UPDATED December 2015
The most common question that people email to me is asking How to get to Tibet. While Tibet has a reputation for being an extremely difficult place to travel to, in reality, it is quite easy to travel to. Unfortunately, there is a lot of very outdated travel information on Tibet on the internet along with information that is simply wrong or confusing. In addition, many travel agencies in Nepal and in North America and Europe have a misunderstanding of how travel in Tibet works so they have inaccurate information on their websites. In this post, I will explain very clearly how to get to Tibet. If you still have questions about traveling to Tibet after reading through this post, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tibet Autonomous Region vs Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures
First off, it is important to understand that the Tibetan Plateau is divided into 2 areas: The Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is the southwestern half of the Tibetan Plateau while the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures are located on the eastern and northeastern portion of the Tibetan Plateau in the modern provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. The travel regulations for the TAR require ALL FOREIGNERS to be part of an organized tour while most of the areas in the 10 Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures are open to independent travelers (meaning NO organized tour is required).
If you plan to go to Lhasa, Yamdrok Lake, Shigatse, Everest Base Camp, the Nepal border, Kailash, Nam Tso, Nyingtri, Sakya or ANY other area inside the TAR, you will have to be on an organized tour that only a travel agency can arrange. There are no exceptions. For travel in the TAR, you will need travel permits (which a travel agency will arrange for you), a tour guide, a private vehicle and a driver. If you are just planning to go to Lhasa, usually no private vehicle or driver is required.
If you plan to go to the Amdo and Kham areas located in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan or Yunnan, no organized tour is required. You are free to travel this area on your own using public transportation (though many people still choose to use private vehicles to get to hard-to-reach areas).
Organized Tour vs Group Tour
The terms “Organized Tour” and “Group Tour” are two very different things. In Tibet, an organized tour means that a travel agency is making all of the arrangements for you, including permits, a tour guide, a private vehicle and a driver. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), all foreigners must be on an organized tour that is arranged by a travel agency. Again, there are no exceptions. The travel agency you choose will make all of the arrangements for your tour including all of your permits, as well as your required guide, private vehicle and driver. Organized tours in the TAR can be made for solo travelers or for a group of friends/family traveling together. In addition, some travel agencies specialize in putting together small groups of people to travel together so they can divide the costs of the guide, vehicle and driver.
A group tour means that you are required to travel with a group of people. While in the 1990’s and early 2000’s group travel in Tibet was required, this rule has not consistently been in place for a very long time. Currently, NO GROUP TRAVEL is required anywhere in Tibet, however, many budget travelers will choose to travel with a small group to save money.
In summary, an organized tour is required for all foreigners going to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), however group tours are NOT required. A solo traveler can go to the TAR without any problems as long as they are on an organized tour that is arranged by a travel agency. I get several emails every week asking if Group Travel is still required in Tibet. It seems that a lot of travel agencies in Europe and North America, as well as some in Mainland China and Nepal, are giving people very outdated travel information on Tibet as group travel is not a requirement.
A lot of people don’t realize that when you travel to Tibet, you have the freedom to design your own itinerary that goes to the specific places you want to go to. A lot of people contact me saying that they have looked at numerous travel agency websites, but haven’t been able to find the itinerary that they wish to follow. Travel agencies only list the most popular journeys they offer and these routes can be customized anyway you’d like. Nearly every travel agency in Tibet will also allow you to completely design your own itinerary. Just because a travel agency doesn’t list the exact itinerary you wish to follow on their website doesn’t mean they can’t arrange it for you. Simply tell the travel agency the route you wish to follow and they will arrange it for you. You have the complete freedom to design your own customized travel route in Tibet.
When planning your journey to Tibet, it is best to do at least a little bit of research in order to help you decide where you wish to go. The Tibetan Plateau is not just a couple of towns, but a HUGE area covering some 2.5 million square kilometers (975,000 square miles). It is larger than many countries! If you need assistance in planning your trip, most of the good travel agencies in Lhasa are more than happy to help you customize your route. You can also contact me for assistance. Good resources to help plan your trip include the current Lonely Planet Tibet guidebook, Footprints Tibet handbook and older posts on my website.
After doing a little research on Tibet and where you might be interested in going, you can then contact a travel agency. Long gone are the days of having to physically go to a travel agency office to arrange a tour to Tibet. All travel arrangements can be made through email. All of the reputable travel agencies can speak and write English well so you can make all of your plans by email. Remember, Tibet is not like North Korea where you can only visit a handful of places and have to follow a rigid government-set itinerary. You can design your own itinerary to go to the specific places you wish to see.
When to contact a travel agency in Tibet
Travel permits for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) take a minimum of 14 days to arrange. If you plan to go to Mt. Kailash and other areas in Western Tibet, permits take up to 30 days. You will need to contact a travel agency at least 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to arrive in Tibet to be sure that you have enough time to have your permits and other details of your trip arranged before you arrive. Again, everything can be arranged with a travel agency through email. You do not need to physically go to a travel agency office to arrange a journey to Tibet.
What Travel Agency To Use
What travel agency you use is extremely important. You can easily become overwhelmed if you do a Google search on Tibet travel agencies as there are many hundreds to choose from. For me, it is important to use local-Tibetan owned/Tibetan-staffed travel agencies that have good reputations and excellent safety records. When traveling to Tibet, I highly encourage people to support locally owned businesses so that Tibetans will benefit more from tourism. I know just about every travel agency in Lhasa. If you need help deciding which agency to use, feel free to send me an email at: email@example.com
What a Travel Agency Will Do For You
As stated above, you cannot go to Tibet without the assistance of a travel agency. The travel agency you use will literally make all of your arrangements for you. They will take care of all of your required permits. No matter where in Tibet you plan to go, it is the travel agency’s responsibility to get the permits for you…you cannot get permits on your own. They will also arrange a guide for you as well as a private vehicle and driver (foreigners cannot use public transportation in the Tibet Autonomous Region except within Lhasa). The travel agency can give you recommendations on which route to travel in Tibet, can work with you to create the perfect itinerary or you can simply give the agency your own itinerary that you created. From there, the travel agency will take care of all of the details for you. You don’t need to worry about getting permits because the travel agency will get them for you. Same goes with guide, vehicle and driver….the agency will take care of EVERYTHING for you.
Getting to Tibet
You can travel to Tibet from both Nepal and from Mainland China. In general, getting to Tibet from Mainland China is easier as you do not have to be on a Group Chinese Visa, which is required if you are entering Tibet from Nepal. The name “Group Chinese Visa” is a bit misleading as solo travelers (on an organized tour) can get a Group Chinese Visa even though they are traveling by themselves. A Group Chinese Visa cannot be extended within China like a normal Chinese Tourist Visa can.
From Nepal, there are 2 ways to get to Tibet: Overland or by air. The flight is only about 75 minutes long from Kathmandu to Lhasa. Another option is to fly from Kathmandu to Chengdu and then take the train to Lhasa. You can also go overland from Kathmandu to Tibet. From Kathmandu to the border of Nepal and Tibet, a travel agency in Nepal can arrange a private vehicle for you or you can (usually) take a public bus. From the border, your Tibetan guide will meet you and from there you will travel by a private vehicle with a driver. Normal tourist vehicles from Nepal do not enter into Tibet, which is why you will need to change vehicles at the border. As stated above, a travel agency will take care of ALL of these details for you. You do not need to worry about arranging this yourself. Read the following link for more information on how to go from Nepal to Tibet: How to go from Nepal to Tibet
From Mainland China, most people either fly or take the train to Tibet. There are direct flights to Lhasa from Chengdu, Xining, Lanzhou, Labrang (Xiahe), Beijing, Chongqing, Xi’an and Kunming. Most people prefer to fly to Lhasa from either Chengdu or Xining. In addition to Lhasa, you can also fly from Chengdu to Nyingtri (Linzhi). In order to fly to Lhasa, the travel agency you use will need to mail you the original permit to a hotel/hostel you will be staying at in Mainland China. Read the following link for more information on how to get to Tibet from Mainland China: How to get to Tibet from China
The train to Lhasa began operating in July 2006. There are trains going to Lhasa originating in the cities of Xining, Lanzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Most people taking the train to Tibet do so from Xining. Xining is the official starting point of the Tibetan Railway and is the closest major city to Lhasa. Xining, elevation 2300 meters/7500 feet, also allows travelers to better acclimatize to Tibet’s high elevation. In order to take the train to Lhasa, the travel agency you use will email you a copy of your permit, which can be printed out to show officials.
NOTE: The overland routes from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to Tibet have been closed to foreign travelers for many years. It is hard to say when (or if) these routes will open again.
I have found that many guidebooks for Tibet, as well as a lot of travel websites, make it sound like Tibet is extremely difficult to travel to (exception being Lonely Planet, which has the most accurate guidebook on Tibet in my opinion). Having lived and worked (in tourism) in various regions of the Tibetan Plateau for nearly 14 years, I can tell you that getting to Tibet is not hard. True, you do have to be on an organized tour, but with a travel agency arranging everything for you, sending a few emails to a travel agency shouldn’t be hard to do. Remember, while an organized tour is required, a group tour is not. Also, you have the freedom to design/customize your own itinerary in Tibet so that you go to the specific places you wish to see.
If you have any questions about how to get to Tibet or need a recommendation on a reputable, Tibetan-owned travel agency to use, please feel free to send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org