Getting to Tibet: Best Tibet-Entry Cities You Need to Know
The seven gateway cities for the Tibet train are Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Lanzhou, and Xining, all of which can take you to Tibet using the spectacular Qinghai Tibet Railway. You can also travel overland from several cities in China, including Xining, Chengdu, Kunming, or Kashgar. Or you can choose to fly from more than a dozen locations across China after visiting some of the country’s stunning cultural and historic sites such as Chengdu or Xi’an. Each has its own unique attractions for tourists heading to Tibet and are all an amazing experience.
Getting to Tibet from Inland Chinese Cities
With dozens of locations across China from which to travel to Tibet, you are really spoilt for choice. However, each of the major departure locations has its own unique attractions that can help to make that decision for you, based on what you are looking for in your vacation.
Enter Tibet from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou
Three of the main cities for taking the train to Tibet, Beijing, and Shanghai and Guangzhou, also have other attributes that can help you choose to leave for your Tibetan tour from there.
You have a choice of taking the train to Tibet from Beijing, a journey of around 40 hours that takes you across eight Chinese Provinces and covers more than 3,700 kilometers. Taking the train is one of the most spectacular ways to travel to Tibet, and allows you to relax while on the train, so you feel refreshed once you arrive in Lhasa. You also get to see some of the Tibetan landscapes that you would otherwise not get the chance to view. However, it is slow, and if you are pressed for time, then taking a Beijing-Tibet flight would be the faster option. Flights leave daily and take around four hours to get to the Tibetan capital. However, the main issue for flying is the cost. There are no budget airlines that fly to Lhasa, so unless you can get a discount, you can be paying a high fare of more than 500 dollars each way.
Taking the train from Shanghai to Lhasa
Shanghai has a similar choice of travel options, with trains leaving daily for the Tibetan plateau. Slightly longer than the trains from Beijing, the train from Shanghai to Lhasa route takes around 47 hours, and covers over 4,300 kilometers. Again, the length of time is the major drawback of the trains, especially if time is an issue. Shanghai-Tibet Flights are available daily from Shanghai’s Pudong international Airport and Hongqiao International Airport, both direct and indirect, and cost more than 500 dollars each way, which can be expensive. However, the flight time of just five hours makes it worth the cost if you are pushed for time.
Guangzhou is the departure location for the longest train trip to Tibet. Taking around 55 hours to get to the Tibetan capital, the Guangzhou-Tibet trains cover a huge 4,980 kilometers. However, despite the journey being the longest, the cost is relatively inexpensive when compared to a flight to Lhasa from Guangzhou. For flights from Guangzhou, there is only one direct flight to Lhasa per day, which does stop briefly at Chongqing for an hour, That said, the flight is still only six hours, and is much faster than the train.
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Get to Tibet from Xi'an
Xi’an, in Shanxi Province of central northwest China, is one of the most spectacular places for those who are interested in the culture and history of China. As one of the oldest cities in China, Xi’an is the oldest of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of the country, and held this most notable position during the most important of the Chinese Dynasties. Xi’an has a wealth of history that can be explored there, as well as being the start of the ancient Silk Road that stretched from China to Europe, crossing vast regions of the globe.
Aside from the Silk Road culture of the city, it is one of the most important cities in China for archaeological finds. Xi’an is the home of the ancient Terracotta Warriors, one of the world’s most important archaeological finds. Created for the Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC, this amazing find lay buried beneath the ground for more than 2,000 years. They were uncovered in 1974, and number in the thousands, with a complete palace and grounds inside the burial mound of the ancient Emperor.
Once you have had your fill of this wonderful history of Xi’an, it is time to travel to Tibet for your tour. You have two main options for travel, by train and by flight. Flights are often the best option in the summer months, as it can be hard to obtain tickets for the trains in the peak months of Tibetan tourism. Xi’an is not one of the seven gateway cities, and merely accommodates the trains from Shanghai and Guangzhou, which pass through the city. Tickets can be bought for the train from Xi’an to Lhasa, although it cannot be guaranteed as the trains are often full on leaving their departure cities.
Xi’an is one of the major hubs for airlines in China, and flights from Xi'an to Lhasa leave daily for the Tibetan capital, both direct and indirect. Xian Xianyang International Airport has around seven direct flights per day to the plateau, which take as little as three hours to get to Lhasa Gonggar International Airport. Cost is less than from Beijing or Shanghai, at around 360 dollars for an economy ticket.
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Travel to Tibet from Chengdu and Chongqing
Two of the major cities in Southwest China, Chengdu and Chongqing are both major gateways for travel to Tibet. Trains leave every other day from both cities for the Tibetan capital andtake between 35 and 37 hours to get to Lhasa. Chongqing and Chengdu are also two of the cheaper options for train tickets as well. Chengdu also has one of China’s biggest tourist attractions right on its doorstep. The city is the home of the Chengdu Giant panda Breeding and Research Center. You can see giant pandas in their natural habitat, and if you are lucky, see the panda cubs just after they are born and shown to the world.
Giant Pandas in Chengdu
With both cities having major international airports that receive flights from all over the world, they are important sites for travelers heading to Tibet, as there are flights from all the major continents to Chengdu and Chongqing. The flights are also cheaper than most other places in China, as the cities are relatively close to Tibet in terms of direct distance. And at just 2.5-3 hours for the flights to Lhasa, it is time effective as well. While the train is still the cheaper option, flights from Chengdu to Lhasa or flights from Chongqing to Lhasa average at around 280 dollars each way, making it a worthwhile option.
Chengdu has another option for travel to Lhasa. The G318 National Highway passes through Chengdu on its way from Shanghai to Zhangmu in western Tibet and is a popular road trip for Chinese tourists. The route follows the G318 all the way to Lhasa, covering a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers and taking around 10-12 days to complete. One of the world’s most exciting and dangerous road trips, it is not for the faint-hearted, and should only be done by experienced drivers, as the roads can be a little treacherous in places as it passes through the mountains.
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Enter Tibet from Xining
Lying in Qinghai Province in the north of China, Xining is the start of the Qinghai Tibet Railway, the first railway to link Tibet with the rest of China. Trains from Xining to Lhasa leave every other day, and it is the one place where you have a higher likelihood of getting a train ticket during the peak season as the train has more carriages than any of the other Tibet trains.
All trains must pass through Xining on the way to Lhasa, and this stretch of the route is the most stunning of all. Once the train reached Golmud, it climbs all the way up to the Tibetan Plateau, where you get to see some of the region’s most stunning scenery and landscapes. Passing through the world’s highest railway pass, at Tanggula Pass in the Tanggula Mountains, the trains enter Tibet and drop down to the Changtang Grasslands, a vast expanse of prairie that covers most od northeast Tibet. An adventure unto itself, this trip is one of the most spectacular in the world.
The landscape along the way to Lhasa from Xining by train
But it is not just trains that leave from Xining. Flights also leave from the Xining Caojiabao International Airport five times a day, flying direct to Lhasa and taking just three hours. However, the cost is still as much as flying from Chengdu or Chongqing.
Xining is also the start of the Qinghai Tibet Highway, the original route for travelers and trucks to Lhasa and the rest of Tibet, and the main road from mainland China into Tibet Autonomous Region. At around 1,972 kilometers in length, it is not as long as the road route from Chengdu, and it is a lot easier to drive. Apart from the jaunt across the Kunlun Mountains and Tanggula Mountains, the road is smooth and is well paved for its entire length. A classic road trip to Tibet, it is also popular for those who are adventurous enough to cycle the almost 2,000 kilometers to the Tibetan capital.
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Get to Tibet via Kashgar and Kunming
In the northwest and southeast lie Kashgar and Kunming respectively. While not the most popular departure locations for travel to Tibet, these two cities have other attributes that make them interesting places from which to start your trip to Tibet.
Located in Yunnan Province of southwest China, Kunming is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. With hundreds of things to see in the area, both natural and man-made, it is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of its constantly mild climate and year-round flowers.
The airport at Kunming is a major hub for international travel around south and southeast Asia, and receives international flights from all across Asia, as well as several non-Asian locations, including Europe, Australia, and North America. Travel to Tibet can be done from Kunming to Lhasa by flight, which takes around 2 hours 30 minutes, or by car, traveling along the Yunnan Tibet Highway to Lhasa.
Kashgar, in the northwest Province of Xinjiang, is an ancient city with a wealth of history that spans more than 2,000 years. One of the major links in the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe, the people are mainly Muslim, largely due to the major links with the Middle Eastern nations.
Travel to Lhasa from Kashgar can be done by flight or by overland travel, using the Xinjiang Tibet Highway, which links to the Friendship Highway in western Tibet. The overland route is not actually available to foreign tourists, only domestic tourists. Flights to Lhasa leave the Kashgar Airport daily, usually as a stopover on the flights to Chengdu, Shanghai, and Beijing. However, there are flights to Ngari Gunsa Airport that run several times a week.
Getting to Tibet from Tibet's Neighbor-Kathmandu, Nepal
Flights or overland travel from Kathmandu in Nepal, Tibet’s Himalayan neighbor, are also popular with foreign tourists, and the routes are easily arranged through you tour operator. Flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa leave Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport daily, and take just 90 minutes to get to Lhasa, flying directly over Mount Everest on the way. On average, the cost of the flight to Lhasa can start at around 350 dollars in the low season, making it a rather expensive flight option.
The other option is Kathmandu-Tibet overland tour. The route overland starts at the border, after a six-hour bus ride to get to the border crossing checkpoint at Gyirong Port. From there, your tour starts, and heads across the plateau to Lhasa, making it a much more interesting way to get to the Tibetan capital.
From Lhasa, you then have two options, to fly back to Kathmandu or take the train on to mainland China. The Group Tourist Visa from Nepal allows for this, but only allows for a non-extendable period of thirty days from the issuance of the visa in Kathmandu before you travel.