Tibet – Roof of the World

Often referred to as the Roof of the World, Tibet is an unique destination due to its location and history. I finally got my chance to visit Tibet in August 2014 by following a packaged tour with Chan Brothers (www.chanbrothers.com). The tour actually took us to Lanzhou and Xining for 3 days first to acclimatize to higher altitudes before taking the train to Lhasa, capital of Tibet. Although the trip included Lanzhou, Qinghai and Xining, I will just talk about Tibet in this blog post since this was the main highlight of the trip.

This blog post has been updated with a link to a local tour operator that specializes in inbound tours for English speaking visitors to Tibet. Go to the end of the post for details.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Our tour included a train ride from Xining to Lhasa. Xining is considered the starting point of the railway and from here it is a 1,956km trip to Lhasa which typically takes 24 hrs. There are trains which run from Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Lhasa, but these take 48 hrs to complete the journey. Taking the train is better as you get to enjoy the rugged scenery of the Tibetan plateau and a slower ascent means you have a better chance to acclimatize and prevent altitude sickness. Other ways to get to Lhasa include taking the plane (2hrs from Chengdu) and driving (5 days from Xining).

Queuing up to enter the train station. Security is very strict in letting only passengers with valid tickets through.
Queuing up to enter the train station. Security is very strict in letting only passengers with valid tickets through.
Your ticket comes with your passport number printed on it, so it is not transferable. If your passport number and the ticket doesn't tally, you are kicked out.
Your ticket comes with your passport number printed on it, so it is not transferable. If your passport number and the ticket doesn’t tally, you are kicked out.
Cuurently, the train station in Xining is operating in a temporary building until the new train station is completed sometime later this year.
Currently, the train station in Xining is operating in a temporary building until the new train station is completed sometime later this year.
We finally get to board our carriage.
We finally get to board our carriage. The train leaves at 3pm and we should reach Lhasa at 3pm the next day.
The electric/diesel engine that is going to pull the train 1,956km and up to 5,000+m above sea level.
The electric/diesel engine that is going to pull the train 1,956km and up to 5,000+m above sea level.
We got the hard sleeper cabins because we booked our tickets too late. It sleeps 6 persons to a cabin and there are no doors.
We got the hard sleeper cabins because we booked our tickets too late. It sleeps 6 persons to a cabin and there are no doors.
The common corridor outside serves as an impromptu dining area and chi chat corner.
The common corridor outside serves as an impromptu dining area and chit chat corner.

The best class is the soft sleeper which sleeps 4 persons to a cabin and has lockable doors for security. The mattresses are also thicker and there are electrical outlets inside the cabin. However, there are only 2 carriages for soft sleepers and tickets for these run out within minutes of being put on sale.

As the train ascends to high altitudes up to 5,072m at the Tanggula Pass, altitude sickness is a real problem and can be fatal. The passenger carriages are specially made and comes with oxygen supply for each passenger. There are also several doctors aboard the train to treat passengers.

These oxygen outlets are found along the common corridor and every bed has one.
These oxygen outlets are found along the common corridor and every bed has one.
Open it and you find a oxygen port. The oxygen supply only turns on when the train is at high altitudes.
Open it and you find a oxygen port. The oxygen supply only turns on when the train is at high altitudes.
Each of us was given an oxygen breathing tube for personal use.
Each of us was given an oxygen breathing tube for personal use. You connect the tube to the oxygen port.
The 2 Chinese ladies behind me got altitude sickness and had to use the oxygen breathing tubes. They did feel better after breathing through it for a while.
The 2 Chinese ladies behind me got altitude sickness and had to use the oxygen breathing tubes. They did feel better after breathing through it for a while.

So how does it feel to be stuck on a train for 24 hrs? Sleeping is one common past time. Of course eating and snacking is another. But the more you eat and drink, the more you have to go to the toilet. So how does the toilet look like after being used by more than a hundred passengers in 24 hrs?

There are 2 toilets at each end of the carriage. You really need the cooperation of your fellow passengers not to dirty the toilet. The train crew only cleans the toilet when the train makes a stop. And there are only 5 stops in the whole journey.
There are 2 toilets at each end of the carriage. You really need the cooperation of your fellow passengers not to dirty the toilet. The train crew only cleans the toilet when the train makes a stop. And there are only 5 stops in the whole journey. Oh, and only squatting toilets are available. If you need to sit, you going to be in a world of disappointment…
There is a wash basin only at 1 end of the carriage.
There are wash basins only at 1 end of the carriage.
This hot water dispenser is the life saver. With it you can make hot drinks, cook your cup noodles, get hydrated.
This hot water dispenser is your life saver. With it you can make hot drinks, cook your cup noodles, and get drinking water. Water from the wash basin taps is not drinkable.
There are no electrical outlets in the cabins for the hard sleeper carriages. The outlets are found only along the common corridor. So you take the risk of losing your latest gadget if you don't look after it properly.
There are no electrical outlets in the cabins for the hard sleeper carriages. The outlets are found only along the common corridor. So you take the risk of losing your latest gadget if you don’t look after it properly.
A control panel near the toilet tells you some important information like how high the train is.
A control panel near the toilet tells you some important information like how high the train is. Here it shows that the elevation is 4,884m.
Some of the scenery seen from the train. It will pass by mountains, grasslands and lakes.
Some of the scenery seen from the train. It will pass by mountains, grasslands and lakes.
This is how cattle class looks like. This is the hard seater carriage and is the cheapest. It does mean that you have to sit for 24 hrs in an over crowded carriage with unwashed passengers sleeping on the floor, smoking, and eating next to eat other.
This is how cattle class looks like. This is the hard seater carriage and is the cheapest. It does mean that you have to sit for 24 hrs in an over crowded carriage with unwashed passengers sleeping on the floor, smoking, and eating next to eat other.
The dining car. Unfortunately, I found the food quite unappetizing.
The dining car. Unfortunately, I found the food quite unappetizing, especially after squeezing through 3 carriages of hard seaters.

The train runs pretty quiet and I could sleep reasonably well. However, because there are no doors, noise from insomniac passengers walking around outside and sometimes noisy train attendants can be a problem for light sleepers. And you have to be extra careful with your valuables while sleeping. The train attendants will turn off the lights around 10pm.

Unfortunately for foreigners, we are not allowed to book the train tickets online and have to rely on travel agencies. This is due to restrictions from the Chinese government. Thus, if you want to get the soft sleeper cabins, you will have to book a few months in advance.

Lhasa

We finally reached Lhasa at 1pm, although the scheduled arrival time was supposed to be 3pm. I guess being early is better than to be late.

After getting off the train at Lhasa train station. You can't hang around too long on the platform as the security will come and chase you away.
After getting off the train at Lhasa train station. You can’t hang around too long on the platform as the security will come and chase you away.
Tourists are not allowed to take photos just outside the train station. Our guide had to get our passports cleared by the police before we could exit the station.
Tourists are not allowed to take photos just outside the train station. Our guide had to get our passports cleared by the police before we could exit the station.

Lhasa is just like any other Chinese city. It has the usual congested streets filled with traffic, impatient drivers, shops and restaurants, modern buildings with a mix of Tibetan architecture. If you are expecting some exotic Shangri-La then you will be sorely disappointed. The 2 major attractions in Lhasa are the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple with the surrounding Barkhor Street. If you only have limited time then these are the 2 main places you need to see.

The Potala Palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India after the Tibetan uprising in 1959. Now it’s a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to the political symbolism of the place, security is very tight for visitors going into the palace. No liquids are allowed and you have to dump all your water bottles, cosmetics, creams, lighters, etc before entering. There are vendors that will sell you water at the top of the palace. The tickets also indicate the time slot that you are allowed to visit and you cannot deviate from this. Due to the popularity of the place, you may have to line up for days to get tickets to visit the palace during peak season. There is also a dress code for visitors. No bermudas and sandals/slippers. Ladies have to wear pants and no skirts (duh).

Getting to see Potala Palace in all its grandeur.
Getting to see Potala Palace in all its grandeur.
Starting the climb to the top. It's not that difficult a climb although you will be gasping for air due to the high altitude.
Starting the climb to the top. It’s not that difficult a climb although you will be gasping for air due to the high altitude.
A long way to go.
A long way to go.
You can see the city square from the halfway point.
You can see the city square from the halfway point.
The walls are actually made out of wood and plastered over.
The walls are actually made out of wood and plastered over.
After climbing all the way to the top, we had to squeeze through this small door.
After climbing all the way to the top, we had to squeeze through this door.
The small square at the top. The building in front is the monastery and no photos are allowed inside.
The small square at the top. The building in front is the monastery and no photos are allowed inside.
After visiting the monastery, we exit through the back of the palace.
After visiting the monastery, we exit through the back of the palace.

Overall, the visit to Potala Palace felt like a rush to me due to the time constraints imposed by the Chinese authorities. We had to visit at the allocated time, the guide was rushing us to beat the time allocation, the visit inside the monastery was rushed as foreigners are only allowed 1 hour inside, otherwise, you could end up in the police station. And there were a million other Chinese tourists squeezing all around. The monastery was as noisy as a fish market due to the crowds. Altogether, it was not a very pleasant experience to me.

Jokhang Temple is considered to the spiritual center of Tibet and for most Tibetans it’s the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is located in the middle of Barkhor Square. You can see many pilgrims coming here to pray. They will walk around the temple through Barkhor Street before entering the temple to pray. During the time of our visit, the temple was undergoing some renovation work, so a lot of the first floor of the temple was covered up.

The front of Jokhang Temple.
The front of Jokhang Temple.
Pilgrims prostrating themselves in prayer.
Pilgrims prostrating themselves in prayer.
The second floor of the temple.
The second floor of the temple.
One of the gold gilded roofs of the temple.
One of the gold gilded roofs of the temple.
Monks having their spiritual debate.
Monks having their spiritual debate.

Circumventing around Jokhang Temple is Barkhor Street. This is the route for pilgrims to the temple, and they will walk along the street round the temple.

Tibetans walking along Barkhor Street as part of their devotions before praying at the temple itself.
Tibetans walking along Barkhor Street as part of their devotions before praying at the temple itself.
The sun sets late in August. This was around 8pm.
The sun sets late in August. This was around 7pm.
A lot of shops line the street to cater to tourists.
A lot of shops line the street to cater to tourists.
Having tea on a second floor restaurant and looking out onto Barkhor Square.
Having tea on a second floor restaurant and looking out onto Barkhor Square. This was around 8.30pm at night.

Other Sights in Lhasa

There are other smaller temples within Lhasa that you can visit if you have the time and interest. The tour only brought us to certain temples although you could visit the rest if you are able to. For one, we did not get to visit Sera Monastery where you can watch the monks doing their spiritual debates.

Yangwang mountain cliffside images. There are hundreds of Buddha paintings on the cliff walls.
Yangwang mountain cliffside images. There are hundreds of Buddha paintings on the cliff walls.
Thousands of oil lamps fill this small room and its like a furnace in there.
Thousands of oil lamps fill this small room and its like a furnace in there.
A rather modern looking stupa beside the cliff.
A rather modern looking stupa beside the cliff.
The God of Fortune temple.
The God of Fortune temple.
Worshipers have to pray with Chinese rice wine to the God of Fortune. How's that for lifting your spirits?
Worshipers have to pray with Chinese rice wine to the God of Fortune. How’s that for lifting your spirits?

The tour also included a Tibetan cultural performance. I was rather skeptical at first about such ‘included’ shows which are often kitschy and lacking any cultural value.  However, this show was equivalent to a Broadway production and I was very impressed by the casting, sets and costumes of the performers.

The entrance to the cultural performance theatre.
The entrance to the cultural performance theatre.
The stage was quite well done with moving sets and interchangeable backdrops.
The stage was quite well done with moving sets and interchangeable backdrops.
The performances were mostly about the Tibetan way of life.
The performances were mostly about the Tibetan way of life but done in an artsy and modern way.
Very elaborate costumes and props.
Very elaborate costumes and props.
The main drummer beside my seat.
The main drummer beside my seat.

Lhasa by Night

I can say that there unlike most Chinese cities, there isn’t much nightlife in Lhasa besides the few KTV’s. However, the Potala Palace is lighted up at night and most tourists will be at the main square in front of the palace to take photos.

Just after sunset the lights are already turned on.
Just after sunset the lights are already turned on.
In front of the palace.
In front of the palace.
Another shot from a different angle.
Another shot from a different angle.
There is small hill which you can take photos from. There is an entrance fee of RMB2 to gain entry to the hill.
There is small hill which you can take photos from. There is an entrance fee of RMB2 to gain entry to the hill.

 Outside of Lhasa

Lhasa is like any other Chinese city and if you stay only in Lhasa, you would be missing out a lot of the real Tibet.

Lake Namtso is a saltwater lake at 4,720m above sea level.
Lake Namtso is a saltwater lake at 4,720m above sea level.
This is the second largest saltwater lake in China after Qinghai Lake, and is a sacred lake to the Tibetans.
This is the second largest saltwater lake in China after Qinghai Lake, and is a sacred lake to the Tibetans.
Beautiful scenery around this lake.
Beautiful scenery around this lake.
Kharola Glacier which is at nearly 5,000m above sea level.
Kharola Glacier which is at nearly 5,000m above sea level.
Yamdroktso Lake which appears green in colour.
Yamdroktso Lake which appears green in colour. This is a freshwater lake located 4,441m above sea level and is one of the 3 holy lakes to the Tibetans.
The Palcho Monastery in Gyantse.
The Palcho Monastery in Gyantse.
Fortress walls which were built to protect against invaders.
Fortress walls which were built to protect against invaders.
Gyantse Dzong which overlooks the old town of Gyantse. I would have loved to stay longer to explore Gyantse but this was not included in the tour.
Gyantse Dzong which overlooks the old town of Gyantse. I would have loved to stay longer to explore Gyantse but this was not included in the tour.
Since we are in Tibet, we had to see the Tibetan Mastiff. We brought to a farm where they reared these large and expensive dogs.
Since we are in Tibet, we had to see the Tibetan Mastiff. We brought to a farm where they reared these large and expensive dogs.
Tashilhunpo Monastery is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama.
Tashilhunpo Monastery is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama.
The monastery is located on the hillside near to Shigatse.
The monastery is located on the hillside near to Shigatse.
A quiet moment before the tourist hordes arrive.
A quiet moment before the tourist hordes arrive.
One of the main prayer halls.
One of the main prayer halls.
The monks here all wear traditional shoes.
The monks here all wear traditional shoes.
A devotee coming to pray.
A devotee coming to pray.

Entry to Tibet

All foreigners have to apply for a travel permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region which includes Lhasa. You need to apply for this travel permit in advance (15 days). This is usually done through a travel agency in your home country or in China. The rules for applying for the travel permit changes every year depending on the political situation in Tibet and China, and sometimes Tibet is closed off to foreigners. So it’s best to check on the situation before you go. You won’t be allowed to board the train or flight to Lhasa if you don’t have the travel permit.

During our stay in Tibet, we could see that there were many police checkpoints along the major highways leading in and out of Lhasa and going to the tourist attractions. Our tour guide handled all these formalities.

Altitude Sickness

Due to the high altitude of Lhasa at 3,600m above sea level, altitude sickness can be a problem for most people. Although some people are not affected, most of the people on the train suffered some symptoms of altitude sickness like headaches, nausea, dizziness, insomnia. There are several medications to prevent or minimize altitude sickness. Other advice include not bathing when you first arrive in Lhasa, not drinking alcohol, drinking only warm water, don’t over exert physically, and don’t eat a full meal. Other suggestions are to eat more sweet food which contains sugar. I guess all these is from experience and whether it does really help depends on a person’s constitution.

We start with western medicine. Diamox is prescribed by a doctor and you have to take it 1-2 days before ascent. This is diuretic, and there are side effects which I did experience, like pissing more often, tingling sensation on the face, hands and feet, light headedness. I stopped taking this after 3 days in Lhasa.
We start with western medicine. Diamox is prescribed by a doctor and you have to take it 1-2 days before ascent with a dosage of 2 tablets a day. This is a diuretic, and there are side effects which I did experience, like pissing more often, tingling sensation on the face, hands and feet, light headedness. I stopped taking this after 3 days in Lhasa.
The Chinese medicine is a supplement and works to strengthen your body rather then fight against the symptoms. You are supposed to drink 2-3 bottles of this a day.
The Chinese medicine is a supplement and works to strengthen your body rather then fight against the symptoms. You are supposed to drink 2-3 bottles of this a day. If you already have altitude sickness then this doesn’t help much at all.
Each bottle contains 10ml of herbal extract from the highland flowers.
Each bottle contains 10ml of herbal extract from the highland flowers.
Of course, there are the oxygen bottles provided by the hotels. They only last a few minutes.
Of course, there are the oxygen bottles provided by the hotels. They only last a few minutes and don’t really help much long term.

About Photo Taking

During the trip you will see Tibetans waiting at the tourist spots with their yaks, Tibetan mastiffs and small children dress in ethnic clothings. You can take a ride on the yaks for a fee, or take a photo with the mastiff or children for a fee. But if you happen to take a photo of the scenery with their animals in it, or just happen to point your camera in the general direction of their animals, they will come and harass you for money (Generally RMB20). And they can be very aggressive if you refuse to pay. So do avoid taking photos of their animals or children unless you are willing to fork out money. We did see many unpleasant encounters especially with the Chinese tourists. This usually happened at places like the lakes and glaciers where the tour buses would stop for photo taking.

Toilets in Tibet

Besides Lhasa which has barely decent toilets, the rest of the toilets you find outside Lhasa will be usually just a hole in the ground. And these primitive toilets are already overused by the thousands of tourists before you. So bring your own toilet paper, nose plugs, secure all loose objects and take a deep breath before you enter. I would classify some of these places as bio-hazards. Try not to drop your phone in there, otherwise, it would be better to buy a new phone.

Some Final Thoughts

I decided to go with a packaged tour after considering the costs of going on my own. Going on my own meant that I had to find a trustworthy tour agency/guide in China who would apply the Tibet travel permit and book the train tickets. I also had to wire money up front to the Chinese tour agency. As all foreigners in Tibet have to accompanied by a licensed guide, the shared cost of a group tour is definitely lower than a private tour. However, I found that joining a group tour does mean that I had to give up a lot of freedom to explore on my own. The hotel in Lhasa and most of the food provided was also below my expectations. Although Lhasa is considered remote and backward compared to other Chinese cities, I could definitely find better hotels and restaurants in Lhasa on my own. Lhasa is developing very fast and I can see new apartments and shopping malls being built everywhere, so the chances of finding better accommodation and food will be better in future.

Update on Packaged Tours to Tibet

If you are thinking of visiting Tibet and would like to contact a local tour agency, good news. One of them has contacted me to list their website here. I’m not affiliated or receive any compensation from them, so this is not an endorsement but to help spread awareness of what they offer.

Here is their website: Tibet Discovery Tour. They have been around for 9 years and are based in Xi’an, China focusing on inbound tours for English speaking tourists. Hopefully, you can travel with them and explore Tibet.

7 thoughts on “Tibet – Roof of the World

  1. Once I was in the “cattle” class for 19 hours, with my big luggage squeezed underneath the bench seats. I couldn’t sleep or go toilet, afraid that my belongings would be stolen. The only entertainment I had was a novel from Jin Yong. At the end of the journey I was completely exhausted, from both reading and sitting.

  2. Wow.. this sounds like you had an adventurous trip! I’m not too sure how i would have survived all these (esp the train ride) but thanks for sharing all these info. I ‘think’ I may not be that adventurous so I gotta think ‘hard’ before i visit here.

    1. Maybe my expectations were too high since I’ve been hearing so much about Tibet. But it was interesting anyways and yes you should visit if you have the chance.

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