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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.