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.
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.
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.
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.
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 number||From||Departure||Distance (km)||Duration (hr)||Hard/soft sleeper|
|Z322||Chengdu||9.37pm every other day||3360||37||¥668/1062|
|Z223||Chongqing||10.25pm every other day||3654||36||¥707/1125|
NB Sleeper fares listed are the cheapest berth. Unless noted, services run every day.
** Multiple train options