Sitting at the roof of the world, surrounded by huge mountains and dotted with sacred lakes and hundreds of monasteries, lies Tibet Autonomous Region, one of the last truly unexplored places on the planet. Located on the highest plateau in the world, Tibet is a place of mystery and mysticism, where wondrous sights abound and you can explore places that very few people have ever seen.
Lying on this high plateau, Tibet is now a popular place for tourists who want to visit the ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries, and explore the plains and valley that cover the entire plateau area. Once a huge empire that extended into what are now the provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, and Sichuan, Tibet has a long and varied history that dates back several thousand years, and which has had a massive influence on the countries around it.
Bordered by Nepal and India to the west, and India and Bhutan to the south, this high-altitude region of China is a unique place to visit, with some of the world’s friendliest people. Tibetans are a devout Buddhist people, and the Tibetan culture is wholly unique, so closely interwoven with their Buddhist religion that the two seem as if they are one. Buddhism rules their very lives, and they live each and every day in the quest for enlightenment.
Getting to Tibet is believed to be one of the world’s hardest journeys by many people outside Asia, but this could not be further from the truth. While the land may once have been virtually cut off from the rest of the world, in these modern times, Tibet is very accessible, and more people are discovering this every year, as tourist numbers increase constantly.
There are two main ways to get to Tibet, either from mainland China or from Nepal, its closest neighbor. There are several requirements that need to be met to get to Tibet, which may also seem hard at first glance, but these are not as hard to overcome as one might think, and there are people that are dedicated to getting you there as easily as possible.
Travel from Mainland China to Tibet
When entering Tibet from China, there are three ways you can travel, overland by road, overland by train, or by taking a flight from one of several airports across China that have flights to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
Major Cities to Tibet by Train
There are seven gateway cities for train travel to Tibet, which are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Xining. Trains leave most of the gateway cities daily, although from some the trains leave every other day, and you will need to check the schedules for which days they are.
All trains have three basic classes of tickets, and the price depends on the ticket class. First class is the soft sleeper berth, while second class is the hard sleeper berth. The third class option is the hard seat, which is not ideal for traveling such long distances, and will become very uncomfortable after just a few hours of traveling. With some trains taking as long as three days to get to Lhasa, the soft and hard sleeper berths are the best options.
While the ticket prices depend on the class of ticket, each ticket class also has differing prices, with the lower berths being more costly than the upper berths. Soft sleeper cabins are preferred by many foreign travelers to Tibet, as they have more room, with only four berths per cabin, and a lockable door for added security. The hard sleeper berths, which are the cheaper option often used by budget travelers, have six berths in a fairly crowded space, and are open to the corridor of the train with just a curtain for modest privacy.
The normal schedules, times, and fares for the trains are:
Guangzhou Tibet Train: The train leaves daily, and takes around 53 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 865 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 1468 CNY
Shanghai Tibet Train: The train leaves daily, and takes around 47 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 794 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 1262 CNY
BeijingTibet Train: The train leaves daily, and takes around 40 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 720 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 1144 CNY
ChengduTibet Train: The trains leave every other day, taking around 37 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 628 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 998 CNY
ChongqingTibet Train: The trains leave every other day, taking around 35 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 628 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 998 CNY
LanzhouTibet Train: The trains leave every other day, taking around 24 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 522 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 823 CNY
XiningTibet Train: The trains leave every other day, taking around 22 hours to get to Lhasa. Costs for the tickets are Hard Sleeper – 495 CNY, Soft Sleeper – 781 CNY
Go to Tibet by Flight
Getting to Tibet from China by flight is simple, and can be done from several airports across the country. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Nanjing, Xining, and Kunming all have direct flights to Lhasa Gonggar International Airport, while several other cities have indirect flights that usually go via Chengdu or Kunming, such as Xi’an. Flight costs can vary from airport to airport, and can be found cheaply on many of the comparison websites.
Overland to Tibet by Highway
It is also possible to travel overland from Chengdu to Lhasa using the G318 National Highway, also known as the Sichuan Tibet Highway, or from Xining using the Qinghai Tibet Highway. However, this cannot be done alone, as international travelers are not permitted to travel unaccompanied in Tibet. If you wish to make a journey to Lhasa from Chengdu, you can contact Tibet Vista who can arrange the guide, driver, and private vehicle for your tour, as well as the required permits.
Tibet Travel Permit Needed for China Tibet Tour
When traveling from mainland China to Tibet, you will need to have the Tibet Travel Permit, issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa. However, this cannot be obtained individually, and you are required to have booked a pre-arranged tour with one of the Tibet tour operators such as Tibet Vista in order to obtain the permit. Once you have booked your tour and agreed your itinerary, the tour operator will make he application for the permit on your behalf, which can take from 10-15 days to process. Once received by the tour operator, it can be forwarded to your hotel in China ready for your trip. It should be noted that you cannot board the train or flight without the permit, so it is important to keep it in a safe and easily accessible place on your person.
Travel from Nepal to Tibet
Traveling from Nepal to Tibet is now a lot easier, thanks to the reopened Gyirong Port border crossing in Western Tibet. Overland crossings are quite popular, but if you really want to visit Lhasa first, then you can get a flight to the capital from Kathmandu.
Overland from Nepal to Tibet
Traveling overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa is the reverse of the usual tours, starting in Gyirong Town, after crossing the border, and ending in Lhasa. Getting to the border from Kathmandu can be done easily by using public buses, which are much cheaper than hiring a taxi or private car and driver. The bus costs around 2,500 rupees for the trip, and takes around six hours, traveling on small, narrow roads to the border at Rasuwagadhi Fort. Once across the Resuo Bridge, you will be checked by Chinese Immigration, and your private driver and guide will be waiting for you to start your tour.
Fly to Tibet from Nepal
Flights run from Kathmandu to Lhasa Gonggar International Airport, and cost from around US$ 275 per person. There are several flights each day from Nepal to Tibet, which take around an hour for the 600km trip. IF you are thinking of entering Tibet through Nepal, then you should contact an experienced tour operator such as Tibet Vista in order to arrange the visa and permits required for travel into Tibet.
Go from Simikot to Kailash
A popular trek for pilgrims traveling to the sacred Mount Kailash and lake Manasarovar, this amazing journey takes you across the Sino-Nepal border in one of the most stunning areas of the Himalayas. Flights are needed to get to Simikot in the remote Humla District of Nepal, and from there the trek across the border to Purang in Tibet, where a car is normally waiting to take you to the holy mountain and lake.
Group Visa Needed for Nepal Tibet Tour
Unlike when traveling through mainland China, a Chinese Entry Visa is not required when entering through Nepal. Instead, the requirement is for the Group Tourist Visa, which is issued by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Kathmandu. However, this is not available for individual applicants, and you will need to have a booked tour through a tour operator such as Tibet Vista in order to get it. Once your tour has been booked, and the tour operator have received your Tibet Travel Permit, they will be able to apply for the group visa.
You will need to be in Kathmandu at least five working days before your date of travel, as it takes at least three working days to process the application. The tour operator’s agent will meet you at your hotel and get your passport to make the application on your behalf. Once complete, he will return your passport to you, along with the group visa and your Tibet Travel Permit. It should be noted that the visa would have all members of the party on it, if you are traveling on an organized tour in a group, and all members of the group must enter and exit Tibet through the same port at the same time.