Traveling in Tibet isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. But it is, hands down, one of the most unique and visually stunning places I think I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been everywhere).
If, like me, you’ve been obsessed with Tibet since you were a child and have suffered through Brad Pitt’s awful accent in 7 Years in Tibet more times than you care to admit, you should definitely put this place on your radar.
Here’s how to make it happen.
Find a Tour Company
You can’t travel to Tibet independently—the only way to see it is with a registered tour company. The one we went with was Tibet Vista, organized by Nellie Huang of Wild Junket, and they were great. Our guide was knowledgeable and fun, and also happened to be a total BABE, so that didn’t hurt either.
Other tour companies we saw on the tourist trail included Beautifully Tibet Heavenly Journey (I know, weird name), and Budget Tibet Tours.
If you’re traveling through Kathmandu, there are several tour companies based in Thamel who can help you schedule a tour. You’ll need a special “Group Tour Visa” that will only apply to those flying in/out of Kathmandu.
Organize Your Paperwork
If you’ve arranged a tour ahead of time, you’ll need to organize a few things for your tour company, most notably your Chinese visa. I went through the embassy in New York which was a little bit of a nightmare, but I ended up with a 10-year, multiple entry visa that made things better.
To avoid having this cancelled by visiting Tibet, I had to enter Lhasa from Chengdu (mainland China) rather than Kathmandu, where I was.
You’ll need to give your tour company a copy of your passport, a copy of your visa, as well as your inboud/outbound travel details. They should be able to do almost everything else on your behalf.
Pack for Cold and Mount Everest Base Camp
I could and probably will do an entire post on EBC and how to pack for it. Most tours to Tibet will visit Everest Base Camp, which never gets warm. It is cold here, and very windy, so a windproof jacket and thermal leggings or pants are essential. To Everest Base Camp, I wore: fleece-lined leggings under my jeans, a long-sleeve top, a sweater, and a windproof jacket on top. I still wish I had brought a hat, gloves and a head torch.
In Lhasa and other cities at slightly lower elevation, it doesn’t get as cold, but you’ll never dip below 3500 meters above sea level so there’s almost always a chill in the air.
Bulk Up Your Budget
You’ll use the Chinese RMB in Tibet, and most things will cost you twice what they would in mainland China, like Chengdu, for example.
You should be prepared to spend around 60-70 RMB ($8-10) per meal for a standard meal with a drink (the same meal would cost 30 in Chengdu). Your hotel rooms will likely be included in the cost of your tour so you shouldn’t have to worry about that. You won’t get to choose where you stay.
Buying souvenirs depends on how well you can bargain, but in general, prayer beads will cost 100-200 RMB and prayer flags 10-50 depending on size.
They don’t tip servers or cab drivers in Tibet, but you will be expected to tip your tour guide and your driver, roughly 10% of the cost of your tour.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
There are things I loved and hated about Tibet. I loved the people and the scenery and learning more about Buddhism and its rich history here. I hated the politics, the oppression, the fact that you’re traveling on a very well-worn tourist track where you’re never alone, and the conditions of the squat toilets (OH. MY. GOD.).
Traveling to Tibet means encountering a fair amount of things that make you uncomfortable and having to be okay with that.
If you’re prone to altitude sickness, know that there’s a good chance you can spend the majority of your time here feeling physically awful, especially for the first few days (most people acclimatize after five days).
If you’re on a group tour, you’ll probably be paired up to share a room with someone you don’t know.
Not all of your meals will be great. Most won’t, probably. And if you don’t eat yak or aren’t prepared to try it, you’ll be really limiting your options food-wise.
You kind of have to prepare yourself to deal with all of these things, and to just be okay with it. Travel in Tibet isn’t for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn’t for whiners or complainers—traveling here takes a fair amount of grit but comes with many rewards.
Would you travel to Tibet?