Tibet Travel Info
Tibet Travel Essentials
Where is Tibet? Is it part of China? Do I need a special visa to get there? These are all common questions for those planning a trip to Tibet. A basic understanding of Tibet’s geopolitical landscape is necessary for any traveller desiring an informed understanding of the various options that are a part of travel in Tibet today.
SOUTHWEST CHINA AND THE THREE REGIONS OF TIBET
The regions of Central, Kham, and Amdo span the five Southwest provinces of China.
THE REGIONS OF CENTRAL, KHAM, AND AMDO SPAN THE FIVE SOUTHWEST PROVINCES OF CHINA.
Central Tibet is also known as the Tibet Autonomous Region or TAR. It is the most renowned as it represents some of Tibet’s most venerated religious sites, the historical residences of the successive Dalai Lamas, and the gateway to the highest peaks on earth, including Everest. Contrary to what many believe, Tibet is a province of China. It is governed differently than the rest of the country requiring foreign travellers to obtain special permission to visit. This is achieved by first acquiring a Chinese tourist visa, and then applying for a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) through a registered travel agency in China. The TAR famously includes Lhasa, Shigatse, Yamdrok Lake and Everest Base Camp.
There are two options for travel to Central Tibet: by air or by rail. The train on the Roof of the World can be boarded in Beijing, Xian, Xining, or Chengdu. One common misconception is that the train ride will prevent issues with acclimatizing to the high elevation of Lhasa (3490m). This is mostly untrue as the climb in elevation on the train is not as gradual as one may think. It climbs nearly 1,000 meters in a very short amount of time (a few hours)…roughly the same amount of time as a domestic flight to Lhasa. However, compared with a direct flight to Lhasa, the train is still a marginally better way to arrive feeling more comfortable. More importantly, the highland scenery with wildlife and snow capped mountains along the way is breathtaking, making it a real shame to miss.
Whether you board your train or your flight, you will need to show your original (not a copy) Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). Be sure to double check all of your passport details on the permit. The smallest mistake will usually result in you not being able to board.
Kham Tibet is also known as Eastern Tibet, which is mostly located in the western part of Sichuan province where it borders Tibet Autonomous Region (see map above). The Kham region also spills over into Qinghai to the north and Yunnan to the south. No special permits are required to travel to most of Kham – Chamdo county in the TAR being an exception. This means Kham can be accessed with only a Chinese tourist visa making it possible to plan trips (and alter itineraries) with only hours notice. Because Kham is less known to foreign travellers, experiences of authentic Tibetan life are very frequent. Not to mention the alpine scenery found here is unmatched (see banner photo at top of page)!
Kangding is perched on the edge of the Tibetan plateau at 2600m and is both the gateway city to Kham and the capital. Kangding is accessed through Chengdu which offers the easiest access to all Tibetan areas from one location. Kham includes places such as Sertar (Seda in Chinese), Litang, Dege, Shangri-La, Yading, Tagong Grasslands, Gongga Mt., Yala Mt., and much more. Most Kham travelers will make their way through Kangding. The best modes of transportation in Kham are by bus or private vehicle. There are currently airports in the following Kham areas: Kangding, Yading, Yushu and Shangri-La, with
more airports in other areas planned for the near future.
Amdo Tibet is located in the northeast of the Tibetan plateau. It spans portions of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces (see map above). Travel to Amdo also does not require special permits. The Amdo Tibetan people are mostly nomadic and their dialect is distinct from the Central and Kham Tibetan areas.
Amdo is just as easily accessed from Chengdu as from Xining. Some of the highlights of Amdo are Labrang (Xiahe in Chinese), Qinghai Lake, Siguniang Mt. (Four Sisters Mountain), the grasslands of Hongyuan and Ruoergai, Rebkhong (Tongren in Chinese), and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jiuzhaigou National Park. There are several airports in Amdo as well: Jiuzhaigou, Labrang (Xiahe), and Hongyuan. Similar to Kham, Amdo can easily be accessed by bus or private vehicle.
2018 Tibet Travel Regulations
Most foreign travelers are understandably confused about what is required to visit Tibet. The following list is meant to summarize the most relevant information for anyone planning to visit:
-Tibet is not an autonomous country; all Tibetan areas are found in China. Therefore the first step to visiting any Tibetan area is to process a Chinese tourist visa.
-In modern China there are two “parts” of Tibet. Each part is governed according to different laws:
1. What is referred to as “Tibet” in the popular sense is seen on a Chinese map in the SW corner under the name “Tibet Autonomous Region”, also referred to as the “TAR.” To visit the TAR every foreigner must, in addition to their Chinese visa, process a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). The TAR is also referred to as Central Tibet.
2. The second “part” refers to the border region outside of the Tibet Autono
mous Region. This is where the TAR meets the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai. This area has historically always been Tibetan, and is sometimes referred to as “Eastern Tibet” or “Old Tibet.” This is where the Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo are found and these areas are accessible to all foreigners traveling in China with a valid Chinese visa in their passport. No additional special permits are necessary.
-Assuming you have obtained a Chinese tourist visa, what you further need to travel to Tibet depends on which part you want to see. For those traveling to the TAR, a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) is needed. For those who desire to see the Tibetan areas outside of the TAR, nothing more is required than your Chinese visa.
-A Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) is NOT a visa. It is not issued by a Chinese consulate or embassy and it does not go in your passport. It is a completely separate two page document that is issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa. A TTP can only be granted to registered travel agencies that are applying on behalf of their clients. As a foreigner, you cannot apply for a TTP yourself; a local travel agency must be hired to process your TTP for you.
-For those traveling to the TAR, by law you must book your tour with a registered Tibet travel agency. Once your tour is booked, they may process your TTP for you. This ensures that once you arrive in Lhasa, a guide representing your Tibet travel agency will accompany you for the duration of your visit. Again, this is according to the law of China as it pertains to travel in the TAR only. The Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo outside of the TAR do not require you to hire a guide through a travel agency, or to obtain any special permits.
-Processing a TTP can take up to two weeks. This means that travel to TAR must be planned in advance by booking a tour with a registered travel agency ahead of time so they can obtain the TTP for you. Then they must get the original permit (not a copy) to you before you board your flight or train to Lhasa. Without the TTP, you will not be permitted to board.
*ENTERING TIBET FROM KATHMANDU. The one exception to this is for travelers who are entering TAR from Kathmandu, Nepal. In this case a group visa needs to be applied for through the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. Note: Since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, there is no overland border crossing from Nepal to Tibet. Tourists must fly to enter Tibet – the most common route being Kathmandu to Lhasa.