High altitudes, rough roads and lack of access make Tibet a difficult place for people with mobility challenges. Getting to monasteries in particular often involves a hike up a hillside or navigating steep, very narrow steps. Few hotels offer any facilities for guests with disabilities.
Braille Without Borders (www.braillewithoutborders.org) Blind visitors can contact this excellent organisation based in Lhasa. It developed the first Tibetan Braille system and runs a school for blind Tibetan kids, as well as supporting a blind massage clinic in Lhasa. The co-founder, Sabriye Tenberken, is the author of the book My Path Leads to Tibet: The Inspiring Story of How One Young Blind Woman Brought Hope to the Blind Children of Tibet, and stars alongside blind climber Erik Weihenmayer in the moving documentary film Blindsight.
Navyo Nepal (www.navyonepal.com) A Nepal-based, Italian-co-owned company that has some experience in running tours to Tibet and Nepal for travellers with disabilities.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Basic bargaining skills are essential for travel in Tibet. You can bargain in shops, hotels and travel agencies, at street stalls, and with pedicab drivers, but there is one important rule to follow: be polite. Aggressive bargaining will usually only serve to firm the conviction of both Tibetans and Chinese that the original asking price is the one they want.
Most of Tibet is a high-altitude desert plateau at more than 4000m. Days in summer (June to September) are warm, sunny and generally dry, but temperatures drop quickly after dark. It’s always cool above 4000m and often freezing at night, though thanks to the Himalayan rain shadow there is surprisingly little snow in the Land of Snows. Sunlight is very strong at these altitudes, so bring plenty of high-factor sunscreen and lip balm.
Dangers & Annoyances
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.
Electricity is 220V, 50 cycles AC. Note that electronics such as laptops and iPods (anything with a hard drive) are occasionally affected by altitudes above 4500m.
Plugs have at least five designs: three-pronged angled pins (as in Australia), three-pronged round pins (as in Hong Kong), two flat pins (US style but without the ground wire), two narrow round pins (European style) and three rectangular pins (British style). US plugs work in Tibet without the need for an adapter.
Embassies & Consulates
For Chinese embassies abroad, consult the Chinese Foreign Ministry website at www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng.
Consulates in Tibet
The only diplomatic representation in Tibet is the Nepali Consulate-General in Lhasa. Visas are generally issued the next day at 4pm. It’s located on a side street between the Lhasa Hotel and the Norbulingka.
Visa fees change frequently, but at the time of research 15-/30-/90-day multiple-entry visas cost ¥175/280/700. Bring one visa photo.
Chinese tourists have to get their visas here and these are currently free. Foreigners will generally find it easier to obtain tourist visas on the spot at the Nepalese border (bring two passport photos and cash in US dollars).
Consulates in Chengdu
Embassies in Beijing
Emergency & Important Numbers
|China's country code||86|
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Arriving in China is pretty painless these days. All travellers fill in a customs and health declaration form on arrival in the country. Expect closer scrutiny of your group documents and luggage when crossing into Tibet from Nepal, where some travellers have on occasion had Tibet-related books and images confiscated.
Tours & Permits
- To board a plane or train to Tibet you need a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, and to get this you must book a guide for your entire trip and pre-arrange private transport for trips outside Lhasa.
- Travel outside Lhasa requires additional permits, arranged in advance by your tour company, so you need to decide your itinerary beforehand.
- Foreigners are not allowed to take public transport outside Lhasa.
- Tour companies need 14 days to arrange permits and post you the TTB permit (the original permit is required if flying from within China).
- When entering Tibet from Nepal you have to travel on a short-term group visa, which can make it tricky to continue into the rest of China.
Chinese border crossings have gone from being severely traumatic to exceedingly easy for travellers. You are unlikely to be checked even when flying into or out of the country.
- You can legally bring in or take out ¥20,000 in Chinese currency and must declare any cash amount exceeding US$5000 or its equivalent.
- It is illegal to import any printed material, film, tapes etc ‘detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and ethics’. This is a particularly sensitive subject in Tibet, but even here it is highly unusual to have Chinese customs officials grilling travellers about their reading matter. Maps and political books printed in Dharamsala, India, could cause a problem.
- It is currently illegal to bring into China pictures, books, videos or speeches of/about or by the Dalai Lama. Moreover, you may be placing a recipient of these in danger of a fine or jail sentence. Images of the Tibetan national flag are even ‘more’ illegal.
- If travelling from Nepal to Tibet by air or overland, it’s a good idea to bury your guidebook deep in your pack or sleeping bag (and to have a backup on your tablet or mobile phone), as customs officials have been known to confiscate Lonely Planet Tibet guides.
- Be very circumspect if you are asked to take any packages, letters or photos out of Tibet for anyone else, including monks. If caught, you’ll most likely be detained, interrogated and then expelled.
- Anything made in China before 1949 is considered an antique; you will need a certificate to take it out of the country. If it was made before 1795, it cannot legally be taken out of the country.
Chinese embassies will not issue a visa if your passport has less than six months' validity remaining.
A valid Chinese visa is required. A Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit is also required to enter Tibet.
Arranging a Chinese Visa
Visa regulations for China are subject to change, so treat the following as general guidelines. In 2013 the visa system had a major overhaul and there are now 13 categories of visa.
Apart from citizens of Brunei, Japan and Singapore (for stays of less than 15 days), all visitors to Tibet require a valid China visa. Visas for individual travel in China involve jumping through some hoops but are usually routine to get from most Chinese embassies or their associated visa centres.
Most visa offices will issue a standard 30-day (sometimes 60- or 90-day) single-entry tourist (‘L’ category) visa in three to five working days. The ‘L’ means lǚxíng (travel). Fees vary, as do durations: UK citizens pay £85 for a multiple-entry L visa, normally valid for one or even two years, Americans pay US$140 for a multiple-entry visa (often valid for up to 10 years), while most other countries' citizens pay US$40.
In many countries the visa service has been outsourced to a China Visa Application Service Centre (www.visaforchina.org), which levies additional charges that can effectively double the price.
The visa application form asks you a lot of questions (your entry and exit points, travel itinerary, means of transport etc), but once in China you can deviate from this as much as you like. When listing your itinerary, pick the obvious contenders: Beijing, Shanghai and so on. Don’t mention Tibet and don’t list your occupation as 'journalist'. You may need to show proof of a return air ticket, hotel bookings and photocopies of previous Chinese visas. You must also have one entire blank page in your passport for the visa, as well as a passport valid for at least six months.
Most visas take four working days to be issued, assuming all your documentation is in order. Express services are normally available for an extra fee.
Note that you must be physically present in the country you apply in (ie you cannot send your passport back to your home country if you are staying somewhere else).
Some embassies and visa services offer a postal service (for an additional fee), which takes around three weeks. In the US and Canada mailed visa applications have to go via a visa agent, at extra cost. In the US many people use China Visa Service Center (www.mychinavisa.com). Express services are available for a premium.
A standard single-entry visa must be used within three months from the date of issue and is activated on the date you enter China. There is some confusion over the validity of Chinese visas. Most Chinese officials look at the ‘valid until’ date, but on most 30-day visas this is actually the date by which you must have entered the country, not the visa’s expiry date. Longer-stay visas are often activated on the day of issue, not the day you enter the country, so there’s no point in getting one too far in advance of your planned entry date. Check with the embassy if you are unsure.
It’s possible to travel in Tibet with a tourist ('L'), student (‘X’), resident (‘D’) or business (‘M’, 'F' or ‘Z’) visa, but not on a journalist (‘J’) visa. For an M, F or Z visa the agency handling your TTB permit may ask you to provide documentation showing your place of work in China, or a letter of invitation.
Arranging Visas in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is usually a reliable place to pick up visas, often with next-day service, but confirm with the companies listed here before you decide this is the route you will take to obtain a visa.
Single-entry, double-entry, multiple-entry and business visas are usually available at the following places in Hong Kong. For reference, a single-entry L visa costs HK$200 for three-day service, HK$500 for next-day service, but varies according to nationality.
China Travel Service With several locations.
Arranging Visas in Kathmandu
The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu does not issue visas to individual travellers, only to those booked on a tour and then only paper group visas (not a stamp in your passport). If you turn up with a Chinese visa in your passport, it will be cancelled.
Nepali agencies currently charge around US$85 per person for a group visa. US/Canadian citizens pay US$177/135. Allow at least three working days for processing; faster service is sometimes available for a premium but not at the time of research. The embassy needs your actual passport, so you need to budget four or five days in Kathmandu before your Tibet trip. You will need to have a visa invitation letter issued from your Tibetan agency before you can apply for a Chinese visa.
Group visas are issued for the duration of your tour. If you are continuing on to China after your tour you can request your own individual 30-day group visa.
The visa office at Nepal’s Chinese Embassy accepts applications from 9.45am to 11am Monday to Friday. Note that the main embassy is in Baluwatar, but the separate visa office is in Hattisar. Your Nepali agent (or the agent of your Tibet tour company) will make the application for you.
If you are flying from Kathmandu directly to Chinese cities outside Tibet (ie Chengdu or Shanghai), you can enter China on an individual tourist visa issued from abroad. Thus if you want to continue travelling in China after your Tibet trip for a trip longer than 30 days, the easiest thing is to fly from Kathmandu to Chengdu and then on to Lhasa with your TTB permit and on your normal Chinese visa.
The wàishìkē (foreign affairs) section of the local PSB handles visa extensions. Extensions are very difficult to get in Tibet, so don't count on one. It is far easier to extend your visa in other areas of China such as Chengdu, Xining or Xi'an, where a 30-day extension is commonplace.
Tibetans are some of the most easygoing people you will meet, but will particularly appreciate you following etiquette in temples and monasteries.
- Clothing Don’t wear short skirts or shorts, especially at religious sites.
- Pointing Don’t point at people or statues with your finger; use your full upturned hand.
- Touching Don’t pat children on the head, as the head is considered sacred.
- Direction Always circle a Buddhist monastery building or chörten clockwise.
- Guests Tibetans show respect to an honoured guest or a lama by placing a kathak (prayer scarf) around their neck. When reciprocating, hold the scarf out in both hands with palms turned upwards.
- Saving Face In general negotiations ensure that the person you are dealing with does not lose face and is not forced to back down in front of others. Outright confrontation is a last resort, especially with officialdom.
Travel insurance is particularly recommended in a remote and wild region like Tibet. Check especially that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home, which is essential in the case of altitude sickness. Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’ such as rafting and even trekking.
You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than your having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation. Some policies ask you to call a centre in your home country where an immediate assessment of your problem is made. Note that reverse-charge (collect) calls are not possible in Tibet.
It is very useful to have trip- and flight-cancellation insurance for Tibet. Many travellers only pick up their Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permits a day or two before flying to Tibet and if the agency can't get the permits in time or the permit gets lost or delayed in the post then you will not be allowed to board your flight to Tibet. Insurance is especially useful if you are heading to western or eastern Tibet as these regions are frequently closed with little to no warning. The announcement for opening is made in March or April each year, but some years the region closes again suddenly after a brief opening, or opens later in the season after a prolonged closure.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online any time – even if you’re already on the road.
Most hotels, cafes and even restaurants now offer free wi-fi access (无线网; wúxiàn wǎng). Sometimes hotels will only offer it in the lobby. Connecting to the internet through a smartphone's 3G or 4G service is often more reliable and coverage is good in central Tibet.
Internet cafes (网吧; wǎngbā) are in almost every town in Tibet, but few allow foreigners to use the computers.
Some social-networking sites (such as Facebook) and websites (eg those of the Dalai Lama, but also Google) as well as apps like WhatsApp have been blacklisted by the Chinese government and are unavailable inside China unless you use a VPN (virtual private network), which is essentially an easy-to-use piece of software for a laptop computer or an app for a smartphone. Make sure you install this before departing for China.
Gmail is also spotty but again usually works well with a VPN.
Most crimes are handled administratively by the Public Security Bureau (PSB; 公安局; Gōng’ānjú), which acts as police, judge and executioner.
China takes a particularly dim view of opium and all its derivatives. Foreigners have been executed for drug offences (trafficking in more than 50g of heroin can result in the death penalty). It’s difficult to say what attitude the Chinese police will take towards foreigners caught using marijuana – they often don’t care what foreigners do if it’s not political, and if Chinese or Tibetans aren’t involved. Then again the Chinese are fond of making examples of wrongdoings and you don’t want to be the example. If arrested you should immediately contact your nearest embassy, which is probably in Beijing.
In general, as you must travel throughout Tibet with guides, refrain from doing anything that would get them into trouble, such as visiting off-limits monasteries, photographing riot police or military installations, arguing with police or officials, talking politics openly or even visiting private Tibetan homes without special permission.
Public Security Bureau (PSB)
The PSB is the name given to China’s police, both uniformed and plain clothed. The foreign-affairs branch of the PSB deals with foreigners. This branch (also known as the ‘entry-exit branch’) is responsible for issuing visa extensions and Alien Travel Permits.
In Tibet it is fairly unusual for foreigners to have problems with the PSB, though making an obvious display of pro-Tibetan political sympathies is guaranteed to lead to problems. Photographing Tibetan protests or military sites will lead to the confiscation of your camera or memory card and possibly a brief detention.
Attempting to travel into, through or out of Tibet without a travel permit, or to a destination not listed on your travel permit, is likely to end in an encounter with the PSB, most likely when checking into a hotel in a closed area. If you are caught in a closed area without a permit, you face a fine. Make sure you are friendly and repentant: the only times things get nasty is if you (or the police) lose your cool. Get a receipt to make sure you don’t get fined a second time during your return to where you came from.
If you do have a serious run-in with the PSB, you may have to write a confession of guilt. In the most serious cases, you can be expelled from China (at your own expense).
Homosexuality has historical precedents in Tibet, especially in Tibetan monasteries, where male lovers were known as trap’i kedmen, or ‘monk’s wife’. The Dalai Lama has sent mixed signals about homosexuality, stating in his book Beyond Dogma (1996) that, for practicing Buddhists, gay sex is ‘sexual misconduct’, ‘improper’ and ‘inappropriate’, but also openly supporting gay sex and marriage from the point of view of wider society.
The official attitude to gays and lesbians in China is also ambiguous, with responses ranging from draconian penalties to tacit acceptance. Travellers are advised to act with discretion. Chinese men routinely hold hands and drape their arms around each other without anyone inferring any sexual overtones.
HE Travel This US-based company has organised gay and lesbian group trips to Tibet in the past.
Out Adventures A Canada-based company that can organise tailor-made tours to Tibet.
Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com/tipschin.htm) Has a good website and publishes a guide to gay travel in China, though with little specific to Tibet.
Good mapping for Tibet is not easy to come by, especially inside China, so stock up on maps before you leave. Good online map shops include Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk) and the Map Shop (www.themapshop.co.uk).
Maps of Tibet
Chinese provincial atlases to Tibet are available in bookshops throughout China. They show the most detail but are of little use if you or the person you are asking doesn’t read Chinese characters. Most locals know place names in Tibetan only, not Chinese.
Road maps available in Kathmandu include Tibet – South-Central by Nepa Maps, Latest Map of Kathmandu to Tibet by Mandala Maps, and the Namaste Trekking Map and Lhasa to Kathmandu (a mountain-biking map) by Himalayan Map House. They are marginally better than Chinese-produced maps but still aren’t up to scratch.
Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala (www.amnyemachen.org) The Tibet and Adjacent Areas under Chinese Communist Occupation is an unusual map that covers the entire Tibetan world. It uses traditional Tibetan place names, which not everyone in Tibet (certainly not the many Chinese immigrants) will know.
Gecko Maps (www.geckomaps.com, in German, formerly Karto Atelier) Produces an excellent general Himalaya-Tibet map, as well as trekking and panoramic maps of Mt Kailash. Gecko also has a 1:50,000 Kailash Tibet map and a 1:600,000 East Tibet map covering Lhasa to Chengdu.
Google Earth (www.google.com/earth) Offers fascinating detail on Tibet, including many monasteries and several treks. However, road names and even town names are often incorrect.
ITMB (www.itmb.com) Publishes a good and (usefully) waterproof Tibet map (1:1,850,000; 2006).
Reise Know-How (www.reise-know-how.de, in German) Perhaps the best overview is this 1:1,500,000 Tibet map.
TerraQuest (www.terraquest.eu/en/Maps) TerraQuest does a useful laminated 1:400,000 Tibet map, with insets covering the Friendship Hwy, Nam-tso and Central Tibet.
Tibet Map Institute (www.tibetmap.com) Try this website for detailed and downloadable online maps of Tibet.
Maps of Lhasa
Gecko Maps produces The Lhasa Map. The map has architectural detail of the old town, which helps identify which buildings are genuinely old and which are merely facades, but it's getting a bit dated. More offbeat, and also dated these days (published in 1995), is the Amnye Machen Institute's Lhasa City (1:12,500).
On This Spot – Lhasa, published by the International Campaign for Tibet (www.savetibet.org) in 2001, is a unique political map of the Lhasa region, pinpointing the locations of prisons, demonstrations, human-rights abuses and more. It’s a really fascinating read but is too politically subversive to take into Tibet.
ATMs are available in Lhasa, Shigatse and a couple of other towns. Credit cards can be used in Lhasa. Otherwise bring cash US dollars and euros.
The Chinese currency is known as rénmínbì (RMB) or ‘people’s money’. The basic unit of this currency is the yuán, designated by a ‘¥’. In spoken Chinese, the word 'kuài' is almost always substituted for the yuán. Ten jiǎo (commonly known as máo) make up one yuán.
Several ATMs (自动取取款机; zìdòng qǔkuǎnjī) in Lhasa and Shigatse and even as far afield as Ali accept foreign cards. The Bank of China accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Maestro, Cirrus and Plus. Check before trying your card, as many ATMs can only be used by domestic account holders.
In Lhasa, the Bank of China also has currency-exchange ATMs that will change the cash currency of the US, UK, eurozone, Hong Kong and Japan.
ATMs have a ¥2400 transaction limit but no daily limit, unless set by your bank. ATMs at ICBC banks also sometimes take foreign cards. Cards are occasionally eaten by machines, so try to make your transaction during bank hours.
You’ll get very few opportunities to splurge on the plastic in Tibet, unless you spend a few nights in a top-end hotel. Most local tours, train tickets and even flights out of Lhasa still can’t be paid for using a credit card (unless purchased online). The few shops that do accept credit cards often have a 4% surcharge.
The Lhasa central branch of the Bank of China is the only place in Tibet that provides cash advances on a credit card. A 3% commission is deducted.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
In Tibet, the main place to change foreign currency is the Bank of China. Top-end hotels in Lhasa have exchange services, but only for guests. Outside Lhasa the only places to change money are in Shigatse, Purang (cash only), and Ali in far-western Tibet.
The currencies of Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Japan and the eurozone are acceptable at the Lhasa Bank of China. ATM currency-exchange machines accept the currencies of the US, the UK, the eurozone, Hong Kong and Japan but have a maximum of US$700 per transaction (no daily limit).
The official rate is given at all banks and most hotels, so there is no need to shop around for the best deal. There’s no commission to change cash.
The only places in Tibet to officially change yuán back into foreign currency are the central Lhasa branch and (less reliably) the Kyirong branch of the Bank of China. You will need your original exchange receipts.
Moneychangers at the Nepal border will change yuán into Nepali rupees and vice versa. Yuán can also easily be reconverted in Hong Kong and, increasingly, in many Southeast Asian countries.
China has a problem with counterfeit notes. Very few Tibetans or Chinese will accept a ¥100 note without first subjecting it to intense scrutiny, and many will not accept old, tattered notes or coins. Check the watermark when receiving any ¥100 note.
Getting money sent to you in Lhasa is possible, but it can be a drag. One option is to use the Bank of China’s central office in Lhasa.
The second option is via Western Union (www.westernunion.com), which can wire money to one of several Postal Savings Bank of China outlets in Lhasa.
- Restaurants Tipping is not expected in restaurants or hotels in Tibet.
- Guides Approximately ¥35 to ¥50 per day per person.
- Drivers Approximately ¥25 to ¥30 per day per person.
Travellers cheques are rarely used these days but can be useful in Tibet. Besides the advantage of safety, travellers cheques actually get you a slightly higher exchange rate than cash. US dollar cheques from the major companies such as Thomas Cook, Visa and American Express are your best bet.
Opening hours listed are for summer; winter hours generally start half an hour later and finish half an hour earlier.
Government Offices & PSB 9.30am to 1pm and 3pm to 6.30pm Monday to Friday, sometimes 10am to 1pm Saturday
Banks 9.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday, 10.30am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday
Restaurants 10am to 10pm
Shops 10am to 9pm
Bars May close at 8pm or 2am, depending on their location and clientele
Many smaller monasteries have no set opening hours and will open up chapels once you’ve tracked down the right monk. Others, such as Sakya, are notorious for only opening certain rooms at certain times. Your best bet is to tag along with pilgrims or a tour group.
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
Batteries & Memory Cards
Shops in Lhasa stock a decent range of memory cards and rechargeable batteries (though don't expect to find every camera model's type).
Battery life plummets at Tibet’s higher elevations and lower temperatures. Keep your batteries warm and separate from your camera overnight and during cold weather. Just heating up batteries in your pocket or the sun can draw some extra juice from them.
Photographs of airports and military installations are prohibited, and bridges are also a touchy subject. Don’t take any photos or especially video footage of civil unrest or public demonstrations. Chinese authorities are very wary about foreign TV crews filming unauthorised documentaries on Tibet.
Restrictions on photography are also imposed at most monasteries and museums. This is partly an attempt to stop the trade of antiquities out of Tibet (statues are often stolen to order from photos taken by seemingly innocuous ‘tourists’). In the case of flash photography, such restrictions protect wall murals from damage. Inside the larger monasteries, a fee of ¥20 to ¥50 is often imposed in each chapel for taking a photograph. Video fees can be up to ¥800 (US$100) in some monasteries. You are free, however, to take any photos of the exteriors of monasteries.
China’s postal service is generally inexpensive and efficient: airmail letters and postcards take around a week to 10 days to reach most destinations. Writing the country of destination in Chinese can speed up the delivery. Domestic post is very swift, often reaching the destination in one or two days. Lhasa is the only place in Tibet from which it’s possible to send international parcels by air or surface mail.
Post offices are very picky about how you pack things; do not finalise your packing until the parcel has its last customs clearance. If you have a receipt for the goods, then put it in the box when you are mailing it, since it may be opened again by customs further down the line.
China Post operates an express mail service (EMS) – a worldwide priority mail service – that is fast and reliable. Documents to most foreign countries arrive in around five days.
Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Spring Festival, is definitely not the time to travel around China, cross borders (especially the Hong Kong one) or be caught short of money.
Serf Emancipation Day was introduced as a public holiday in Tibet in 2009 to commemorate 50 years of Communist Chinese control in Tibet and what China says was the freeing of one million Tibetan ‘serfs’. Don’t expect much in the way of celebration among the ex-serfs.
Many Tibetan businesses, restaurants, shops and travel agencies are closed on the days of Losar and Saga Dawa. Tibetan festivals like these are held according to the Tibetan lunar calendar, which usually runs at least a month behind the Gregorian calendar. Ask around for the exact dates of religious festivals because monasteries often only fix these a few months in advance. Check Tibetan lunar dates against Gregorian dates at www.shambhala.com/tibetan-lunar-calendar.
China has several traditional and modern national holidays. They mean little to many Tibetans, but government offices and banks will be closed on many of these dates. Note that the length of holidays is subject to change.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Chinese New Year 5 February 2019; a week's holiday for most
Serf Emancipation Day 28 March
Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Festival) First weekend in April; a three-day holiday; not really observed in Tibet
Labour Day 1 May; a three-day holiday
International Children's Day 1 June
Dragon Boat Festival 7 June 2019
Mid-Autumn Festival 13 September 2019
National Day 1 October; a week-long holiday
The following are politically sensitive dates, as are 5 March, 27 September, 1 October and 10 December, which mark past political protests. It may be difficult for travellers to fly into Tibet for a few days before these dates. Tibet generally closes to foreign travellers for the entire month of March.
10 March Anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama
23 May Anniversary of the signing of the Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet
1 September Anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
- Smoking The Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Tibetans are great smokers. Smoking is banned on most public transport but is generally allowed in restaurants and bars.
Taxes & Refunds
Although big hotels may add a tax or ‘service charge’ of 10% to 15%, all other taxes are included in prices, including airline departure tax.
Mobile-phone coverage is generally good, even in far-western Tibet and at Everest Base Camp!
Public telephones can be found in small shops but are increasingly hard to find.
Most hotels in Lhasa have International Direct Dial (IDD) telephones but levy a hefty surcharge on calls.
WhatsApp is blocked in China unless you have a VPN, though Skype seems to work. Most Chinese and Tibetans use the messaging app WeChat.
Buy an inexpensive local pay-as-you-go SIM or data card for cheap local calls, but get it before arriving in Tibet. Buying a mobile phone in China is cheap and easy.
Buying a SIM card
Purchasing a local phone or data SIM card in Lhasa can be complicated, as you normally need to show a local residency card. It's much easier to buy your SIM card elsewhere in China (Chengdu is a good option) and in fact many hostels sell them at reception.
A SIM card from China Telecom or China Unicom costs ¥120, which gives you around 200 minutes of local calls plus enough data for two weeks of emails and internet usage for most. You can add credit with a credit-charging card (充值卡; chōngzhí ǩa) for ¥50 or ¥100 of credit. It's best to take your guide with you to purchase a card as there are many options.
All of China – including Tibet – operates on Beijing time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT/UTC. When it is noon in Beijing it is also noon in far-off Lhasa, even if the sun only indicates around 9am or 10am.
Chinese toilets might be dismal, but Tibetan toilets make them look like little bowers of heaven. The standard model is a deep hole in the ground, often without partitions, with faeces littered all over the floor and sometimes even the walls (!?). Many Tibetans (including women with long skirts) prefer to urinate in the street.
On the plus side, there are some fabulous ‘toilets with a view’. Honours go to the Samding Monastery Guesthouse and the public toilets in the Potala Palace.
With the exception of midrange and top-end places, hotel and restaurant toilets in Tibet are of the squat variety – as the cliché goes, good for the digestion and character building, too. Always carry an emergency stash of toilet paper or tissues with you.
Tibet is officially a province of China and does not have tourist offices as such. Similarly, the Tibetan government-in-exile does not provide information specifically relating to travel in Tibet. Several of the pro-Tibet organisations abroad offer travel advice.
The following organisations do excellent work to help the people of the Tibetan plateau.
- Braille Without Borders www.braillewithoutborders.org
- Seva www.seva.ca/countries/tibet
- Tibet Foundation www.tibet-foundation.org
- Tibet Fund www.tibetfund.org
- Tibetan Village Project www.tibetanvillageproject.org
Pro-Tibet organisations abroad have good news services and some cultural coverage. The Australia Tibet Council website includes an interesting guide for tourists visiting Tibet, as does Free Tibet (www.freetibet.org/about/travel-guide). The Tibet Support Group (www.tibet.org) offers online links to most pro-Tibet organisations.
- Australia Tibet Council www.atc.org.au
- Canada Tibet Committee www.tibet.ca
- International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) www.savetibet.org
- Students for a Free Tibet www.studentsforafreetibet.org
- Tibet House www.tibethouse.org
- Tibet Society www.tibetsociety.com
- Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy www.tchrd.org
- Tibet Watch www.tibetwatch.org
Travel with Children
Children can be a great icebreaker in Tibet and generally generate a lot of interest. Many hotels have family rooms, which normally have three or four beds, sometimes arranged in two connected rooms.
Most foreign-orientated restaurants, and especially Nepali-run ones, have dishes like pizza and pancakes. Crisps (chips) and sweets are available in supermarkets everywhere; healthier options are hard to find.
You should bring your own car seat if travelling overland with small children. You need to be particularly careful with children and altitude sickness; children are not more susceptible to altitude than adults, but they are often less able to describe their symptoms. In general Tibet is a physically tough destination for adults, let alone younger children.
A fun book to get kids in the mood for a Tibetan adventure is Tintin in Tibet. If entering via Kathmandu, several bookshops sell colouring books featuring mandala and Tibetan thangka (Buddhist painting) designs.
Check out Lonely Planet's Travel With Children for handy hints and advice about the pros and cons of travelling with kids.
- Tibet is probably not a great place to bring a very small child.
- You should bring all supplies (including nappies and medicines) with you.
- Small spoons can be useful, as most places have only chopsticks.
- There’s plenty of boiling water to sterilise bottles etc. It’s possible to make a cot from the copious duvets supplied with most hotel rooms.
- Be especially careful with children and altitude sickness, as they won’t be on the lookout for signs.
- Children under 1.5m (5ft) or under a certain age (the definition depends on the site) get in free at most sights in Tibet.
There are very limited opportunities for volunteer work in the TAR. There are considerably more opportunities outside the TAR, in Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Qinghai, and especially in Dharamsala (see www.volunteertibet.org.in).
Conscious Journeys (www.consciousjourneys.org) Runs medical ‘voluntourism’ trips to Tibetan areas of Sichuan, as well as responsibly run tours in Tibet.
Rokpa (www.rokpauk.org/volunteering.html) Volunteer teaching positions in the Jyekundo (Yushu) region of Qinghai.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Metric, though traders measure fruit and vegetables by the jin (500g).
Women are generally not permitted to enter the gönkhang (protector chapel) in a monastery, ostensibly for fear of upsetting the powerful protector deities inside.
Several women have written of the favourable reactions they have received from Tibetan women when wearing Tibetan dress; you can get one made in Lhasa.