Before my trip to Tibet, I didn’t know much about Tibet beyond Potala Palace, prayer flags, and that movie… the one that Brad Pitt is in?
I didn’t know, for example, that independent travel in Tibet is forbidden for non-Chinese. I didn’t know any other places of interest in Tibet beyond Potala Palace. I guess Tibet has always been out of my travel radar. That is until my friend, Nellie, decided to run a tour there. I jumped on the opportunity because if I had to go with a tour group, might as well go with people that I know, right?
So what’s traveling in Tibet like? The following are my random observations, tidbits of memories, and highlights of Tibet.
Getting Chinese visa
Getting your Chinese visa is going to be your number one priority. Travel agencies in Tibet won’t be able to process your Tibet Travel permit without a copy of your Chinese visa. We were advised NOT to mention we were going to Tibet when applying. The itinerary provided showed us playing with pandas in Chengdu and seeing the terracotta warriors in Xi’an.
Pro tip: US citizens, remember to request a 10 year multi-visit visa. It’s the same price as a single entry
Internet in Tibet
You need VPN to access things blocked by China Great Firewall. Things like Gmail, Google Maps (or any Google products really), Facebook, Instagram, etc. Not all VPN providers work in China. I used ExpressVPN that has 30-day no question money back guarantee.
I bought China Unicom SIM card in Shanghai during transit and I found its coverage to be really good to excellent in decent-sized cities, and sufficient anywhere else. I’ll get it again for sure.
Pro tip: I’d recommend against free VPN services since many of them make money by selling your data.
Getting around in Tibet
As a foreigner, you can move around quite freely in Lhasa using taxis or tuk tuks. Your tour company will take care of transportations and accommodations outside of Lhasa for you. On the roads outside of Lhasa, there are multiple checkpoints with military presence who will make sure that you’re traveling with a tour group and that your paperwork is in order. I swear I needed to bust out my passport and my permit at least twice a day, every day.
Food in Tibet
When traveling in Tibet, you quickly realise something: you don’t really go to Tibet for the food.
Throughout our trip in Tibet we mainly went to restaurants that serve both Chinese and Tibetan food. Since Tibetan food tends to be (yak) meat-based, as a vegetarian I tend to stick to the Chinese part of the menu. I ate a LOT of scrambled eggs and tomato in Tibet.
Oh, talking about yak…
Yak products are everywhere. You’ll see yak meat in the markets. You’ll see big blocks of yak cheese or yak butter. You’ll see herds of yaks out on the countryside. You’ll have plenty of chance to drink either yak milk tea or yak butter tea. Yak milk tea became my drink of choice while in Tibet, but I couldn’t get used to the taste of butter tea. It tastes like how I imagine melted lip balm tastes like.
An 8 day tour of Tibet follows a standard itinerary, starting from your arrival in Lhasa.
Potala Palace was a lot bigger and more impressive in person. Entrance was only possible through timed entry and even though a guide is not needed (as far as I can tell), you might need to be able to speak some Chinese to navigate the reservation system.
It was slightly disquieting as we went from room to room to realise that this place was somebody’s home at one point. Dalai Lama used to live here before his exile and Potala Palace was where he’d entertain visiting foreign dignitaries. Now it felt like an empty shell. A museum.
We were in Lhasa during Saga Dawa, one of Tibet’s most important religious festivities. Tibetans travel from villages all over to Tibet to make a pilgrimage Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
You get to be part of this pilgrimage by walking around Barkhor Square where Tibetan Buddhists walk circling the temple with one prayer wheel in one hand and a prayer bead in the other. The most devouts perform the circuit in a series of back-breaking prostrations (that reminded me of burpees – if you know what a burpee is, you can imagine how tiring it is).
Everest Base Camp
Here are a few things you need to know about EBC:
– It’s a long, long drive to get there
– Everest Base Camp has the most traumatizing toilets. Not only was the floor and walls covered in fecal matter (how did someone miss the hole in the floor so bad?), but the door had a habit of slamming wide open right at the slightest gust of wind, exposing you to the whole wide world. And no, you can’t lock the door.
– EBC is nothing more than a gravel parking lot with large yurts/tents on the perimeter. Each tent touts its own amenities (one even claimed to have free wifi!) and is warmed by burning yak dungs.
– The tents in EBC are very territorial. Our group was split up between 2 tents but we weren’t allowed to hang out or have meals except in our assigned tent.
– It gets very cold and windy.
– You’ll be at 17000 ft and oh boy, you’ll feel it. I was lucky that even though I struggled with altitude sickness during my train ride to Lhasa, I had acclimatized enough by the time we got to EBC. One of our group mates wasn’t so lucky and needed supplemental oxygen.
Sera and Drepung Monastery
We visited at least 4 monasteries in Tibet and honestly, they all looked kind of the same on the inside. The guide took us from one richly decorated room full of statues to another room equally full of statues, pointing out various gods and previous lamas. After awhile you lose track of who is who and why they were important. I did really try my best. But in the end, my biggest take away from my experience was: we were in the way of the Tibetans.
These are functioning monasteries and there were Tibetans praying, making offerings, and doing whatever it is people do at temples. And as often the case, we’d be there with other tourist groups, clogging the narrow hallways, blocking entrances, and crowding the already-small rooms.
One of the monasteries we visited is known for its debating monks. Debates is a common part of Tibetan Buddhist education but not every monastery opens their debate practise to the public. But the monks of Sera Monastery would gather in a courtyard every afternoon to have a lively debate in front of visiting tourists.
The monks would pair up and debate at the same time, accompanies with much dramatic hand slapping and gestures. The challenger, usually the more senior monk, is standing and asking questions while the defender sits and answers the questions.
Traveling in Tibet always felt slightly voyeuristic. We were not allowed to mingle freely and our interactions were strictly customers and merchants, viewers and objects of attractions. It was an uncomfortable feeling. It reminded me of my time in Cuba where I felt tourists were operating in a parallel, but separate, universe than the locals. Feeling like we were somehow inconveniencing the locals just made it even more uncomfortable.
Tibet natural sceneries
Of all the places to visit in Tibet, seeing the natural scenery of Tibet was the highlight. Tibetan landscape reflects the harsh environment of high altitude plateau. Shades of brown and muted greens dominate the color scheme. There’s stunted vegetation under piercing blue sky and intense sun. The high-altitude lakes looked like a mirage, pools of blinding blue or green.
Tibet natural landscape is both stark and beautiful.
Tibet is still a repressed region. And it shows. Even if you don’t know anything of Tibet’s tumultuous recent history, you’ll still feel that something is slightly off. If the multiple military checkpoints are not hints enough, you might notice the empty halls of the monasteries. Or how your tour guide, who usually speaks excellent English, suddenly doesn’t seem to understand certain questions and deftly changes the subject.
So my feelings about Tibet is complicated. I like Lhasa and its colors. I admire the religious devotion of Tibetan Buddhists (those prostrations!). I like to believe that tourism helps the local economy. But not to sugarcoat it, at times, when you know what goes on behind the scene, traveling in Tibet could get kind of depressing.
Have you/would you ever visit Tibet?
A typical 8 day tour in Tibet might look like this and cost anywhere from $900 – $1000 (example of 8-day tour):
Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa;
Day 2: Lhasa: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkor Street
Day 3: Lhasa: Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery
Day 4: Lhasa to Shigatse: Yamtso Tso Lake, Karola Glacier, Gyantse Kumbum
Day 5: Shigatse to Everest Base Camp
Day 6: EBC and return to Shigatse
Day 7: Shigatse to Lhasa
Day 8: Depart from Lhasa
More tours around Lhasa and Tibet are also available, including a 15-day tour (see here).