Where is Tibet?
Tibet is a region in East Asia located in the Southwest part of Modern China. When one thinks of Tibet, one may think of monks, snow-capped mountain peaks, and temples. These are all true about Tibet, but, of course, it has a lot more to offer. If you have been wondering where Tibet is, it borders India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan. Tibet covers much of the Tibetan Plateau. With an elevation of 16,000 ft, Tibet is the highest region on Earth. The highest elevation in Tibet, which also happens to be the highest mountain on Earth, is Mount Everest, which rises 8,849m above sea level.
Is Tibet a country or part of China?
Although it is an autonomous region, Tibet is currently part of China. It uses Chinese currency and follows the Beijing time zone and is often referred to as Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Capital of Tibet (and other major cities)
Lhasa City is the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China and has been since the mid-17th century. Because of the geographical location of Tibet, it is a given that Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. Lhasa is home to two world heritage sites, which includes the residences of the Dalai Lama.
The second largest city in Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China is Shigatse, located west of Lhasa. Other major cities in Tibet include Gyantse and Qamdo.
Although Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and is home to culturally significant Buddhist sites, it is only the second most populous urban area on the Tibetan Plateau, with Xining being the first one.
Population of Tibet
The estimated population of Tibet is 6.5 million. Historically, the population of Tibet consisted primarily of ethnic Tibetans and other ethnic groups such as Bai people, Blang, Bonan, and Mongols, to name a few. While the majority of Tibetans live in Tibet, a significant number of them also reside in other Chinese provinces such as Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan, as well as in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and some parts of Europe and the Americas.
Language spoken in Tibet
Tibetans speak Tibetic languages that belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group. Spoken Tibetan language may vary per region, but the written language, which is based on Classical Tibetan, is and has always been consistent. The Tibetan language also has its own script, which is shared with Ladakhi (spoken in the Ladakh union territory of India) and Dzongkha (spoken mostly in Bhutan).
Currency in Tibet
The modern currency in Tibet is Chinese Yuan (CNY), which is also known as Ren Min Bi (RMB). Since China is big on cashless payments, in major Chinese cities people are using Wechat Pay; however, if you are only in Tibet for few days, you need not download Wechat and can just use cash for your transactions. Your dollar is no good in Tibet. Unlike in most Asian countries, only the Chinese currency can be used in Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Most of the shops in Tibet also do not accept coins, so make sure to exchange your dollars to local currency before roaming the region. There are a lot of ATM machines in the region’s capital, so you can also withdraw cash anytime you need to. If you are traveling outside of Lhasa, though, make sure to have enough cash with you since ATM machines in the smaller cities and towns sometimes do not work. Although you will not find them easily in Tibet, there are also a couple of money changers in the area. 1USD is equivalent to 7.14 CNY.
Time Zone in Tibet
Although China is as big as the whole of the United States, it only has one time zone in the country – Beijing time. Maintaining a single time zone is the legacy of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s desire of unified control.
The time zone in Tibet is the same as any province in China, which is GMT+8. China shares the same time zone with other Asian countries such as Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, as well as West Australia.
How to Get to Tibet/How to Travel to Tibet
Just like any other travel destination, there are multiple routes you can take to travel to Tibet. But before you start booking expensive tickets to fly to Tibet, there are a couple of things you need to check first.
If you are from the US, you might be wondering if Americans can visit Tibet. The answer to that is a resounding yes. No matter what your nationality, you can visit Tibet as long as you have the proper permits.
First, you need to get a Tibet Travel Permit. You can only get a Tibet Travel Permit if you have a China Travel Visa. It may sound overwhelming, but a trip to Tibet is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Assuming you already have the Chinese Visa, you can apply for your permit to enter Tibet. Depending on where in Tibet you would like to explore, you need either a Tibet Entry Permit (used to enter Tibet via Lhasa) or Alien’s Travel Permit (used to travel to places in Tibet that are not part of Lhasa).
Almost all non-Chinese passport holders, with few exceptions for Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong, need a Tibet Entry Permit. For you to get a Tibet Entry Permit, you need to find an accredited Chinese Travel Agency, and they can process it for you. Your travel will not be possible if you do not get a tour guide, as travelling independently in Tibet is not allowed.
For the Chinese travel agency to be successful in processing your permit for you, it is advised that you send your passport and your Chinese Visa copies at least 17 days before your planned trip. If you are applying for a permit with your documents indicating your occupation as diplomat, journalist, or government official, you need to process your entry permit through the Tibet Foreign Affairs Office.
You have to plan your itinerary carefully since you can only enter Tibet from the departure city listed on your itinerary. This means that if you arrive in Beijing and have a few days to kill and decide to go to Shanghai, you cannot enter Tibet from Shanghai if your itinerary indicated Beijing as your point of departure city.
Changing the departure city would mean getting a new permit, which would take time and more money. It does not mean that you can only get into Tibet from a city in mainland China. If you wish, you can also enter Tibet from Nepal, but the same rules apply.
Once in Tibet, carry your permits with you all the time. It is advisable to make copies of the permit since it can be checked multiple times during your stay.
If you are not in a rush, you can travel to Tibet via train from mainland China from cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Lanzhou, and Xining. Beijing to Lhasa via Qinghai-Tibet Railway takes about 40 hours, though, but this crosses over eight provinces, which would be a great opportunity to see different parts of the country from the train. The Tibet Railway is the world’s highest point on a railway station, as well as the world’s longest track on frozen earth. The journey may be long, but it will surely be unforgettable.
No matter which country you are from, as long as you are not a Chinese passport holder, you need to fly from your home country to China or Nepal in order to enter Tibet.
From Nepal, there are direct flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa Gonggar International Airport. From mainland China, you can get a direct flight from Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming. Flying from other major cities in China such as Shanghai and Guangzhou would require layovers at other cities. Chinese passport holders can take direct flights from Hong Kong to Lhasa.
This is not the most popular route since you cannot travel independently, but some tourists opt to travel by car from Nepal to Tibet for a road trip experience. If you are coming from Nepal, you need to go through the border at Rasuwagadhi and then cross to Tibet. Your Tibetan guide will meet you there, and you will very likely stop over at the town of Gyirong for your first night before exploring the other parts of the region. Keep in mind that if you travel this way, you will need an additional permit called Tibet Frontier Pass. Your Tibet tour agency can process this pass for you.
How to get around Tibet
Since there is no other option for tourists to visit Tibet aside from arranging a tour with an agency, your transportation within Tibet will be part of the tour package. You cannot take public transportation in Tibet and move around on your own.
Weather in Tibet
Tibet has a dry, cold climate with an average annual temperature from -12 degrees Celsius to 9 degrees Celsius depending on the region. The Tibetan plateaus and mountains have colder weather compared to those in the valleys. Just like all of China, Tibet experiences spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Best time to visit Tibet
The best time to visit Tibet depends on your priority as a tourist. The most popular time to visit Tibet is between May to October. You will experience more comfortable weather during these months.
By November to April, the region gets colder and the air becomes thinner. Tibet tours are usually closed between February to March for the politically sensitive time of the Tibetan New Year. No worries, though; your travel agency will let you know which dates are closed to tourists.
Is Tibet Safe?
One thing you need not worry about when you travel to Tibet is your safety. Most of the people in Tibet are devoted Buddhists who are gentle and kind. Stealing and killing are both taboo in the region, and even petty theft is almost impossible in Tibet. The security in the region is also tight. You will see security officers patrolling constantly. You need to watch out for the animals you might encounter, such as the Tibetan Mastiff. No matter how cute the yaks and goats look, try not to provoke them or get too close.
Why go to Tibet?
Tibet used to be closed to tourists. The country remains closed from mid-February to the end of March every year due to heavy snow and several important political and religious events, but other than that, Tibet tourism has been thriving since they began allowing tourists to come visit in 1984. Going to Tibet is a great opportunity to visit the “Roof of the Earth” and to discover the hidden gems of this heavily secluded region. Going to Tibet is indeed a trip of a lifetime.
Night life in Tibet
You can only experience nightlife in Tibet if you are visiting Lhasa, which is the Tibet capital. This still would be considered low-key compared to the night life in other cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. Nighttime entertainment in Lhasa is limited to watching Tibetan shows. There are places where you can grab drinks and enjoy late night food. Night markets in Lhasa are the best places to go for these late-night excursions.
15 Things to do in Tibet
The itinerary for your Tibet vacation will be arranged by your travel agency, but most of these are flexible and can be customized. Here are the top 20 things to do and places to see in Tibet:
1. Camp at Mount Everest Base Camp
Not everyone can summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, but you certainly can visit Mount Everest Base Camp, which is located 200 miles southwest of Lhasa. In fact, doing this is one of the top things to do in Tibet. Mount Everest is shared by Nepal and Tibet.
Each area has its own base camp that serves as a place for climbers, researchers, and tourists to camp out. The advantage of visiting the base camp on the Tibet side is that it sits at a lower elevation compared to the one in Nepal.
This means you can drive up to the base camp and skip the hiking part. The Tibet part also offers an uninterrupted view of Mount Everest. You can opt to camp overnight or stop in for a quick visit. If you do decide to camp here, beware of altitude sickness.
The sunset and sunrise views from here are breathtaking and something that you will never get to experience anywhere else in the world. The camping base is basic. It has small shops and the world’s highest post office, but people come here for the view and the experience. Your length of stay in Mount Everest Base Camp is dependent on your tour package.
2. Visit Jokhang Temple
Tibet temples are one of a kind. Jokhang Temple is one of the most important sites in Tibet. This Tibet temple was built in the seventh century to promote Buddhism in the region and has long been tagged as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The word Jokhang translates to “house of Buddha.”
You can find over 3,000 images of Buddha, deities, and other religious historical figures in here. Jowo Shakyamuni, one of the most sacred images of Buddha in Tibet, is also housed in Jokhang Temple. Visiting Jokhang Temple is one of the best things to do in Tibet because not only is it a magnificent piece of architecture, it is a place where you can witness Buddhism being practiced.
This is a place of worship, so respect Tibetans who come here and pray. Taking photos inside the temple is not allowed. The temple is closed to foreign visitors until 11:30 AM for everyday prayer. You can come here anytime between noon until 6:30PM.
3. Shop at Barkhor Street
Shopping at Barkhor Street is something many look forward to when visiting Tibet. This is one big circular street that goes around Jokhang Temple. If you would like to take a little piece of Tibet home, which you should, you can find souvenir items and trinkets of all sorts on Barkhor Street.
It is filled to the brim with shops that sell assorted items from jewelry to yak wool blankets. Religious items such as Buddha statues and Tibetan scroll paintings are also sold here. This is the best place to buy gifts for friends and family back home.
4. Explore Potala Palace
What better way to make the most out of your Tibet vacation than visiting the winter residence of Dalai Lamas? The grand Potala Palace also used to be the seat of the Tibetan government. Rising 13 stories from 130m-high Marpo Ri, it is hard to miss this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The palace is divided into two parts – the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace is in the eastern part of the building and used for the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. The Red Palace is used for religious functions. The building has more than a thousand rooms, so be ready to be in awe and overwhelmed by its magnificence.
The tickets for visitors are quite limited, so make sure to arrive on time based on the schedule that your guide will provide you. Same as with most of the important buildings in Tibet, photography is not allowed inside the chapels, but you are free to snap photos in other parts of Potala Palace. Navigating the hallways of this palace is definitely one of the best things to do in Tibet.
5. Take a pilgrimage tour to Lake Manasarovar
Tibet travel guides always highlight a visit to the lakes of Tibet – and for good reason. Aside from being breathtaking, the alpine lakes of the region are considered to be holy and sacred by the Tibetans. There are a couple of lakes in Tibet that are considered holy, but one of the most popular is Manasarovar Lake. Tibetans take a pilgrimage tour in this highest freshwater lake in the world.
Tibetans believe that the waters of Manasarovar Lake have healing powers, thus many drink it or swim in it. It might be too cold to take a dip during your visit, but sitting beside the lake and taking in the view and the quiet is a great experience. Make sure to be on the lookout for Mount Kailash nearby. Buddhists believe that this mountain is the center of the universe. It is quite a drive to get there, but the scenic view is worth the journey.
6. Take a dip in Yangbajain Hot Springs
Yangbajain, also spelled as Yangbajing, is a town located 87km northwest of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. This town is known for its hot springs, which are frequently visited by local and foreign tourists. The water temperature of these hot springs ranges from 30 to 84 degrees Celsius. If you fancy a dip, make sure to inform your Tibet travel guide to include this in the itinerary.
7. Tour around Sera Monastery
Sera Monastery is one of the most prominent Tibet temples. Your Tibet trip will be even more exciting if you include a tour around Sera Monastery. If you are looking at immersing yourself and learning more about Buddhism, this is the monastery to visit. Sera Monastery is 5 miles north of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. Monks in training are housed here.
Every day at 3PM, except Sundays, the monks perform a ritual that involves gathering in the courtyard and debating important Buddhist doctrines. Tourists who have witnessed this ritual have described it as fascinating. It is not every day that you get to witness this important part of the Buddhist monk’s life. You can visit Sera Monastery from 9AM to 4PM daily, and phone photography is allowed.
8. Go on a Yak Ride
Yaks are one of the most common animals in the Tibetan mountains. A lot of tour packages offer yak tours or a chance to hop on a yak. If you would like to skip the hikes, this would be quite an adventure for you. The yaks have a cool temperament and are also quite gentle, as long as you do not provoke them, of course. They are often adorned with colorful yak wool in the traditional Tibetan colors. Taking a photo riding on a yak would make a good travel postcard. If you are traveling with children, this is one of the best things to do in Tibet.
9. Attend a Yushu Horse Racing Festival
The Yushu Horse Racing Festival is a traditional Tibetan Festival that occurs annually in July. This is one of the top three horse racing festivals in the region; the other two are Ngachu Horse Racing Festival and Litang Horse Racing Festival. The festival starts on July 25 and could last for a week or even longer.
Locals set up tents in the festival area. During the festival, you get to witness horse races, yak races, tug-of-wars, singing and dancing performances, and a lot of eating contests. You will see Tibetans in their traditional costumes all throughout for the festival. You can play and dance with Tibetans and enjoy tasty Tibetan cuisine. This is quite an experience and one of the top things to do in Tibet.
10. Trek in Lulang Forest
A Tibet trip is filled with nature-related activities for sure, but one of the best things to do during your vacation is to go hiking in Lulang Forest. This forest is considered the Chinese Alps. Because it is tucked away from the rest of the world, most of Tibet is generally untouched. The word Lulang roughly translates to “a place that will make you forget your home” in the Tibetan language.
The Tibetans might be on to something when they gave the forest its name. This sea of forest is so grand and beautiful, it makes you forget anything else except being in the moment. The forest is located by the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. No matter the season, Lulang looks magical. In spring, azaleas are the star of the show here, which attracts swarms of birds.
Autumn brings pretty colors to the forest, while winter blankets the forest with snow, thus making it look like a magical ice forest. Trekking is a popular activity in Lulang Forest, especially during spring and summer. There are a lot of hiking trails as well as camping spots. If you have included camping in Lulang in your itinerary, the agency will provide you the hiking gear.
If you want to just visit for a day, that is fine, too. There is an observation deck built in the area that offers access to the amazing views of the forest as well as a view of Namjagbarwa in the distance. There are dozens of restaurants along Lulang Forest. Their chicken soup is a must-try when visiting this part of Tibet.
11. Take photos at the Heavenly Lake Namtso
Lake Namtso is no doubt one of the most picturesque places in Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Located at an altitude of about 16,000 ft in Damxung County and Baingo County, Namtso is often referred to as the lake in the sky or heavenly lake.
Sitting by the lake under the clear blue Tibetan sky will make you feel as if Heaven is within your grasp. This lake is also considered holy by the Tibet people. There are four temples around the lake, and locals often come here for a pilgrimage. Buddhist or not, visiting Lake Namtso should be a must during your Tibet trip.
12. Chug a glass of chang
Chang is a famous Tibetan beverage. It has a low alcohol content and is made from highland barley. Some might call it beer because it does seem like beer to some extent. There are two varieties of chang – orange and yellow. They taste sour and sweet. It is an extremely popular drink in Tibet that people of all ages enjoy. During festivals, you can see locals chugging a bottle of this often.
13. Stroll in the gardens of Norbulingka
When you visit Lhasa, make a side trip to Norbulingka. This is located within a short drive southwest of the Potala Palace. The word Norbulingka means ‘Jeweled Park’ in the Tibetan language. The garden is definitely a jewel. Norbulingka was built in 1755 as the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas.
The property covers 89 acres and has about 400 rooms. Of all the Tibet temples and palaces, this one has the largest and most beautiful garden, which has been turned into a park. Events and performances for the Shoton Festival are held here.
14. Visit Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
One of the best places to visit in Tibet is the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. This building also holds a huge significance in Tibetan culture and history and is located in the second largest city in Tibet, which is Shigatse. Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was founded by the first Dalai Lama and became the seat of power for the Panchen Lama, who is the most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. Sections of Tashi Lhunpo are divided among chapels, monks’ headquarters, colleges, tombs, and statues. The Buddha Unfolding Festival, one of the biggest religious festivals in Tibet, is held here.
15. Eat Tibetan Food
Food is a huge part of any culture. When on a Tibet vacation, trying out Tibetan cuisine should be on your list. The first food you should try is tsampa, which is the national dish. Tsampa is made of roasted barley flour and butter tea, and Tibetans eat it almost every day. Aside from being a staple food, tsampa also has religious significance. Monks throw tsampa in the air during rituals as an offering to the gods. While you’re at it, you also might want to try yak meat.
Most of the meat eaten by Tibetans is yak meat due to its abundance in the region. It is prepared in various ways, including roasted, stewed, broiled, and dried. Locals usually pair it with yak butter tea, which is the most common drink in the region.
Yak meat is lean and juicy and has a light, sweet flavor. Another food to try in Tibet is the Tibetan momo, which is the region’s version of Chinese dumplings. They look like regular dumplings with a Tibetan twist. You can find momos anywhere in Tibet. This could be considered a street food since you can buy it anywhere in the street markets.
Expert tips for traveling in Tibet
1. Bring warm clothes
Tibet is called the roof of the world for a reason. Its elevation makes the whole region cold for most months of the year. Even if you come during summer, some areas of the tour, like the Mount Everest Base Camp, will still be considerably cold.
2. Check your permits
Going to Tibet is not one of those trips you can just go and wing it. Depending on where you would like to go and how are you planning to get there, you might need more than one permit. These permits could take up to 5 days or maybe even longer to be processed. You would not want to arrive in Lhasa and realize you cannot go anywhere else because you lack other permits.
3. Dress appropriately
It is a given that a lot of places you will be visiting in Tibet are religious places or places for worship, so it is important to dress properly. Shorts, sleeveless shirts, and slippers may not be accepted in some Tibetan temples. Make sure to cross-check with your travel agency beforehand about what should you pack for your trip.
4. Bring cash
While major establishments accept credit cards, cash is still the preferred mode of payment in Tibet. There are ATMs and money changers in Lhasa, but for the smaller towns, you might have a hard time withdrawing money if you run out of cash. Also, your dollar is no good here. The only currency accepted in Tibet is Chinese CNY or RMB. As much as possible, avoid accumulating coins while in Tibet since those will not be of any use in most places. It is hard to circulate coins in Tibet.
5. Fly in and take the train out or vice-versa
This is a popular route amongst tourists who would like to see more of China. The Tibet Railway is one of the world’s most popular railway that is interesting to visit, as well as the world’s longest track on frozen earth, and hosts the highest elevated railway station in the world. You will travel through one of the most scenic railway rides in the world.