The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

Stuart Butler

written by
Stuart Butler

updated 21.05.2019

The ‘roof of the world’ has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers and adventurers for centuries. This vast, high altitude desert has spawned myths and legends since the dawn of time. Its mountains are home to the Hindu Gods, the scenery is awe-inspiring, its Buddhist monasteries are filled with art and treasure and the religious devotion of its people is humbling.

Put simply, visiting Tibet is a travel experience you will remember forever. But it’s not one that comes without obstacles and moral dilemmas. Read on for our how to guide to explore Tibet.

What are the politics?

Tibet has always had a complicated, and often down-right fraught relationship with its massive neighbour China, and over the centuries the level of Chinese involvement in Tibet has varied. At times it has been consumed by the Chinese empire, at others Tibet has been completely independent, and on occasion it has been the dominant power over China. Since the 1950s, though, Tibet has been controlled by Beijing.

For some this has felt like liberation from a feudal system where power and wealth rested in the hands of a few and everyone else was uneducated and poor until the Chinese came along and brought modernisation, education and a degree of wealth to the high plateau.

On the other hand, it can also be seen as a military occupation by a brutal dictatorship where criticism and freedom of speech are not tolerated, religious, cultural and linguistic identity is suppressed and the mineral and hydrological wealth of Tibet is pumped out of the region and into the hands of Han Chinese. In reality there are elements of truth to both sides of the coin.

Prayer beads, Tibet

© Stuart Butler

So should I go?

This is something that only you can answer. Any visit to Tibet will put money into the coffers of Beijing, but there is no major tourism boycott as happened in Myanmar. In fact, the exiled Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, actually suggests foreign tourists should visit in order to see for themselves the suffering ordinary Tibetans are living under.

If you do go though then use only a Tibetan tour company employing local staff and try to frequent locally owned guesthouses and hotels.

How do I get there?

Tibet has a reputation among travellers as being a logistically very complicated place to visit and in some ways it is. But in other ways it’s an absolute breeze.

Firstly, let’s get this straight: Tibet is an organised tour only kind of place. Without exception you cannot travel here independently. You cannot travel around Tibet by public transport and you are not totally free to choose where you go and when. All visitors must be in possession of a travel permit. You cannot board a plane or train to Tibet without this permit (and you cannot travel to Tibet any other way) and this permit is only issued if you have booked an organised tour.

In order to get a Tibet travel permit you must submit a list of places that you wish to visit, and you cannot change your mind and add new places after the permit has been issued. Norwegian passport holders are completely forbidden from travelling in Tibet.

If this all sounds like a hassle then that’s because it is – it’s also a very expensive hassle, but on the flip side once you get to Tibet travelling around couldn’t be easier. You merely climb into your compulsory tour company jeep each morning and get driven to your next destination and hotel while your compulsory guide soothes any hiccups.

Temple, Tibet

© Stuart Butler

Is it safe?

Yes, Tibet is very safe so long as you avoid any political discussions or events and protests. Altitude sickness, though, is a very real issue and almost every visitor suffers mild altitude sickness on arrival in Lhasa.

Can I go trekking?

People do trek in Tibet but this is no Nepal. Most of the better known treks are fairly short (2–4 days) and there are no Nepali-style tea houses. In general you need to be prepared to camp and be self-sufficient.

The big issue with trekking in Tibet is cost. The standard rules governing travel here continue to apply even when you’re trekking and this means that you must have a guide, and a tour agency jeep and driver throughout the duration of your trek. Of course the jeep and driver won’t actually be with you while you trek. They’ll be having a nice rest back in Lhasa – but you’ll still be paying a couple of hundred dollars a day for this non-service.


© Rat007/Shutterstock

Sounds like too much hassle. Is there anywhere else I can go to meet Tibetans?

Ironically, if you want to see fairly traditional Tibetan culture then the Tibet autonomous region is no longer that great a place to go. For an easier, and more traditional, cultural immersion it’s better to try the Tibetan regions of neighbouring Qinghai and Sichuan provinces of China, where there are far fewer restrictions. Perhaps even easier are the Tibetan regions of Nepal such as Mustang and Dolpo.

Explore more of Tibet with The Rough Guide to China.

Top image © Shutterstock

Stuart Butler

written by
Stuart Butler

updated 21.05.2019

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