asia · China (PRC) · Tibet · Travel

The Roof of the World (Part 5: So you want to travel to Tibet? I might be able to help)

Hello to followers old and new, this will be my final segment on my trip to Tibet – you can find the previous four parts here(part 1), here(part 2)here(part 3) and here(part 4).  If you have read my previous posts from this series you will have seen that we flew from Shanghai to Chongqing where we boarded the two day train to Lhasa, for the first day in Lhasa we were all on death’s door due to the altitude sickness, after recovering we got to explore Lhasa for the most part unaccompanied and for the rest of the time we were with our local and very informative Guide, Zedan who also took us further up into the mountains to a place called Namtso which translates to heavenly lake.  In this segment I will be summing up the whole trip the best I can and hopefully providing any potential Tibet travellers with some useful advice.

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First of all, I’d like to discuss getting into Tibet which can be a little bit more difficult than it sounds.  First of all, Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China so the first thing on your checklist if you want to gain access to Tibet will be a Chinese visa, but that’s not all.  Tibet is the only place in China where you will need an additional travel permit if you wish to go there – the reasons behind this requirement are all political, but be warned, this is a necessary document and if you attempt to enter Tibet without one the consequences will be dire.  At the moment there isn’t a single place in the PRC other than Tibet that requires tourists to obtain a travel permit but I can see this being the case for travel to Xinjiang in the future.

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Tips about the Tibetan travel permit:

  1.  If you are a foreigner living and working in China legally with the correct visa and residence permit you will need to provide these documents as well as a company stamped letter of permission from your employer to travel to Tibet (no joke).  These documents must be sent to the tour operator – entering Tibet without a guide is forbidden for non-Chinese citizens.
  2. If you are applying for a visa to China while you’re in a foreign country you have to give a complete itinerary of each place you plan on staying, how long you intend on staying there for and the names and locations of your hotels.  I am not sure how true this is but I have heard stories of people having their visa requests denied if they have listed Tibet on their itinerary.
  3. For the reason given above I am not sure how practicable it would be to fit Tibet into a short visit to China especially if the embassy is iffy about issuing visas to people who intend on visiting Tibet.  You might want to take a long trip to China and arrange your trip from within China, but always make sure you respect the laws of the PRC and don’t do anything that will land you in any trouble.  Tibet is a touchy subject in China, if you attempted to enter Tibet without authorisation I hate to think what would happen.

Now that the paperwork is out of the way, let’s focus on actually physically getting to tibet…

There are three ways you can get to Tibet:

  • You can fly
  • You can take a 4×4 from nearby provinces such as Sichuan (I saw this service offered when I was staying in Chengdu)
  • You can take a train from a number of major Chinese cities (Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi’an, Beijing, etc.

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I can’t give you advice on the first two options other than the fact that they are the most expensive of the two.  Flying seems a bit boring if you have an opportunity to take this amazing journey by land and witness landscapes like no other.  For the most part a flight from within mainland China to Lhasa is going to run you somewhere in the region of 3,000-5,000RMB (£350-550).  I don’t have any idea on how much the 4×4 from Chengdu would cost but I imagine it could be pretty pricy as you’re hiring a driver, paying for the car and paying the fuel bill for the aforementioned fuel guzzling 4×4 – so I think it’s safe to assume this would cost upwards of 15,000RMB (£1,800).  We went for the option of taking the train which we initially intended on taking from where we were living (Shanghai) to Lhasa but this train quickly sold out and we had to fall back on plan B which was to fly to Chongqing and take the train from there, this still worked out very cheap.

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The train journey itself was a pretty amazing adventure and I highly recommend it, and here are some of my best tips if you choose this option:

  • This is a trip that is such an adventure you’re going to want to share it with friends or a partner – together you’ll turn this two day journey into a two day laugh.
  • They serve food on the train but it’s more expensive that you’ll be used to paying.  It’s good to treat yourself to at least one good meal from the dining cart but bring along snacks that won’t spoil or need refrigerating, cup noodles (there is hot water provided), plenty of water, beer and bai jiu.
  • Keep yourself entertained – bring a pack of cards these will be indispensable and will provide you with hours of entertainment and you may even make a few Chinese card playing buddies like we did.
  • Bring comfortable clothes, there’s no need to be walking around in jeans and a shirt when you can pick up some loose fitting clothes that will make the journey a lot more comfortable.
  • Bring toilet paper – the facilities are generally good but on a two day journey the toilets are a bit of a disaster zone and toilet paper is a valuable commodity.

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Once you get to Tibet you might notice that the air is thinner (less oxygen) – this could result in light headedness, inability to think clearly, poor cognitive function, loss in apatite, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.  Most people are used to living around sea level, our bodies struggle to cope with life at 4,000+ metres and to begin with the symptoms are not very pleasant – it probably won’t hit you during the train journey as oxygen is pumped through all of the carriages and you are also not exerting your body and mind – it is likely to hit you on your first day at high altitude.  We had an awful first night, my two friends had the shits and I spent the night with my head in the toilet.

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When you get to Tibet, you’ll notice the presence of armed police and military, again this is quite different than anywhere else in China.  Once you walk out of the train station you will be ushered to the right where you will have your documentation checked.  Once your clear to go, you’re basically free to go with the assumption you’ll be met by your tour guide.  Get used to the police presence, it is everywhere and I am not going to get into the politics behind it but you will feel the tension within Lhasa, but that is to be expected, this isn’t Disney World.

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Lhasa itself is a beautiful city steeped in Buddhist religion, fantastic history and despite a lot of ancient buildings and relics being destroyed during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ Lhasa is reminiscent of an open air museum, there has been a lot of rebuilding over the last few decades and the city is host to a treasure trove of ancient artifacts – I was told of a book that for many years now has been hidden from human eyes, the book is bound in human skin and was reportedly hidden during the cultural revolution.  I had a somewhat morbid curiosity to see this book but naturally I didn’t get to see it and it is likely not many people will ever see it, I actually don’t even have proof of it’s existence, I did see something close though…this bowl containing liquid yak butter is made from the top part of a human skull, which is thought was fascinating and metal as fuck.

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There are a number of monasteries you can visit in and around Lhasa, during my trip I visited three of them: Sera, Drepung and Tsurphu.

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Drepung and Tsurphu are a short drive outside of Lhasa, each of them are impressive and you can expect to see the typical works of art, relics and architecture that you’d expect to see.  Sera monastery offers something quite different to the others – here you can witness the debating lamas, where at a certain time each day the lamas of the Sera monastery will meet in the courtyard and debate philosophy with one another which is extremely fascinating to watch.  Their debates can get rather heated, they listen, speak, tease, and laugh with one another.  I can only imagine what they were speaking about.

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What trip to Tibet would be complete without a visit to the Potala Palace?

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The Potala Palace, home to the current Dalai Lama and the former Dalai Lamas before him – the current Dalai Lama is however currently living in exile in India.  The building itself is awe inspiring and I don’t use that term lightly.  You will need to have a ticket to enter the palace, there are a certain number granted each day and at certain times, your tour operator should arrange this for you.  Once inside the palace I was mesmerised, I thought to myself ‘I am actually in Tibet walking through the residence of the Dalai Lama’, it was certainly something to tick off the bucket list.

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The high altitude, barren land and low rain fall means that Tibet isn’t a great place to grow food and the environment is too harsh for many animals to survive, there is however one animal that takes the extreme environment of this himalayan landscape in it’s stride…the yak.  You will see many of these hardy creatures roaming around the Tibetan plateau and higher up in the mountains, they are also the predominant choice of protein used in Tibetan cuisine.  Many of the dishes you will find around Tibet will contain yak meat, one of the tibetan favourites is called momo, these are small dumplings usually packed with yak meat, cheese or vegetables or a mixture of meat and vegetables, they are really good but I think the traditional Chinese Jiaozi are a better flavour.

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Quite a fair drive from Lhasa is a place called Namtso which literally translates into heavenly lake.  This lake sits at around 5,000 metres above sea level.  The lake and the surrounding sky piercing peaks make for an incredibly majestic view but beware the level of oxygen at this altitude can be debilitating.  I like to consider myself quite physically fit, I have a bit of fat on me but I am a pretty decent distance runner, but the thin air at Namtso got the better of me, I felt like I was ready to curl up in a ball at the side of the lake and let the mountain gods take me away.

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I am not too sure what else I have to tell you, oh the local beer is called Lhasa beer it is pretty typical pale beer although I think it has slightly more body, more alcohol and a heavier malt flavour than the rest of the mainstream Chinese beers like Tsingtao and definitely better than Snow(beer from hell – avoid).  Wear sunscreen, it may feel cool but the sun in Tibet is lethal as I found out the hard way.  When you get back down to sea level the high altitude that has conditioned you in Tibet will have you feeling like you can run a marathon.

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I hope any of you out there who may have read this get the chance to visit Tibet, it is a really amazing place.  If you have any questions don’t be afraid to ask.

Goodnight

Matt

 

 

 

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