Resting on the world’s highest and largest plateau with an average height over 4000 meters, Tibet is aptly named the Roof of World. Home to the 1300 year old Potala Palace, incredible mountain scenery, over 1700 Buddhist monasteries and a rich, vibrant and fascinating culture, travel in Tibet is an unforgettable experience.
The problem with travelling in Tibet is the Chinese government has severely restricted travel for foreigners in Tibet and there are many regulations and laws that must be complied with. For example even though you have a visa for travel in China, you cannot enterTibet. This post will outline the travel restrictions for Tibet and explain how you can legally travel in Tibet and have a great time.
The Areas of Tibet – Tibet is divided into three separate areas, western Tibet, central Tibet and eastern Tibet. Western and central Tibet are grouped together and called the Tibet Autonomous Region and eastern Tibet is mostly in the Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. Travel in eastern Tibet is basically unrestricted but travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region is restricted. When Tibet is used in this post, the meaning is the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Basic History – Tibet was unified early in the 6th century under Tibetan rule and the Kingdom of Tibet continued to the mid 9th century when civil unrest and one too many civil wars fragmented it. Tibet was then controlled by warlords and various tribes with no central rule until the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongol Empire took over. Tibet was then under Chinese rule with varying degrees of freedom and autonomy and sporadic unrest until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. From 1912 to the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Tibet was under self rule. From 1950 till now Tibet has been under Chinese control with varying degrees of self regulation.
Travel Restrictions in Tibet
The restrictions placed on foreigners for travel changes subject to local and national politics and social stability in Tibet. Outlined below are the main restrictions that have been in place since 2008.
-Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) – Foreigners are not allowed to enter and travel in Tibet without a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). Officials check all flights or trains and border crossings to Tibet to make sure foreigners are carrying valid Tibet Travel Permits.
-Travel Route – Once in Tibet, foreigners must follow the travel route outlined in their Tibet Travel Permit.
-Travel Guide – While in Tibet, foreigners must be accompanied by a local certified travel guide
-Public Transport – Foreigners are not allowed to use public transport in Tibet outside Lhasa.
-Same Nationality – Starting in May 2012 a new policy requires that you need to be in a group of at least 4-5 people of the same nationality to be granted a Tibet Travel Permit. This policy is subject to change so be careful and check for updates if you are planning to travel to Tibet.
-Restricted Nationalities – If you hold a passport from the following countries, you will not be issued a Tibet Travel Permit, Austria, Korea, Philippines, United Kingdom. This policy is also subject to change at the whim of the central government. If you hold one of these passports, I suggest you travel in eastern Tibet which is a very beautiful area and has a flourishing (subject to restrictions) Tibetan culture.
-Diplomats, Journalists and Government Officials - People from these groups will not be issued Tibet Travel Permits and must arrange travel in Tibet through the Foreign Affairs Office of the Tibet Government
-Restricted Areas – These areas inside Tibet are restricted unless you have an Alien Travel Permit from the PSB to enter: Tsedang, Shigatse, Gyangtse, Ngari Region, Nyingchi Region and the Chamdo Region. To enter other areas such as Everest Base Camp you will also need additional permits.
Temporary Restrictions – The Chinese government will regularly close Tibet to foreigners during politically sensitive periods such as anniversaries, riots and large scale protest. During this time no Tibet Travel Permits will be issued and foreigners will not be allowed to enter Tibet. The most sensitive period is around the 10 to 14th of March which is the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Tibet has been closed every March for the last 5 years and is likely to continue to be closed every March. These closures are based on the government’s assessment of Tibetan politics and security. Once Tibet is closed there are no official opening dates given.This means planning ravel to Tibet in March or April is very difficult and the only way to know when closures are over is when the tourism bureau starts issuing Tibet Travel Permits again.
These restrictions may seem extreme and unreasonable and in some ways they are but don’t worry. If you have a Tibet Travel Permit and follow the rules, you can have an incredible and rewarding travel experience in Tibet.
How to Get a Tibet Travel Permit
The basic process to get your Tibet Travel Permit is to first get a Chinese visa which you must have to enter China. Next you need to find a registered travel agent and make your application through them, pay the fees, collect your permit and enter Tibet!!! The details of each of these steps has been outlined below.
Chinese Visa – When you apply for your Chinese visa, don’t mention that you plan on travelling to Tibet. This could raise eyebrows and have your visa application rejected for any number of reasons. All visa types (L, F, X and Z) are ok but tourist or L visas are the easiest and cheapest to get. This post how to get Chinese visas in Hong Kong and may be useful reading to you. How to Apply for Chinese Visas in Hong Kong
Registered Travel Agents – Tibet Travel Permits are only issued by registered travel agents so once you are in China and ready to go to Tibet, contact a travel agent that deals with travel to Tibet. Listed below are the details of well regarded travel agencies.
Snow Lion – http://snowliontours.com/index.php/tibet
Tibet Highland Tours – http://www.tibethighlandtours.com/
Travel Wild Tibet – http://www.travelwildtibet.com/
Easy Tour China – http://www.easytourchina.com/tour-c291-tibet-tours
WindHorse Tibet – http://www.windhorsetibet.com/
A quick google search will show plenty more travel agents. Most travel agencies are legitimate and will provide a good service but there are some that will over charge you, require extra fees (bribes) and waste your time. Try to use a recommended travel agent or exchange a few emails and phone calls with them to test their professionalism.
The central government can close Tibet to foreigners at any time so check the travel agency’s cancellation policy. You will need a guide once in Tibet and a driver for travel outside Lhasa so try to arrange a guide and driver through your agency. You do not need to be with your guide 24 hours a day and you can negotiate time for wandering around and shopping. Just don’t go to any of the off limits or restricted areas or your guide, your agency and yourself may end up in trouble.
Tibet Travel Permit Application – When you make your application for the Tibet Travel Permit, you will need to provide your travel agency with the following in your application
-Personal details such as full name, nationality, gender and occupation
-Copies of your passport
-Copies of your Chinese visa
-a rough outline of your planned travel in Tibet
After Your Application – All Tibet Travel Permits are issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau. Your travel agency will send your application off to the Tibet Tourism Bureau. They will then take a day or two issue your permit and then send it back to your travel agency. To be safe, give yourself a week to get your permit.
The Tibet Travel Permit Itself – The permit itself does not have an expiry date and it lapses when your visa expires, is changed or is renewed.
The cost of a Tibet Travel Permit – The price of your Tibet Travel Permit depends on where you will be travelling to Tibet from and the form of transportation you are using. The prices listed below have probably changed and should only be used as reference to give you an idea.
Travelling to Tibet by Air
Beijing – 400rmb
Xian – 500rmb
Chengdu – 700rmb
Zhongdian – 1040rmb
Travelling to Tibet by Bus or Car
Zhongdian – 1350rmb
Chengdu – 1200rmb
Golmund – 1100rmb
Beijing to Lhasa – 700rmb
Golmund to Lhasa – 400rmn
Xian to Lhasa – 600rmb
Guangzhou to Lhasa – 600rmb
Shanghai to Lhasa – 700rmb
Train – If you are travelling to Tibet from Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, have enough time and plenty to read, train travel is recommended. The trip to Lhasa will take a long time (49 hours from Shanghai, 44 hours from Beijing), there are no showers on the train, no private toilets and no private rooms. The journey from the east coast will pass through the flatlands, deserts then mountains and is incredible and will be a very rewarding part of your trip to Tibet. How often to you take a train to the top of the world?! The actual train line was only completed in 2006, includes the Tanggula Pass with an altitude of 5072 meters and is an engineering marvel.
Plane – Major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xian and Chongqing all have direct flights to Lhasa. Chengdu also has direct flights, normally at least 8 a day. Tibet currently has five civilian airports and the sixth airport, the Nagqu airport, is scheduled for completion in two years. With an altitude of 4436 meters, the Nagqu airport will be the world’s highest airport. Not recommended for the faint hearted.