When people think about the highest region on Earth, they imagine the snowy Himalayas, and Buddhist monks dressed in bright clothes. And while Tibet may sound to some like an incredibly remote region, those who are fortunate enough to visit it, may find that the images they have of Tibet are quite right, as snow caps the Himalayan range, and Buddhism is still an important life for many Tibetans.
Tibet is indeed an enigmatic region, a place that makes travelers feel connected with nature at a deeper level. It’s a corner to contemplate the passage of time.
With an average elevation of 4,900 meters, Tibet is known as the Roof of the World, and its highest point is Mount Everest, which is also the highest mountain on Earth standing at 8, 848 meters. There are fourteen Himalayan peaks with an elevation of over 8,000 meters, making it the highest mountain system of the world.
Of course not everyone is seeking to climb Mount Everest, known in Tibet as Qomolangma, and it’s important for travelers to know that there’s much more to Tibet than the majestic mountain.
Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, has many of the most beautiful Tibetan landmarks, such as the Potala Palace, which was constructed in 1645. The Potala Palace rises from the Red Mountain in the center of Lhasa Valley, and at an altitude of 3,700 meters. The complex, which encompasses the White and Red Palaces, symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism.
The Red Palace, which is a deep crimson color, contains the mummified tombs of Tibet’s past Dalai Lamas.
About a thousand meters away from the Potala Palace lays the most important and sacred temple in Tibet, called Jokhang, founded in the seventh century. According to the tradition, the Jokhang was built for Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo’s two brides, princess Wencheng, of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal.
Religious people visit Jokhang from 8 am until 11:30, when tourists are allowed inside.
Encircling the Jokhang temple is the famous Barkhor Street, a hexagonal shaped circuit, popular both among pilgrims and tourists. What makes this street peculiar is the fact that people should walk in a clockwise direction along Bakhor. Walking clockwise is the norm inside Tibetan temples.
East of the Potala Palace is the largest man made garden in Tibet, the Norbulingka Palace, which was built in 1755, and served as a summer residence for the Dalai Lamas.
There are several famous Tibetan monasteries in Lhasa known as the “Great Three”, which include the Sera Monastery, the Ganden Monastery and the Drepung Monastery. These three monasteries belong to the Gelug order.
The Sera Monastery, founded in 1419, is famous for the debate sessions conducted with its Indian counterpart, located in the city of Mysore.
The Ganden Monastery was established in 1409 by the founder of the Gelug order, Je Tsongkhapa Lozang-dragpa (1357-1419). Although it was partially destroyed in the late fifties, the Ganden Monastery has been since partially rebuilt, and keeps a great amount of its old charm.
The biggest of the Great Three, is the Drepung Monastery, which was the largest monastery in the whole world at the beginning of last century.
The oldest Buddhist monastery built in Tibet isn’t in Lhasa, but in southern Tibet. Its called Samye and it dates back to the to the year 779. What makes the Samye Monastery stand out and worth visiting, is the fact that it was the first to encompass the three Buddhist idols: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Tibet is a place that is revered among many pilgrims, and foreign tourists visit to have a first hand experience of this once forbidden destination. About one out of three Tibetans is a monk, which means that Tibet has the highest number of monks in the entire world. This is probably why Tibet brings images of inner peace and spiritual practices.
It’s impossible to talk about Tibet without mentioning some of its most prominent natural wonders. Tibet isn’t only known as the Roof of the World, but also the origin place for some of Asia’s most important rivers, such as the Mekong, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, which is called Yarlung Zangbo River by Tibetan people.
The Yarlung Zangbo River is the longest river in Tibet, and is referred to as the Mother River. Tibetans believe that the Yarlung Zangbo River is the “Craddle of Tibet”. Along the Mother River is the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, the deepest canyon in the entire world; the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States.
Often, nature and the holy converge in Tibetan culture. There are several sacred lakes and rivers, as well as mountains. Some of the most famous sacred lakes in Tibet include the Yamdrok Lake, the Lake Manasarovar, the holiest of all Tibetan lakes, and the Lhamo La-tso, the lake where Tibetan monks of the Gelug order go for visions to aide them in the discovery of reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas.
Other important lakes include the Namtso or Lake Nam, the highest salt-water lake in the entire world, at an altitude of 4,718 meters, and the Mapam Yumco, which at 4,600 meters is considered as the highest body of fresh water in the world.
The Tibetan plateau, the highest in the world, is bordered by various mountain chains that include the Kunlun mountains, the Karakoram, the Alps of Sichuan, and the Himalaya, arguably the most famous of the bunch.
One of the highest and most rugged parts of the Himalayas is the Kailas Range, and the highest peak of the range is the Mount Kailash, to the north of the Mapam Yumco. Mount Kailash is an extremely sacred place, as it is the center of the world for four major religions: Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Bön and Jainism.
Unlike Everest, no one can climb to the Mount Kailash summit given its importance to these religions. For Hindus, Mount Kailash represents the paradise of Shiva, one of the three supreme gods of Hinduism; while for Tibetan Buddhists, Mount Kailash, or Mount Sumeru, as they know it, acts as the center of the universe.
Tibet is bound to leave a deep and indelible impression on every visitor. And while this entry aims to showcase some of Tibet’s highlights, the truth is that it’s still a humble write-up next to Tibet’s infinite beauty offer.
Traveling to Tibet isn’t exactly easy, but it’s definitely worth it. The two best ways to reach Tibet are either entering from China or Nepal.
One important thing to keep in mind is that air in Tibet has 40% less oxygen, and altitude sickness may occur. Many travelers adjust to Tibet’s altitude after some hours or within the next 3 days, but if the symptoms persist, it’s better to descend; that’s the only cure. Altitude sickness symptoms include headaches, breathlessness, irritability, nausea, and in the most severe and rare cases even death.
Persistent and relentless headaches, nausea and a loss of coordination or disorientation are symptoms of Acute Mountain Disease. These symptoms should be taken very seriously, as Acute Mountain Disease may prove fatal.
Every foreign traveler that wishes to visit Tibet must do so with a travel agency. This is the single rule and there are absolutely no exceptions. Every trip to Tibet must also be arranged in advance.
The timing is also extremely important. The first thing that any traveler must do is obtaining a visa from the Chinese embassy in their countries. It’s their responsibility to get the Chinese visa, since most Chinese/Tibetan travel agencies can’t provide any assistance with it.
When applying for a Chinese Tourist Visa, travelers should not list Tibet as one of their destinations; otherwise, it’s highly likely that their visa application will simply get rejected. The processing time for the Chinese Tourist Visa varies from country to country.
Once the Chinese Tourist Visa has been granted, a traveler should contact a travel agency to have them arrange the trip for them. The agency can be a Chinese agency, however it’s advised to find a Tibetan local agency instead, or agencies that directly work with Tibetan agencies.
Next, the Tibetan agency will issue the Tibet Travel Permit. Again, this is a permit that can only be granted through an agency. Without the Tibet Travel Permit foreign travelers will not be allowed to board flights or trains, and much less enter Tibet.
If a traveler lists Tibet in their Chinese visa application, the authorities may ask for the Tibet Travel Permit, which can only be granted once a traveler has the tourist visa, which may be rejected if the traveler mentions Tibet on their application. To avoid this situation, simply skip any mention to Tibet on the Chinese Tourist Visa application.
The travel agency should be contacted at least a month in advance since most travel permits for Tibet take a minimum of fourteen days to arrange; as for other places in Tibet, such as Mount Kailash, the travel permit may take up to 4 weeks. This is why it’s important to keep the time of the travel in mind.
Foreigners aren’t allowed to travel independently in Tibet, but they can visit on their own. A few years ago, foreign travelers could only visit Tibet if they were part of a group of five people from their same nationality. This rule has since changed, and travelers can visit solo as long as they’re part of an organized tour, regardless of the traveler’s companion’s nationalities.
These are the basic requirements to travel Tibet.
However, if a foreign visitor would like to enter certain restricted areas (listed below), their tour guide should apply for a document called Alien Travel Permit.
An Alien Travel Permit is required for the following areas: Ali and Guge Kingdom in the Far Western Tibet; Chamdo and Ranwu in Far East Tibet and Eastern Tibet, respectively; Mount Kailash, the Mount Everest Base Camp, the Basum tso Lake, and Kyirong (New Border to Nepal). An Alien Travel Permit is also needed for all of the following monasteries: Sakya, Shalu, Samye and Tsochen.
Another type of document called Military Permit, issued by the military authority in Tibet, is needed for politically sensitive areas and regions.
The Military Permit is needed for some destinations included in the Alien Travel Permit, so travelers should make sure to have both of them. These include: Ali, Guge Kingdom, Kyirong, Mount Kailash and Tsochen. Additionally, the Military Permit is also needed for: Lake Manasarovar and Nyma Country.
Although some travelers may think that traveling to Tibet sounds like too much trouble, it’s important to remember that the travel agency takes care of pretty much all of the required documents, and travelers don’t really need to worry about them.
Foreign visitors can travel from China to Tibet via trains and airplanes. Overland routes to Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces have been closed to foreign travelers since 2009.
There are several, really important matters that have to be taken into consideration, before planning a trip from Nepal to Tibet. Here’s the process breakdown to cross from Kathmandu to Tibet:
Step #1: Find a reliable Tibetan tour company
Visitors must confirm their itinerary and tour services with a Tibet local tour company, and send them a scanned copy of their passports.
Just like when traveling from China to Tibet, trips should be arranged with a travel agency, and there are no exceptions. Neither the Tibet Tourism Bureau nor the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu accept individual applications.
The China Guide offers services for travelers that want to cross from Nepal to Tibet with a trusted agency.
Step #2: Receive a Tibet Travel Permit and invitation letter
After completing step number one, the Tibet Tourism Bureau will send a Tibet Travel Permit and a visa invitation letter to the traveler’s visa agent in Kathmandu. This whole process takes from 5 to 7 working days.
Without the Tibet Travel Permit, travelers will not be allowed to board flights or trains to Tibet.
Step #3: Apply and obtain a Tibet visa (Group Tourist Visa)
Travelers must then apply for a Group Tourist Visa at the Chinese Embassy through their travel agency in Kathmandu. This is a special kind of visa, it grants one entry only, and is normally valid for no more than 30 days.
Since the Group Tourist Visa takes at least 2 to 3 working days to process, travelers are advised to be in Kathmandu at least two days in advance.
The Group Tourist Visa invalidates any other Chinese visa that a person may already be in possession of. This means that a traveler who holds any type of Chinese visa won’t be able to use it to enter Tibet from Nepal. However, travelers can visit the rest of China with their Group Tourist Visa. Group Tourist Visas are issued on each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The best way to reach Tibet from Nepal is flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa. As of January 2017 the Friendship Highway, the link between both countries, is yet to be opened, after the April 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal. There are no trains between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
Traveling to Tibet is an enriching experience. It’s beautiful during the summer, and it’s also gorgeous, and more economical during the winter. It’s definitely a place that anyone should try to visit once in their lives.
If you need further information, please contact The China Guide Team.