Tibet Travel Overview: Two Unforgettable Weeks Around the Roof of the World

I don’t know the name of this mountain peak (I forgot to ask and take notes. My brain lacked oxygen so it was slow), but it has such a Paramount Pictures Mountain Logo feeling (that opening mountain rising above the clouds opening credit), right? Except this one is much more magnificent than the one in North America that inspired Paramount, as it’s over 26,000ft/ 8,000m and so in the top 2 or 3 highest in the world. The Himalayan range is the ultimate showstopper!

I feel absolutely awful about disappearing for almost three months. I want to post regularly, but I have severe issues with self-discipline. I’m sick of acknowledging that I can’t overcome my laziness, so I’ll just get right down to telling you about my trip to Tibet.

I had long wanted to visit this secluded region but couldn’t go for all those years because unlike the vast majority of places in the world where if you want to go you book tickets, get visa, and go, Tibet has quite a few travel restrictions in place (imposed by China), the most annoying of which is you have to travel in a group led by a Chinese government-approved travel agency. I always travel independently, but I don’t mind going with a tour group if that’s what I have to do, so two years ago I contacted several tour companies in Tibet and was extremely discouraged by their exorbitant quotes. The best way to cut down the costs, they all advised, would be to gather a group of 5-7 people. Finding that number of people to travel with would be time-consuming and put me in a passive position, so I decided to temporarily give up on Tibet and visit other countries on my list. Tibet, however, remained at the back of my mind.

Near the end of August this year, while attending a painting workshop, I heard a group was about to visit Tibet in October. I jumped at the chance and asked for the contact, though I didn’t expect much out of it. We had back-and-forth discussion, and our plan almost fell through when two of my travel companions still hadn’t got their Chinese visas two days before the departure date. But things sometimes work out in the most last-minute fashion; my friends received their visas at the eleventh hour- one day before our scheduled flight. When the plane was cruising at 30,000ft above the snow-cloaked Himalayan range, I marveled at both the beauty of nature and serendipity. I was about to spend 17 days in a place that I had long wanted to but not expected in 2016 with four lovely people I’d just met online.

The Himalayan range in photo. 


…and in iPhone video.

It was 17 days of awe-inspiring sights, hearty laughters, long and bumpy and dusty bus rides, debilitating headaches and nosebleed, a near death experience, spiritual enrichment, religious skepticism, consistently awful food and toilets, and many memorable moments. I was lucky to be with an eclectic group of people whose professions run the gamut from accountant, economist, business manager to yoga teacher and whose knowledge of religion and politics is much greater than mine so they all filled me in. To me, Tibet seems like it’s in a time warp; it’s compelling to see locals so devout to their religion and lead a lifestyle that seems to defy the modern world. Yet at the same time, it was saddening to realize that what I saw is only a remnant of a culture that is unique, fascinating, but on the brink of disappearing completely as a result of political and religious oppressions. My time there ended up raising more questions than answers, as it got me thinking about the interwoven nature of politics and religion (which I detest), how necessary religion is to our existence, and human greediness and self-righteousness.

As always, I’ll share my experience in multiple posts. Let begin with the essential information about traveling to the Roof of the World.

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TIBET’S GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY

I have a lot of negative feelings about what China has done to Tibet, but I’m not mad at how much it has improved the road infrastructure in Tibet. An interesting aspect of traveling around Tibet is buses can only drive at a certain safe speed set by the authority. For instance, if the authority decides that it takes 2 hours from A to B, tourist buses cannot arrive before 2 hours, or there will be fines. There were quite a few occasions when we had to stop and rest in the middle of nowhere so that we wouldn’t arrive before the predetermined time. It was reassuring to know that our driver was driving slowly, as very often one side of the road is a deep abyss. 

I had no idea how vast the Tibet Plateau is until I visited. Its size is 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles), which is larger than Alaska and California combined or more than 6 times the size of Germany.

The Tibet Plateau is geographically situated in the middle of Asia with a mountainous landscape. It’s nestled in the Himalayas and so home to most of the highest mountain peaks in the world, including the mighty Mount Everest. What surprised me the most about the geography of Tibet, however, is its lake and river system. It’s the largest water tank in the world; all the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. (Mekong River is indispensable to Vietnam, so it’s near and dear to my heart.) However, this blessing from Mother Nature is actually a curse in disguise; it’s made people greedy and do all sorts of reprehensible things. I was seething with rage when I learned that “since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of forests have been destroyed, and large amounts nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet.”

The region’s history may date back to as many as 2,000 years ago and has been full of tumult, the most impactful and heart-wrenching of which has to be China’s invasion in March 1959 that stripped Tibet of its status as an independent country and eventually led His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s spiritual and political leader at that time) and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee their own country. Now Tibet is recognized as part of China. Tourism has been prospering, but I’m pretty sure Tibetans themselves benefit very little from it. Mr Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington DC, confirmed it this past September.

I also read In the Shadow of the Budda: One Man’s Journey of Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono, another eminent advocate of liberating Tibet (seems like if your name is Matteo, you will likely care about Tibet and stand up for Tibetans on their behalf). It provides in-depth historical context and rare insights into the many instances of injustice that have been committed in Tibet. An excellent preparatory read before you go!

I met these Tibetans when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. These Tibetans, though small in stature and living with the most spartan of conditions, put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. I posted this photo on Instagram, and right after a Tibetan photographer sent me a message complimenting it and explaining that one scientific research concluded that the reason Tibetans have little to no trouble living at such high altitudes is they inherited a beneficial high-altitude gene from archaic Denisovan people. Mind blown!

VISA & PERMIT REQUIREMENTS

Like I mentioned, as a foreigner (non-Chinese), you’re not allowed to travel around Tibet on your own. Absolutely not! China is unbelievably strict about this; it checks your visa and permits at airport and different places throughout Tibet. The level of scrutiny didn’t bother me, but it really drove home how confined life there is. The upside of that constant security is that Tibet is very safe.

So, you’ll have to work with a travel agency. Once you agree to go, the process can’t be simpler. You’ll barely need to lift a finger; the agency will take care of almost everything. What I believe you have to do yourself is your Chinese visa. As far as I know, a lot of nationalities (American, British, Canadian, Australian, European, Indian, and many others) need that visa.

Once you secure it, your agency will get you the Tibet Travel Permit (and Alien Travel Permit and Military Permit if your tour includes certain areas). Again, Chinese immigration officers will check these papers carefully so make sure you have them.

WHEN TO GO

The tourist season begins in April and ends around the middle of November, with the summer months being the busiest because of the good weather. (However, a few people I know went this summer and said it was abnormally rainy.) Winters are quite cold and treacherous at certain parts, and March is a sensitive time as a result of the 2008 Tibetan unrest so there is always a possibility that China won’t issue permits. (What I find inconclusive is all travel agencies say on their websites that winter is great to visit for a number of reasons, but when I talked to our local guide I had the impression that they don’t work at all in the winter months. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)

Our trip started in the middle of October when autumn was coming to an end, and it was exceptional. No rain or cloud whatsoever, even at places where the weather is unpredictable like Mount Everest and Mount Kailash. The autumnal colors were glorious. I wholeheartedly recommend that you visit during this time window!

I’m 100% sold on this.

WHAT TO PACK

Packing for Tibet is, for the most part, similar to what you will pack for any other place. Passports, batteries, clothes, shoes, and so forth. From my experience, however, there are a few essentials.

  • Cash (Chinese Yuan Renminbi): prepare more than what you think you will need. I’d say around 90% of places in Tibet don’t accept credit cards. And at places where they are accepted, there will usually be a sub-charge. A German in my group tried to withdraw money from her card at the ATM machine, and it swallowed her card. I was short of cash as well, but fortunately my travel companions had my back.
  • Lip balm, lotion, and sunscreen: Tibet has really arid climate that will make your lips and skin dry and painful. The UV rays are strong and thus harmful. Protect yourself!
  • Sunglasses: Again, the sun is unforgiving there.
  • Toilet papers and wet wipes: Look, I’m not exaggerating when I say Tibetan toilets are a sensory horror show of the highest order. Except for at hotels (not all of them) in Lhasa, get yourself ready for squat and “nature” toilets. You don’t have to bring a suitcase full of toilet rolls and wet wipes all the way from the US or Europe because you can buy them Lhasa, but remember that you will need them. And I personally think toilet papers in Tibet are of lower quality, so it doesn’t hurt to have some soft rolls. For what it’s worth, though, squat toilets are better for your health.
  • Travel size hand sanitizers: If you want to be clean!
  • Diamox (Acetazolamide for altitude sickness), Paracetamol (for headaches and fevers), and anything that boosts your immune system: The average elevation of the Tibet Plateau is around 4,500 meters/ 14,800ft, which is a challenge for most human beings. To put it in perspective, the elevation of New York City, Paris, and London is 10m, 35m, and 35m respectively. Hanoi, where I live, is at 10 meters. Bolivia’s capital La Paz is the highest city in the world with an altitude of 3,640m/ 11,942ft, which is more or less similar to that of Lhasa. But Lhasa is among the lowest places in Tibet! The risks of altitude sickness when traveling in Tibet are real; it can hit anyone regardless of his/her fitness level. Though I’m in a decent shape, I was very concerned about altitude sickness before the trip. I researched extensively how to avoid it, and I’m here to tell you all the standard advice you read of slow ascent, drinking more than enough water, moving around slowly, and not taking showers for the first few days is valid. However, it’s not 100% foolproof. I went the extra mile of taking Diamox pills 48 hours before arriving to Tibet. I can’t tell how much that additional precaution helped, but I had no trouble for the first half of the trip. But as we moved up, the effects of altitude started creeping up on me. Paracetamol alleviated those splitting headaches.
  • Nutritious snacks: energy bars, granola bars, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, chocolate, and all that jazz for long bus rides and trekking. Those things are almost impossible to find in Tibet.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

Let just make it clear from the get-go: traveling to Tibet is very expensive, considering the rather basic quality of hotels, meals, and everything in between. Permits and Chinese visa alone already set you back USD200-250. The total tour costs are pretty consistent across the board, though. A two-week trip will cost you around USD 2,000 (give or take; the more famous the travel agency, the more expensive), not including airfare and food.

We chose Tibet Vista Company, and this was our itinerary. I had no complaint about their services, but I wouldn’t say they were top-notch either. But other people seemed to be very happy with it, so perhaps our group just weren’t assigned the best guide. I heard The Land of Snows and SnowLion are amazing (they were the ones I contacted two years ago), but they’re considerably more expensive. Do your research carefully, especially on what is and is not included in the grand total cost!

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Our trip was slightly longer than the typical tour and so covered more ground, with the most important part being Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarova, the most sacred places in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. Other members in my group are Buddhists, so it had been their wish for a long time to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. While I still have my questions, there is no denying that Mount Kailash is a truly special place.

Circumambulating Mount Kailash is the lifelong wish of Tibetans as well as Hindus. 

We saw this divine sunrise the day we left after we completed our 3-day pilgrimage. 

Mount Everest is sensational, too. It’s perhaps the most memorable moment of my travel history to date as I was tethering on the edge of death there.

I wouldn’t have been this stoic if I had known that only after 1 hour this photo was taken I had a near death experience and had to wait for rescue. That will be a story for another day, but what people always tell you is true: you become much much much calmer once you encounter that kind of experience.

We also visited some notable monasteries. My favorites are Drepung and Tashi Lhunpo.

Tibetan windows are eye-catching and interesting. Their unusual shapes and colors (the black frames in particular) serve to protect the house from the harsh weather elements and evil spirits. 

confused dasher, suggested itinerary for 2 weeks around tibet, how to spend two weeks in tibet, the architecture of jokhang temple in lhasa tibetWindows at Jokhang Temple, the most sacred and important one in Tibet. I love them whole-heartedly!

Quintessential Tibet: striking maroon robes.

Seeing these young Tibetans prostrate gave me a lot of feels. These two young girls were prostrating around Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, which is around 2 kilometers in length. I admired the way they manifest their faith. At first it was slightly heart-tugging to see, as you can tell it was quite physically demanding and they were tired. But then I found comfort in the thought that despite all the modernities and luxuries that are flaunted to them everyday, there still are young Tibetans, however small that number is, who adhere to their long-standing- and critically endangered- heritage and traditions.

And obviously lakes and rivers, both of which are so otherworldly.

The morning light at the holiest Manasarovar Lake was truly divine.

Yamdrok Lake made my heart stop for a hot one second. It’s a freshwater lake at an elevation of 4,441 m (14,570 ft) and one of the top three most sacred lakes in Tibet. 

In Tibet, you drive for hundreds and hundreds of miles and see nothing but barren mountain ranges. One day, as we were driving through the windswept and exposed landscapes, this nameless shimmering turquoise lake started rolling into view. It felt like a strange miracle!

That’s about it for now. I hope you enjoy this 3,000 word introduction to the Land of Snow and find it helpful. Stay tune for more 😉

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