Tibet in detail

Flights & getting there

For most international travellers, getting to Tibet will involve at least two legs: first to a gateway city such as Kathmandu (Nepal) or Chengdu (China), and then into Tibet.

The most popular options from the gateway towns into Tibet are as follows:

  • International flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa
  • Domestic Chinese flight to Lhasa from Chengdu, Kunming, Xining, Beijing or many others
  • Train via Qinghai to Lhasa, starting in Xining, Lanzhou, Beijing or other Chinese cities
  • The overland drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa via the new crossing at Kyirong, along the Friendship Hwy.

At the time of writing, bureaucratic obstacles to entering Tibet from China were many and involved signing up for a preplanned and prepaid tour. The situation from Nepal is even trickier because of group-visa requirements. Political events, both domestic and international, can mean that regulations for entry into Tibet change overnight. Nerves of steel are definitely useful when arranging flights and permits. Always check on the latest developments before booking flights.

Note that it can be very hard to get hold of air and train tickets to Lhasa around the Chinese New Year and the week-long holidays around 1 May and 1 October.

Flights, hotels and tours can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/bookings.

Air

There are no direct long-haul flights to Tibet. You will almost certainly have to stop for at least a night in Chengdu, Guangzhou or Beijing, as you need to to pick up your permit or meet your group in your chosen gateway city before heading to Lhasa.

If routing via Kathmandu, you'll have to budget at least four working days there in order to secure your Chinese group visa.

Airports & Airlines

For China, you generally have the choice of flying first to Beijing (http://en.bcia.com.cn), Shanghai (www.shanghai-airport.com), Guangzhou (www.guangzhouairportonline.com) or Hong Kong (www.hongkongairport.com); there is also a small but growing number of international flights direct to Chengdu (www.cdairport.com/en). There’s little difference in fares to these airports,

There are direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa, so it is no longer necessary to first fly into Chengdu.

To & From Kathmandu

Generally speaking, long-haul flights to/from Kathmandu are relatively expensive, as a limited number of carriers operate out of the Nepali capital. The national carrier, Nepal Airlines (www.nepalairlines.com.np), is notoriously unreliable and is to be avoided if possible.

One option is to buy separate discounted flights to Delhi and from Delhi on to Kathmandu, but note that without a single through ticket you will likely have to arrange an Indian transit or tourist visa in order to pick up your baggage and transfer between flights at Delhi airport.

International airlines flying into and out of Kathmandu include the following.

Air India (www.airindia.in) Good connections via New Delhi.

China Southern (www.csair.com/en/) Good option from Australia via Guangzhou.

Etihad (www.etihad.com) Quality airline with fast connections through the Middle East, but pricier than most.

Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) Good service and connections via New Delhi.

Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) Popular flights from Bangkok.

Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) Fast connections from Europe via Istanbul.

To & From Chengdu

Chengdu's Shuangliu International Airport is well connected to other cities in China, with daily flights arriving from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Kunming and Hong Kong among others. There is also a growing number of international carriers making nonstop flights into Chengdu, mainly from Asian hubs like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore. From Europe it’s possible to reach Chengdu nonstop from Amsterdam and Frankfurt, and from the USA there are direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Arriving from other international destinations will likely require you to change planes and possibly make a layover in a mainland Chinese hub.

International airlines flying into Chengdu include the following.

Air Asia (www.airasia.com) From Kuala Lumpur.

Air China (www.airchina.com) From Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Paris, Rome, Singapore, Sydney, Seoul and Tokyo.

Asiana (www.flyasiana.com) From Seoul.

China Eastern (http://ph.ceair.com/en/) From Bangkok and Osaka.

China Southern (www.csair.com/en/) From Amsterdam and many cities via Guangzhou.

Etihad (www.etihad.com) Via Abu Dhabi.

Hainan Airlines (www.hainanairlines.com) From Los Angeles and New York

KLM (www.klm.com) From Amsterdam.

Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) Via Doha.

Sichuan Airlines (https://global.sichuanair.com/US-EN) From Auckland, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Kathmandu, Melbourne, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo and Vancouver.

United Airlines (www.united.com) From San Francisco.

Departure Tax

Departure tax in China is worked into the price of both domestic and international tickets, so there’s nothing additional to pay at the airport.

Tickets

There are essentially two ways to buy an air ticket to Tibet's gateway cities: buy a single international ticket to a city like Chengdu or buy an international ticket to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou and then buy a discounted domestic Chinese air ticket online.

Note that if transiting through a city like Beijing en route to a domestic Chinese destination you will need to clear immigration and customs in Beijing, so allow plenty of time for your domestic connection.

The cheapest tickets to China are generally available on price-comparison websites such as Kayak (www.kayak.com) and Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.net).

You can buy discounted domestic tickets within China (except Lhasa) from online Chinese ticket agencies such as Elong (www.elong.net) and Trip (www.trip.com). These sites can sell you tickets to gateway cities but will not sell you a ticket from Chengdu to Tibet without Chinese ID, though international online ticket sites such as One Travel (www.onetravel.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com) will. If this all sounds too complicated, you can always ask your Tibetan tour agency to handle domestic tickets to Lhasa.

Airfares to China peak between June and September.

Onward Connections To Tibet

Within China there are flight connections to Lhasa from a dozen cities (and growing), including direct flights from Beijing, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Xi'an, Xining and Kunming.

There are also some interesting daily flights within the Tibetan world, namely from Lhasa to Yushu (Jyekundo; ¥1060) in Qinghai, Xiahe (¥1950) in Gansu, Kangding (¥1500) in Sichuan and Deqin (also known as Zhongdian, Gyeltang or Shangri-la) in Yunnan. Some of the more obscure routes are with the Chinese budget airline Lucky Air (Xiángpéng Hángkōng; www.luckyair.net).

That said, most travellers still fly in to Lhasa from Chengdu, as there are more flights, cheaper fares and more tour agencies there. There are also flights from Chengdu to Nyingtri (Línzhī).

Your Tibet permit will be checked when checking in for your flight to Lhasa, as well as on arrival at Lhasa’s Gongkar airport.

Note that flights to and from Lhasa are sometimes cancelled or delayed in the winter months, so if you are flying at this time give yourself a couple of days’ leeway if you have a connecting flight.

Baggage allowance on flights to Lhasa is 20kg in economy class and 40kg in 1st class, so you’ll have to limit your gear to avoid penalties, regardless of what you are allowed to bring on your international flight into China.

From Nepal

Air China and Sichuan Airlines operate flights between Kathmandu and Lhasa daily in high season. Fares vary wildly between US$200 and US$400 one way, depending on the month.

Individual travellers can’t buy air tickets from the Air China office in Kathmandu without a TTB permit, but it doesn't seem a problem to buy them online. To board the plane you'll have to show your group China visa, which you'll only get through booking a tour with a Lhasa- or Kathmandu-based agency.

It is possible to buy air tickets from Kathmandu to other destinations in China, such as Chengdu (from US$280 one way); you don’t need a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit to take these flights.

From Chengdu

Chengdu has long been the main gateway to Lhasa for travellers coming by air, and multiple flights a day go to Lhasa in the height of summer. Flights cost ¥1680 one way but are often discounted down to ¥1200.

Flights into Lhasa are operated by Air China (CA; www.airchina.com.cn), Sichuan Airlines (3U; www.scal.com.cn), Tibet Airlines (TV; wwwtibetairlines.com) and China Eastern (MU; http://ph.ceair.com/en/, www.ceair.com). Note that on many online booking sites you need to spell Lhasa as 'Lasa'.

Try to book the first flight of the day because weather conditions and visibility will be optimal in the morning. On a clear day the views from the plane are stupendous, so try to get a window seat. In general the best views are from the left side of the plane from Chengdu to Lhasa and the right side from Lhasa to Chengdu. Getting into Lhasa early also gives you a little more time to acclimatise if you are on a short tour.

If you are coming to Tibet from somewhere outside China, have your agency mail your permit to a hotel in Chengdu, where you can pick it up and fly out the next day. Make sure the permit is sent a few days before you arrive and preferably let the hotel know it's coming.

There are also daily flights (¥1530) from Chengdu to Nyingtri (Nyingchi; Línzhī) in eastern Tibet, which might be an offbeat option if you plan to visit the Kongpo region. At around 3000m elevation, the region is lower than Lhasa and so helps with acclimatisation.

From Yunnan

There are some useful daily flight connections between Lhasa and the popular traveller centres of Lijiang, Kunming and Deqin (the main airport for Zhongdian, also known as Gyeltang or Shangri-la). As with other flights to Lhasa, foreigners won’t be allowed on board without a TTB permit.

Land

Some individual travellers make their way to Tibet as part of a grand overland trip through China, Nepal, India and onwards. In many ways, land travel to Tibet is the best way to go, not only for the scenery en route but also because it can help spread the altitude gain over a few days.

All overland trips inside the Tibet Autonomous Region have to be organised tours with vehicle rental and a guide.

Several travel agencies in Nepal organise overland budget group tours to Lhasa.

Road

In theory there are several land routes into Tibet. The bulk of overland travellers take the Friendship Hwy between Kathmandu and Lhasa.

The Qinghai–Tibet Hwy and the very remote Xinjiang–Tibet Hwy are possible on a tour with all the proper permits. The Qinghai–Tibet Hwy is also possible on an organised cycling tour but there's a lot of truck traffic en route.

The spectacular overland routes into Tibet along the Sichuan–Tibet Hwy and the Yunnan–Tibet Hwy are popular with Chinese travellers but have been closed to foreign travellers for years now due to the closure of Chamdo prefecture on the Tibet side. At the time of writing the road from northwest Yunnan to Lhasa was open to a limited number of groups, so check with Lhasa agencies to see if this route is fully open.

In the current climate it’s most unwise to try any route without being part of an organised tour – you have a very high chance of being caught and fined and of dragging any Tibetan who has helped you into your troubles.

Friendship Highway (Nepal to Tibet)

The 1000km-or-so stretch of road between Kathmandu and Lhasa is without a doubt one of the most spectacular in the world.

The old route via the border crossing at Kodari (1873m) and Zhangmu (2250m) was badly affected by Nepal's 2015 earthquake and remains closed to international traffic.

The main Nepal–Tibet border crossing has shifted to Rasuwagadhi at the meeting of Nepal's Langtang region and Tibet's Kyirong Valley. Chinese travellers have been using the border for a few years now, but it was only opened to foreigners in 2017. It's a spectacular and little-explored route that allows you to combine a trek in Nepal's Langtang region with a visit to lovely Peiku-tso on the Tibetan side.

The section of road on the Tibetan side is paved, but the Nepali road is slow going, especially during the monsoon months from June to September. Figure on an entire day from Rasuwagadhi to Kathmandu and consider hiring a 4WD for the trip (Rs 16,000).

The new Kyirong route joins the former Kodari route just north of the La Lung-la (4845m) on the Friendship Hwy and continues to Tingri.

It is essential to watch out for the effects of altitude sickness during the early stages of this trip. If you intend to head up to Everest Base Camp (5150m), you really need to slip in a rest day at Tingri or Kyirong. In terms of acclimatisation it is better to fly to Lhasa and then travel back to Kathmandu, rather than the other way around.

China is 2¼ hours ahead of Nepali time.

Other Routes into Tibet

A little-travelled route into Tibet, for trekking groups only, passes through Purang (Taklakot in Nepali). Special visas are required for this trip. Trekkers start by travelling by road or flying from Kathmandu to Nepalganj, then flying from there to Simikot in the far west of Nepal. From Simikot it’s a five- or six-day walk to the Tibetan border at Sher, up the Humla Karnali valley. The Nepali government is building a road from the border to Simikot along this route, so consider the alternative trek route via the neighbouring Limi Valley. Some Indian groups travel this section by chartered helicopter. From the border you can then drive the 28km to Purang and the further 107km to the Mt Kailash area via Lake Manasarovar.

Tibetan, Chinese and Indian travellers can cross into Tibet’s Yadong region from Gangtok in Sikkim via the 4310m Nathu-la, tracing the former trading routes between Lhasa, Kalimpong and Calcutta, and the path taken by Younghusband’s invasion of Tibet in 1903. The route is not open to foreign travellers.

Indian pilgrims on a quota system travel to Purang via the Lipu Lekh pass from Pithoragarh.

Train

The world's highest train, the Qinghai–Tibet Railway, connects mainland China with Lhasa over the Tibetan plateau. Trains leave from Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Xining and Guangzhou daily, and every other day from Chongqing (via Xi'an) and Lanzhou, to link with the Chengdu and Xining trains, respectively. Xining is probably the most popular place to start a train ride to Lhasa, though getting tickets can prove a challenge.

A twice-daily train service from Lhasa to Shigatse started in late 2014. Future extensions will include lines from Lhasa to Tsetang and the eastern region of Kongpo, to the Nepal border at Kyirong and from Golmud to Dūnhuáng in Gansu province.

China and Nepal recently agreed to build a rail line from Kyirong to Kathmandu, with India pledging to continue the line to the Indian border. Were this to actually happen it would make for an epic trans-Himalayan crossing by rail.

Train Schedules to Lhasa

Train numberFromDepartureDistance (km)Duration (hr)Hard/soft sleeper
Z21Beijing (west)8pm375340¥720/1144
Z322Chengdu9.37pm every other day336037¥668/1062
Z223Chongqing10.25pm every other day365436¥707/1125
Z264Guangzhou11.45am498055¥865/1468
Z164Shanghai8.10pm437352¥794/1263
**Xiningvarious196022¥484/768
Z917Lanzhou11.16am218824¥522/823
**Xi'anvarious286432¥612/970

NB Sleeper fares listed are the cheapest berth. Unless noted, services run every day.

** Multiple train options

Sea

It is not possible to travel to Tibet by sea.