As I assemble my travel diary for Tibet and let some thematic fermentations mature, here are some notes on the trip based on conversations with people after. The photos and notes are arranged loosely. I have not gone out of my way to describe sites or customs because I remain ambivalent about any authority to speak on the subjects. Also, I’m saving better photos to go with more reflective posts, some of which will be published behind a paywall on my Substack newsletter, The 404, as they are sensitive.
For people who want to go to Tibet, please skip to the last section that discusses the Tibet Travel Permit, or please search for more detailed posts. The summary is that foreign nationals cannot go to Tibet alone; they must go on a tour, with a travel itinerary prepared to get a travel permit, which then allows them to go. The items of the tour route you can negotiate with your agency, and the agency should help you handle the permit.
The first thing most people asked about Tibet was whether you got altitude sickness. If you take pills for high altitude, are below 50, and generally in good health, you will probably be fine. The pills I took gave a light numbness in one or two toes (or fingers) that nagged me awake when all I wanted to do was sleep.
The more common experience, pill-assisted travel or otherwise, is being easily short of breath with exhertions. That can range from running to heaving yourself (and maybe your luggage) up a flight of stairs. Showers also get the blood pumping, so our guide recommended that we not take a shower on our first night in Lhasa for fear that people would faint (increased heart rate, and even further reduced oxygen with the steam). I ignored that and took a warm shower combined with a hot wash basin of water. No steam, no fainting. I also jogged while in Lhasa. I started at 5.5km/hr at a 3.0 tredmill incline and my peak was at 9km/hr, where I was winded after a minute or two. I figured I’d take advantage of the elevation to get more out of my short work outs. One feels efficiently worked out when winded after jogging 30 seconds and 50 metres at 5000 metres (approx. 16,000 feet) above sea level.
I get the impression that it is over confidence that gets people into trouble. Most of the nicer hotels in Tibet came equipped with “Panic” buttons throughout the rooms. My Lhasa guide told me about two fit visitors who wandered around all afternoon the day they arrived and, confident in their physique, decided to drink and ended up bedridden the next day. So perhaps the best type of caution is just trying one new thing after every day of feeling decent.
I was part of a small 14-person Chinese Canadian middle-aged group that was well accustomed to squat toilets, but had also grown quite accustomed to Vancouver comforts. They were constantly astonished by the state of the toilets. I was astonished such modern ones existed.
Each toilet break on the road earned a steady stream of breathless grievances. As they piled back onto the bus after our one of our usual breaks, my sister said, “They seem like they’ve run a marathon.” They may as well have in exercise of wills. In reality, the toilets actually smelled worse than they were. For one thing, most of them flushed, which is to say it runs the same way as any toilet in Hong Kong or Canada.
By development standards, Tibet is incredible compared to parts of Northern India and Cambodia — at least it has infrastructure (the most reliable being 4G signals) . Toilets were top of mind for most of my travel companions, so I imagine they would be with other female travellers.
One friend decided that his conception of Tibet was no longer accurate by the time we spoke in 2019. I’m sure the accuracy of his worries was higher twenty years ago because he mentioned worrying about the place being dirty, few roads, and no facilities. The Tibet I was impressively fitted with paved roads (finished in the last year or two), which nonetheless remain as bumpy as the shale and rubble that we saw offroad. Outside of Lhasa and Xigatze, all the best hotels we stayed at gave surprises in one room or another — whether slightly leaky pipes, old sheets, or creepy crawlies. I was impressed that there was hot water and even more impressed there was heat and AC.
My equivalent horror to their toilets was the food — the availability of Chinese food, and our wastage of it. This says much less Tibetans than it does of us Han Chinese.
I was so horrified by the number of dishes, the amount of meat, and the fish which is certainly flown in, that I didn’t have much an appetite during meals. I don’t eat meat often, and I could not stomach the implications of the amount of resources used to transport such alien ingredients into this area, the blatant inequality between the people eating and the people serving.
What I noted about Lhasa was that many of the restaurants, especially the new and large ones, were Chinese. The first restaurant we went to was Sichuan hot pot. The rationale provided by our Chinese guide was that Tibetans don’t know how to do business and it is the Sichuanese who come up to open new businesses.
After seeing over 10 dishes per meal for two weeks, I lost over five pounds from the trip.
As for Tibetan food…
As for Tibetan food, it came in samples. We had one Tibetan-style dinner (藏式風味餐) had a few dishes out of twenty that were were not explicitly Han Chinese, which must have included some yak meat. We also had a Tibetan-style lunch with curry.
After a week, I asked our native Lhasa guide what he usually ate for breakfast and he described the first breakfast of yak butter tea and tsampa (a barley flour paste) at home and the second breakfast of noodles at a tea house. The morning before flying out, I finally got to wander a block in Lhasa and passed by the tea houses he spoke of, with the left over bowls of noodles set on a random assembly of furniture.
Our hotel in Lhasa had served a watered down version of yak butter tea that I suspect added the key incredient in drops, not ladles. Someone else tried again after we went further out, and she was very satisfied with the flavour. The same hotel had steamed buns (perhaps a simpler version of tingmo) with a local flavour that came through after the first bite: yak butter.
The nose is all one needs to verify the authenticity of yak ingredients. You will smell the yak butter burning in temple halls before turning the corner to see them. Or, if you don’t see lamps, look for the yellow cakes and bricks. Yak butter is an iconic local ingredient essential for long summer herding hours and frigid winters. Yet, in increasingly modernised sedentary lives, the balance between nourishment and need has tipped.
Buddhist temples in Tibet
Temples were the main feature of our tour. We covered most of the famous ones — in Lhasa the imposingly-sized Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery with its monks’ debate, and the Jokhang Monastery that is generally thought to be the holiest of sites. Other monasteries include Xigatze’s Tashilhunpo Monastery (the Panchen Lhama’s main headquarters), the Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantze, the Rongbuk Monastery, and a small monastery (the Chinese plaque says 强公寺) at a pit stop in Lhaze.
In the monasteries, one will always find the various incarnations of the Buddhas — past, present, future. There will also be statues of celebrated rulers, various saints, founders of each of the Tibetan schools, the reincarnations of the Dalai and Panchen Lhamas, and other deities. For example, the 33rd King of Tibet Songtsen Gampo, is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and adapting the Sanskrit alphabet into the Tibetan alphabet in the 7th Century. Statues also include celebrated Buddhist teachers, such as the Bengali Atisa (980-1054) who crossed the Himalayas into Tibet or the Gelugpa Sect’s retroactively recognised founder, Tsongkhapa, who taught the first Dalai and Panchen Lhamas.
The Tibetan script was adapted from ancient India’s Sanskrit, while surviving paintings and murals seem to share similarities with Chinese styles. Fierce gods and tantric statues extend from ancient theology from the Gangetic plain (Hinduism is a consolidation of many schools of thought). Architecture with wooden pillars and beams seem similar to Chinese lock systems. When one traces the historical routes of ideas, the iconography of Tibet is a recogniseable links India and China. In addition to all this, there is Tibet’s native Bonn religion, which still survives in remote Himalayan villages between Nepal and Tibet.
The type of Buddhism that was passed into Tibet is known as Vajrayana Buddhism, which differs from the major Mahayana schools of East Asia and the Theravada schools of Southeast Asia. This strain of Buddhism adopted elements from other schools of thought in India, such as the deity Bhairava, known as Yamantaka in Tibetan Buddhism or the concept of a mandala, which is shared by the Vedic (oldest scriptures for Hinduism) and Jain traditions.
On an entirely different note, most temples do not allow for photography inside. One or two temples, such as the Pelkor Chode Monastery, allow photography for a token fee.
What there is to see in Tibet
As I didn’t plan the trip and have not gone out of my way to look for “must see” places, I cannot say that our itinerary is the best, but an enjoyable one for me. The bus rides are long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery throughouts. My second most enjoyable aspect was how few visitors there were. The Potala Palace had daily controlled traffic and even the view to Yamdrok Lake was managable, women throwing the ends of their crimson dresses for Instagram and all.
The overnight train from Xining to Lhasa
- Qinghai Lake (in the evening, shortly after departure from Xining)
- Keluke Lake
- The Kunlun Mountains
- Hoh Xil, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Tanggula Pass, which is over 5000 metres (Crossing into Tibet)
- Entering the Tibetan plateau
What has disappeared
The Potala Palace
Tibet Travel Requirements
In order to go to Tibet as a foreign national you will need to book a tour. All foreign nationals must book a tour with a registered Tibet travel agency and be accommpanied by a guide for the full duration of their time in Tibet. Generally, foreign nationals will book a tour of Tibet with travel agencies in their own country, which will make arrangements with the local Tibet travel agency to help you get the Tibet Travel Permit mentioned below. People with diplomatic passports, journalists, and ethnic Tibetans who are foreign nationals cannot enter Tibet. To enter Tibet, you will need:
- A valid China Visa (People with a 回鄉證/通行證 are exempt) (cost varies according to your passport country)
- A Tibet Travel Permit (free)
A China Visa: Cost Varies
In case you are wondering what a 回鄉證/通行證 is, it is the Mainland Travel Permit given only to Hong Kong and Macau residents who have passports from those regions. This probably means you do not qualify.
The China Travel Service (CTS) 中国旅行社 that issues your travel visa to China. You can search up this agency in your country and there is likely one if you live in a major city. Tour and travel agencies can do this on your behalf and it is usually faster if they do it.
For Canadians, China now has a 10-year visa that is a flat fee that is valid for as long as your passport is (expiring 6 months before your passport expires). I believe there are also single entry visas that are lower cost. Please Google for details.
Tibet Travel Permit: Free
A few skimming notes about this permit:
- Issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau, and no Chinese consulates have authority over the matter
- Issued within China and can only be mailed within China
- This is not a visa, and not a stamp on your passport
- The original permit must be shown before boarding your train / flight to Tibet
The Tibet Travel Permit is a document that all foreign nationals, with the exception of Hong Kong and Macau travellers using their 回鄉證, must have before entering Tibet. It will be checked frequently, such as during ports of entry, all hostels and hotels you stay at, restricted areas (such as the Mount Everest National Park), and major attractions (such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa).
The agency is responsible for you, including if you get into trouble. They will also lose their license if they try to mail your permit overseas.
In order to apply for this permit, you will need:
- a registered travel agency in Tibet to apply on your behalf (straightforward if you are booking a tour from your own country that has a partner local agency)
- organized tour, including dates, planned itinerary (straightforward if you’re doing a tour)
- Provide the travel agency with 1) a scanned copy of your passport and 2) a scanned copy of your Chinese visa
You do not need to have this permit yourself. Your agency will apply on your behalf and make the necessary arrangements once you arrive in China.
If you are curious about how it works for Chinese nationals, they also need an entry permit, which they obtain usually on the same day after handing in a form. The Tibet Travel Permit is usually referred to as the 入藏紙.