on the desert-like banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo is just superb and there are some fine hiking excursions nearby. It's also the end point of Tibet's most popular trekking route.

Train Ride to Lhasa

For all its faults, China’s railway to Tibet (the world’s highest) is an engineering wonder and a delightful way to reach the holy city. Pull up a window seat to view huge salt lakes, plains dotted with yaks and herders’ tents, and hundreds of miles of desolate nothing, as you inch slowly up onto the high plateau. Peaking at 5072m may send you diving for the piped oxygen, but it’s still a classic rail trip. Train-travel addicts can now extend the journey by taking the side spur to Shigatse.

Drepung & Sera Monasteries, Lhasa

Lhasa’s great religious institutions of Sera and Drepung are more than just monasteries – they are self-contained towns. A web of whitewashed alleyways climbs past medieval kitchens, printing presses and colleges to reach giant prayer halls full of chanting, tea-sipping, red-robed monks. Don’t miss the afternoon debating, an extravagant spectator sport of Buddhist dialectics and hand slapping. Best of all, both monasteries are encircled by charming pilgrim paths that offer fine views, Buddhist rock paintings and plenty of fellow pilgrims.

Saga Dawa Festival

The line between tourist and pilgrim can be a fine one in Tibet, and never more so than during the Saga Dawa Festival, when thousands of pilgrims pour into Lhasa to visit the city and make a ritual procession around the 8km Lingkhor path. Load up on small bills and juniper incense before joining the pilgrims past chapels and prostration points, or travel west to Mt Kailash for the mountain’s biggest annual party. There are also monastery festivals around this time in Tsurphu and Gyantse.

Guge Kingdom, Ngari

The spectacular lost kingdom of Guge at Tsaparang is quite unlike anything you’ll see in central Tibet; it feels more like Ladakh than Lhasa. As you are lowering yourself down a hidden sandstone staircase or crawling through an interconnected cave complex, there's a moment when you can't help but stop and think: ‘This is incredible!’ What’s really amazing is that you’ll likely have the half-forgotten ruins to yourself. Rank this as one of Asia’s great travel secrets.

Ganden Monastery

A 90-minute drive from Lhasa takes you to the stunning location of Ganden, set in a natural bowl high above the braided Kyi-chu Valley. Brought back to life after nearly total destruction during the Cultural Revolution, the collection of restored chapels centres on the tomb of Tsongkhapa (the 14th-century founder of the important Gelugpa school), and boasts two delightful kora paths that offer fabulous views and will soon have you breathing hard from the altitude. If you only make one excursion from Lhasa, let it be to Ganden.

Ganden–Samye Trek

Tibet is one of those places you really should experience away from the tour-group circuit, at the pace of one foot in front of the other. This classic four-day trek between two of Tibet’s most important monasteries takes you past herders’ camps, high alpine lakes and a Guru Rinpoche hermitage, as well as over two 5000m-plus passes. Hire a horse or yaks for a wonderful wilderness trek, with just the marmots for company. May to October are the best months.

Nam-tso

Just a few hours north of Lhasa, spectacular Nam-tso epitomises the dramatic but harsh scenery of northern Tibet. This deep blue salt lake is fringed by prayer-flag-draped hills, craggy cliffs and nesting migratory birds, all framed by a horizon of snow-capped 7000m peaks. Walking the kora path at dusk with a band of pilgrims is superb. It’s cold, increasingly developed and devastatingly beautiful. To see the lake at its best, try to minimise your time in the ugly and poorly planned accommodation centre.

Gyantse Kumbum

The giant chörten at Gyantse ranks as one of Tibet's great artistic treasures and is unique in the Himalayas. As you spiral around and up the snail-shell-shaped building, you pass dozens of dim alcoves full of serene painted buddhas and bloodthirsty Tantric demons. It's an unrivalled collection of early Tibetan art. Finally, you pop out onto the golden eaves, underneath all-seeing eyes, for fabulous views of Gyantse fort and old town. An added bonus is the attached monastery complex.

Adding Your Prayer Flags to a High Pass

Crossing a spectacular high pass to view a horizon of Himalayan peaks is an almost daily experience in Tibet. Join your driver in crying a breathless ‘so, so, so’ and throwing colourful squares of paper into the air like good-luck confetti, as the prayer flags flap and crackle in the wind. Better still, bring your own string to a pass and add them to the collection for some super-good karma. Our suggestions: try the Khamba-la overlooking Yamdrok-tso, or the Gyatso-la, near Lhatse and the highest pass on the Friendship Hwy.

Koras & Pilgrims

All over Tibet you’ll see wizened elderly pilgrims twirling prayer wheels, rubbing sacred rocks and walking around temples, monasteries and sometimes even entire mountains. It’s a fantastic fusion of the spiritual and the physical, and there are few better ways of spending an hour than joining a merry band of pilgrims on a monastery kora. En route you’ll pass rock paintings and sacred spots, and you'll probably be invited to an impromptu picnic. Our favourite? Shigatse's Tashilhunpo Kora.

Friendship Highway: Lhasa to Kathmandu

Organising a 4WD trip across Tibet is the quintessential traveller experience. You'll have to overcome the labyrinthine permit system and brave some terrible toilets, but the rewards are ample: visually stunning vistas such as those around Yamdrok-tso, little-visited monasteries, a satisfying sense of journey and a giant slice of adventure. At the end of the trip you finally drop like a stone off the plateau through alpine forests into the green, oxygen-rich and curry-scented valleys bordering Nepal. Figure on at least a week; the hard-core can cycle the route.

Sakya Monastery

A 25km detour off the main Friendship Hwy takes you to this brooding, massive, grey-walled fortress-like building. In a land of magnificent monasteries, Sakya's main prayer halls are among the most impressive, lined with towering buddhas, tree-trunk-sized pillars, sacred relics, a three-storey library that ranks as Tibet's finest, and a fine kora path. Pilgrims come here from across western Tibet, adding to the colour and charm. Give yourself most of the day to explore monastery complexes on both sides of the river.

Peiku-tso & Shishapangma

Tibet is not short on spectacular, remote, turquoise-blue lakes. Of these, none boasts a grander backdrop than little-visited Peiku-tso near Tibet's southern border with Nepal. Rising south of the huge lake is a wall of glaciers and Himalayan peaks crowned by 8027m giant Shishapangma, the tallest mountain wholly inside Tibet. The lake makes a great picnic or camping spot en route to western Tibet or to the new border crossing with Nepal's Langtang region at Kyirong. Tibet doesn't get wilder or more scenic than this hidden corner.

Rawok-tso Lakes

In a land of spectacularly remote, turquoise lakes, none surpasses the crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches and snowcapped peaks of Rawok-tso and nearby Ngan-tso, way out in eastern Tibet, and more reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies than anything on the high plateau. Stay overnight at a hotel on stilts above the lake and explore the nearby Mikdo Glacier during the day. Even better, continue east on the wild overland route from Tibet through the river gorges of Kham to northwestern Yunnan. Welcome to a completely different kind of Tibet.

Regions at a Glance

Tibet is a huge land and you can’t see all of it in a single trip. Almost everyone visits Lhasa, Tibet’s holy city, which still has a lovely old town despite being at the forefront of modernisation. The nearby valleys of Ü offer great scope for overnight excursions from Lhasa, as well as great trekking. Focus your efforts here if you’re short on time.

For most travellers the central region of Tsang means the epic overland route to Kathmandu and the trip to Everest Base Camp. More remote are the outlying regions of Ngari (western Tibet) and eastern Tibet (Kham), each of which require trips of two to three weeks through amazing scenery: one desert and steppe, the other forested valleys and alpine pastures.

Lhasa

Monasteries

History

Old Town

Great Monastic Cities

The traditional seat of Tibetan power, the great Gelugpa monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden still buzz with monks and pilgrims. Smaller but equally charming monasteries are in the old town.

Palaces of the Dalai Lamas

Visit the Potala, the fortress-like home for nine Dalai Lamas; the Norbulingka summer palace, from where the Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959; and the Jokhang Temple, which dates from the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet.

Backstreet Exploration

Lhasa’s old town is the one corner of the expanding city that feels truly Tibetan. The backstreets hide teahouses, guesthouses, chapels and craft shops, while the Barkhor Circuit is the spiritual heart of the city.

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Monasteries

Activities

Scenery

Remote Monasteries

Samye is perhaps the loveliest monastery in Ü, while the important hillside centre of Drigung Til is a traveller favourite. Also charming are the smaller monasteries of Mindroling, Dorje Drak and Reting, rarely visited by tour groups.

Tibetan Treks

Trekking is superb in Ü. Ganden–Samye is the classic Tibetan trek, but the Tsurphu–Yangpachen walk has equally outstanding scenery. Ü also offers plenty of day hikes, as well as rafting and horse riding.

Salt Lakes & Sand Dunes

The grandest views are at Nam-tso, a giant salt lake fringed with the snow-capped Tanglha range. The sand dunes lining the braided Yarlung Tsangpo valley have their own surreal beauty.

Tsang

Monasteries

Mountains

Lakes

Art Treasures

Gyantse's Pelkhor Chöde Monastery boasts the fabulous kumbum chörten, but historic Sakya Monastery is an equally worthy destination. Off the beaten track, explore the fine murals of Shalu or the Bön monastery at Yungdrungling.

Everest Highs

Tsang is all about Mt Everest and the awesome views of its north face from Rongphu Monastery or Base Camp. Himalayan views are superb across southern Tsang from Lhasa to Kathmandu, particularly from Tingri and Samding Monastery.

Turquoise Lakes

Yamdrok-tso is a gorgeous coiling lake and there are great views from just below the Kamba-la. For epic scenery detour to Peiku-tso, just an hour or two off the Friendship Hwy towards Nepal.

Ngari

Lakes

Wildlife

Adventure

Sacred & Salt Lakes

The sight of Mt Kailash or Gurlha Mandata rising from the turquoise waters of Manasarovar is beyond words. The huge salt lakes of the northern Changtang route cry out for a picnic or overnight camp.

The 'Wild' West

Small herds of wild ass and antelope grazing the yellow steppe are a regular sight in northern Ngari. Funnier are the marmots sitting up on their hind legs or the grunting yaks that haul trekkers’ gear around Mt Kailash.

Lost Cities & Sacred Peaks

Explore the tunnels, caves and mud walls of the ruined cities of Shangshung and Guge. Then shed your sins on a Mt Kailash pilgrimage or set up camp at the base of 8012m Shishapangma.

Eastern Tibet

Monasteries

Scenery

Adventure

Power Places

The east has some real hidden gems: the octagonal temple of Lamaling with its unique architecture; one of Songtsen Gampo's demoness-subduing temples at ancient Buchu Monastery; and Bakha Monastery, in a gorgeous location near a small lake.

Alpine Tibet

Pine forests, lush alpine valleys and turquoise glacial lakes mean that eastern Tibet often feels more like the Canadian Rockies or Swiss Alps than the arid central plateau.

Rough Roads & Pilgrim Paths

Permit hassles make it hard to get off the main routes, but adventurers can trek around the sacred mountain of Bönri or tackle the extremely hairy roads around Tangmi.

Resources

Land of Snows (www.thelandofsnows.com) Inspirational and practical travel advice, including on Tibetan areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

Phayul (www.phayul.com) Good for Tibet-related news.

Central Tibetan Administration (www.tibet.net) The view from Dharamsala.

China Tibet Information Center (http://eng.tibet.cn) News from the Chinese perspective.

Tibetpedia (www.tibetpedia.com) Travel inspiration on Tibet inside and outside the TAR.

Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/tibet) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.

Top Tips

  • Read about Tibetan Buddhism before leaving and try to get to grips with the basics of monastery iconography.
  • Install a VPN on your mobile device or computer before arriving to maintain access to social-media sites from behind the Great Firewall.
  • Get your phone sim card en route elsewhere in China, most likely Sichuan, before arriving in Tibet.
  • Make sure every place you plan to visit is listed on both your itinerary and your permit.
  • Travel in Tibet is unpredictable, so have a back-up plan or at least arrange flexible air tickets and travel insurance.
  • Choose your travel companions carefully – travelling in a vehicle and on a tour schedule can be stressful on relationships.
  • Give yourself enough time to acclimatise, with at least three or four days in Lhasa before climbing to higher altitudes.

What's New

  • Kyirong

This new border crossing with Nepal's Langtang region (called Rasuwagadhi in Nepal) opened to foreigners in 2017 and is now the main border crossing with Nepal.

  • Zhangmu

The former main border crossing with Nepal has been closed since 2015's earthquake in Nepal.

  • Shigatse Train

Passenger trains now run twice a day between Lhasa and Shigatse, offering a quick and easy way to travel to Tibet's second city without having to hire a pricey vehicle.

  • Ever-Expanding Railway Lines

A spur train line from Lhasa is due to reach Nyingtri in 2021, while a second line to Yadong near India is planned. Construction has already started on the wildly ambitious Sichuan–Tibet train line.

  • The Road to Everest

The approach road to Everest has been paved since 2015, offering a smooth ride as far as Rongphu Monastery.

  • The Southern Route to Kailash

New three-star hotels in Drongba, Paryang and Darchen have lifted accommodation standards to tour-group level on the quickest route to Mt Kailash.

  • Mt Kailash

Dirt roads now line about two-thirds of the kora hiking path. There's next to no traffic at present, but it's never as much fun hiking on a road-sized trail.

  • Domestic Tourism Boom

Recent years have seen a huge rise in Chinese domestic tourists, who now make up 95% of tourists in Tibet. Theme parks, Tibetan song and dance shows, selfie stations and large tour groups are becoming the norm throughout Tibet.

  • Jokhang Fire

In 2018 a blaze on the roof of the Jokhang caused ripples of concern on social media. In reality there was little damage to the main shrines, but expect some renovation on the rooftop.

  • Entry Tickets

Entry tickets in Tibet now take up a significant chunk of change. Tickets for the Everest region, Sakya, Potala Palace, Nam-tso, Mt Kailash and Lake Manasarovar now cost in excess of US$25 each. In 2018 tourism authorities waived all entry fees in April to encourage off-season travel; check to see if this to be repeated.

When to Go

High Season (May–mid-Oct)

  • The warmest weather makes travel, trekking and transport easiest.
  • Prices are at their highest, peaking in July and August.
  • Book ahead during the 1 May and 1 October national holidays.

Shoulder (Apr & mid-Oct–Nov)

  • The slightly colder weather means fewer travellers and a better range of vehicles.
  • Prices are 20% cheaper than during high season.

Low Season (Dec–Feb)

  • Very few people visit Tibet in winter, so you’ll have key attractions largely to yourself.
  • Hotel prices and many entry tickets are discounted by up to 50%, but some restaurants close.
  • Tibet is closed to foreign tourists in March.