If you are looking to travel Tibet, this post will show you some of the best Tibet itinerary ideas to help you plan your own adventure.
Tibet is a spiritual place that has the power to move even the most hardened traveler. This remote, far-flung region is seemingly in a world of its own, with fabled villages tucked between some of the highest mountains in the world, and devout pilgrims prostrating around impressive temples.
50 years of political indoctrination and religious control have failed to dull the Tibetans’ devotion to their faith. The Tibetans are always ready with a smile and an opened heart, and an admirable tolerance for hardship and oppression.
A trip to Tibet can be rewarding and adventurous, and it gives you a peek into one of the most oppressed nations in the world. But traveling to Tibet isn’t easy with the strict travel restrictions and visa rules. The only way to travel Tibet is on a tour, which inhibits a lot of independent travelers who prefer to seek out adventures on their own.
I’m glad I chose to run my first WildJunket Tour in Tibet. It’s a special part of the world and there are few places with such a deeply rooted cultural identity and spiritual soul. If you are looking to travel Tibet, this post will show you some of the best Tibet itinerary ideas to help you plan your own adventure. But first of all, here are some info on traveling Tibet.
Should I Travel Tibet?
Since taking control of Tibet in the 1950s, the Chinese government not only abolished the Tibetan government but also started wholesale destruction of Tibetan monastic heritage and dilution of the Tibetan culture through education and policies. Over the years, the government’s line on Tibet has softened and there has been a call for the revival of Tibetan culture; but to this day, there is still a serious lack of basic human rights and democratic freedom in Tibet.
Many around the globe have boycotted the idea of traveling Tibet as a result but I believe it’s important to still consider visiting so Tibet gets the attention and support from the outside world it deserves. I see travel as the best form of education — only by going there, talking to locals and seeing things from ground level do you truly learn about what’s going on, and can therefore inform others about the state that Tibet is in.
Is It Mandatory to Travel Tibet on a Tour?
YES. Tourism is highly restricted in Tibet and independent travel is not allowed. You need to arrange a tour in order to enter Tibet and move around the region. However, travelers are free to explore Lhasa on their own. You only need to be accompanied by a tour guide when visiting tourist attractions (any monastery and temple)
Foreign travelers need to prearrange a tour in order to obtain a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit. Only Chinese, Taiwanese and Hongkong travelers are free to enter without a visa. Without a TTB permit, you won’t even be able to board a flight or train to Tibet.
All visitors (besides citizens of Singapore, Brunei and Japan) require a valid Chinese visa in addition to a Tibet permit. Make sure to get your Chinese visa at least a month before your trip, as your tour operator will need it to get the TTB permit.
Tibet Tours: Private vs Group Tours
There is no doubt that there are pros and cons to both sides of the spectrum when it comes to organizing a tour.
A private tour refers to a tailor-made tour just for you and your travel partner(s) or just for yourself. You can specify your preferences and the tour operator can customize the itinerary to fit your needs. Private tours give you the freedom and privacy you may need. However they can be expensive – especially considering that getting to Tibet is already relatively tricky as it is.
Group tours are cheaper and easier to book, but you’ll be traveling with a group of people, and the dates and itinerary are fixed. Most Tibet tours are small group tours that average out at about 10-15 participants — meaning that you are able to travel Tibet at a lower cost, yet you are not lumbered on a tour bus with heaps of other people.
Better still, through exploring Tibet with other like-minded travelers, you are likely to come away from the trip with new wander lusting friends. After all, aren’t travel experiences can be better when they are shared?
Which Tibet Tour Company to Choose?
There are plenty of tour operators that offer Tibet tours, but very few of them are owned by local Tibetans. Most of them are Chinese companies run by staff in the mainland China offices, who might not have even been to Tibet.
It’s important to choose a local Tibetan company to ensure your money goes to the local community and Tibetans. The Chinese has done a lot of destruction to Tibetan culture and heritage, and I strongly advise against booking with a Chinese tour operator.
Explore Tibet is a locally owned company that’s highly recommended in Lonely Planet guidebooks. I’ve known the owner for a while now and he’s an honest, down-to-earth Tibetan man who works hard to preserve local heritage.
The Tibetan company puts a strong emphasis on responsible travel and ecotourism. They’ve initiated a number of cleaning projects and hosted several ecotourism conferences as well. They also organize charity trips for their staff and visit rural Tibetan villages to provide winter clothes and financial help to the needy. They also specialize in customized Tibet trekking tours so if you’re interested in that, make sure to contact them directly.
What I like about Explore Tibet is that their group trips are small, with a maximum of 10 people in each group. (Most group tours in Tibet are 15-20.) Also if you sign up two months in advance for their group trips, departure will be guaranteed even if you’re the only person who signed up for that trip.
Tibet Itinerary Ideas
Tibet possesses a rugged and diverse landscape that offers something special for every type of traveler, regardless of your specific interests. Whether you a culture buff or a trekking enthusiast, there will be a Tibet itinerary that suits your needs. Besides the first travel itinerary, all the other itinerary ideas require a tour (you can only explore Lhasa without a tour).
I’ve listed these itinerary ideas based on the number of days each itinerary takes: from the shortest (4 days) to the longest (11 days). I also included some new tours that should be interesting for those who are keen to travel Tibet during festivals.
4 Days in Lhasa
Since travelers are allowed to explore Lhasa on our own without going on a guided tour, this itinerary is suitable for those who have very limited time and want to travel Tibet independently without a guide. You’ll be able to do this Tibet itinerary on your own, but you do need to hire a guide to enter the main sights.
Lhasa is known locally as “Palace of the Gods”. The maze like narrow streets of Lhasa old town and the quaint tea rooms serving butter tea are enough to make even the most experienced traveler fall in love with Tibet at first sight.
I recommend starting your trip in Lhasa with a visit to the Jokhang Temple. There is an ancient Tibetan saying that says “no journey to Lhasa is complete without a visit to Jokhang Temple” and for that reason, this is everyone’s first point of call.
Dating back to the 7th century, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in the country. The beautiful ancient temple, painted in deep hues of Red and Gold, is an important pilgrimage site and it is not uncommon to see lines upon lines of pilgrims waiting outside the temple today, ready to make their special journey.
From there, continue on to Barkhor Square, which is the main square of Lhasa where all the riots used to take place. There are also lots of vendors here selling everything from fresh produce to incense. Much of the market remains traditional and authentic and you can watch on as nomads haggle with the sellers in order to push for the best prices.
On the third day, make a beeline for the world renowned Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama. The iconic landmark looms over the city and it’s an impressive complex to visit, with hundreds of rooms and historical artefacts and displays. On your last day, take a day trip to the beautiful monasteries of Drepung and Sera (the former of which houses over 10,000 monks and is one of the largest monasteries in the world).
Trip Length: 4 Days
Best Time to Go: May, June, September or October. Summer is not that hot (but it’s rainy) and winter is not that cold in Lhasa, but it experiences a large difference in temperature from morning to night.
Difficulty Level: Low. You won’t need to be physically fit or anything to explore the city, but Lhasa is in highland area, so there’s a chance of getting altitude sickness. Bring some Diamox and make sure you relax on your first few days in Lhasa after you land.
Area Visited: Lhasa, Drepung and Sera
6 Days Tibet Cultural Experiences
This is a continuation of the first Tibet itinerary, for those with a few more days to spare. It’s perfect for those who are mostly interested in the culture of Tibet and who prefer to stay in the comfort of hotels.
After spending the first three days in Lhasa, you’ll continue on to Gyantse on day four. Along the way, you’ll get to experience the distinct culture of western(Tsang) Tibet, driving along the stunning turquoise color Lake Yamdrok and spectacular Karola glacier. Both are unique sights that are worth visiting as much as the final destinatons are.
Gyantse is a charming town with an ancient fortress and city walls. You’ll get to climb up all the way to the top of the dzong (fortress) to get a better understanding of the city’s history and get a bird’s eye view from above.
On day five, you’ll continue driving to Shigatse, the second biggest city in Tibet. Most of the day will be spent visiting the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, one of the biggest functioning monasteries of Gelukpa (yellow hat order). It covers an area of 70,000 square meters. You’ll then spend the whole of day six driving back to Lhasa.
Trip Length: 6 Days
Best Time to Go: It is possible to enjoy this itinerary at any time of the year, though for optimum conditions (particularly considering the fact that you will be camping), consider travelling between the months of February and May, or September to December. If you travel Tibet at these times, you can avoid the monsoon season as well as the harsh winter climates.
Difficulty Level: Low. Though altitudes are generally high in the destinations that this Tibet itinerary leads you through, they will not exceed 4000m.
Area Visited: Lhasa, Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Gyangtse, Shigatse
*8 Days Exploring Everest Base Camp
This is the most popular Tibet tour, as more than 70% of people who travel Tibet choose this Tibet itinerary. For that reason, I chose this Tibet itinerary for my first WildJunket tour.
It’s basically a continuation of the trip above, adding a night at Everest Base Camp and one more night in Shigatse on the drive back to Lhasa. This tour starts from Lhasa, and brings you through the beautiful landscapes surrounding Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse and Shigatse, before ending with an overnight stay at the legendary Everest Base Camp.
Everest base camp is obviously the highlight of this tour. You won’t be ascending Mount Everest itself of course (you’ll need technical know-how, a high fitness level and lots of money to do that.) but you’ll get to witness the power of the world’s highest peak Mount Everest (8,848m) right before your eyes. It’s a mind-blowing sight and something that will stay with you for a long time.
You’ll get to do hikes around the base camp, catch sunrise and explore the rugged terrain here. Some of the most stunning monasteries and religious sites are located here including Rongbuk Monastery – the highest in the world, situated at 4,980 meters above sea level.
Trip Length: 8 days
Best Time to Go: Between February and May, or between September and December are the optimum periods to travel to Everest base camp. Tibet experiences a Monsoon season over the summer and during the height of winter, travel conditions can be too treacherous as a result of below freezing temperatures and snowfall on the trails.
Difficulty Level: Medium. Everybody has a different tolerance to high altitudes and even professional mountain climbers can get sick as a result of the elevation levels here. You should be in generally good physical shape, and prepare accordingly for the altitudes that you will encounter.
Area Visited: Lhasa, Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Gyantse, Shigatse, Rongbuk, Shegar.
8 Days Lhasa to Kathmandu Overland
Tibet and Nepal make a nice travel pairing as both are deeply spiritual countries. This Tibet itinerary is perfect for those who want both culture and trekking culture vulture — incorporating the rugged hiking trails that snake around the foothills of Everest, majestic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges as you camp amongst nature, and concluding in Nepal, where the shrines, palaces and religious sites of Kathmandu valley await.
After the 2015 earthquake, the Tibet-Nepal border was closed for an extended period of time, however it has now recently re-opened making an overland trip from Tibet to Nepal accessible once again.
This trip is similar to the previous Tibet itinerary, except that you’ll continue driving onto the Nepal border instead of turning back to Shigatse then Lhasa. From Everest Base Camp, you’ll slowly descend to Gyirong Valley, where the altitude is lower and the climate is sub-tropical.
The tour concludes at the Tibetan-Nepalese border at Gyirong. Though your Tibetan guide is unable to cross over towards Kathmandu with you, they will assist you with this process to help ensure that this process is a breeze.
Trip Length: 8 Days
Best Time to Go: The months leading up to Spring (February through to May) or following the monsoon season (September through to December) offer the best conditions for treading this route. The heavy rainfall of the summer months can heavily impede your travel experience, as can the potential for snowfall during the winter.
Difficulty Level: Medium. The hiking trails and routes on this Tibet itinerary are not especially challenging but the high altitudes particularly at Everest base camp, can affect even the most well-seasoned hiker and as such, an element of physical and mental preparation is required.
Area Visited: Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Sakya, Shegar, Old Tingri, Gyirong
9 Days Yushu Horse Racing Festival (NEW!)
There is more to travelling in Tibet than visiting the Everest base camp. For those who want to venture off the beaten track and immerse deeply in the Tibetan culture then this trip offers the perfect opportunity to do just that.
On this trip, you’ll be exploring the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, China. Largely inhabited by Tibetans, the prefectureis home to the old Tibetan trade mart of Tibet and the official source of the Yellow River. Historically, the area belongs to the cultural realm of Kham in eastern Tibet.The trip starts from Yushu in eastern Tibet and ends in Chengdu, China.
The Yushu Horse Racing Festival takes place annually between the 25th July and the 1st August. It features a variety of different performances, from horse races and costume contests to traditional dances and religious Buddhist ceremonies.
This Tibet itinerary not only offers a cultural immersion at the Yushu horse racing festival, it introduces you to the country’s roots in spirituality and Buddhism. As you make the journey from historic Yushu towards Chengdu, you will stop by some of the country’s most important monasteries including the Great Dzogchen Monastery (one of the oldest in Tibet) and the colorful Garze Monastery.
Trip Length: 9 Days
Best Time to Go: July. This Tibet itinerary focuses around a festival that occurs once per year on the 25th July.
Difficulty Level: Medium. This itinerary sees you explore some areas of Tibet with high altitudes. The hiking trails can be challenging, but provided you are in generally good physical health you should not encounter any major difficulties. Regardless of your hiking experience, you should prefer yourself accordingly for the high altitudes you will encounter.
Area Visited: Yushu, Dzokchen, Dege, Derge, Dzongsar, Gerze, Barkham, Chengdu
11 Days Lithang Horse Racing Festival (NEW!)
Explore Tibet is the only Tibetan tour operator that offers this tour. Lithang Horse Racing Festival has been well known throughout Tibet for quite some time. During this festival, all the most talented riders will attend the race and show off their talents. Besides horse racing, there are a variety of cultural performances and traditional activities held throughout the festival. This is one of the best times to experience the Tibetan nomadic lifestyles and get a feeling for our rich cultures.
The Lithan county is located in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan, China. Lithang used to be a part of Kham, Tibet. Several famous Buddhist figures were born here, including the 7th Dalai Lama. Lithang Town (the seat of the county) itself is located at an altitude of 4,014 metres. It is on open grassland and surrounded by snow-capped mountains and is about 400 meters higher than Lhasa, making it one of the highest towns in the world. The trip starts and ends in Chengdu, China.
Trip Length: 11 Days
Best Time to Go: August. The annual facing festival starts on August 1st.
Difficulty Level: Medium. This is due to the high altitude that increases the risk of altitude sickness.
Area Visited: Lithang, Xinlong, Baiyu, Dzongsar, Derge, Barkham
15 Days Mount Kailash Pilgrimage
This is the longest Tibet travel itinerary that most tour operators offer and it’s designed for adventurous travelers to gain deeper spiritual insight on the Tibetan plateau and experience firsthand Tibet’s best natural wonders. On my next trip to Tibet, I definitely want to do this tour!
The first part of the trip is the same as the 6-day Tibet cultural experiences itinerary, traveling from Lhasa to Shigatse and Gyantse to understand a bit more of the history and heritage of Tibet. You’ll stopping along some of Tibet’s most spiritual sites like Tashi Lhunpo, Yamdrok Lake and the Kumbum Stupa, before the magnificence of Mt. Kailash is unveiled.
For thousands of years, Mount Kailash has been the pilgrimage destination of Buddhism, Bon, Hindu and Jainism worshippers alike. At an altitude of 6714 meters, Gangkar Ti-se, as it is known in Tibetan, has perennial snow cover and is the focal point of all travel to western Tibet. Pilgrims travel to this sacred mountain to complete a spiritual circuit, as it is believed that it will wash away their sins.
In addition to the varied landscapes, wildlife abounds in Western Tibet. Along the route, you will be able to see herds of wild ass, gazelle, Hodgson’s antelope, marmots and different species of geese from the window of your 4×4.
After spending three days trekking from monastery to monastery around Mount Kailash trekking, you’ll be absolved of all your sins. From there you’ll drive to Manasarovar Lake and then journey to the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, and stay overnight to enjoy a sunrise you will never forget.
Trip Length: 15 Days
Best Time to Go: April to June and mid-September to early October. It’s best to avoid the rainy season (July and August). For the rest of the year, the whole terrain would be covered in thick snow, rendering it unfit for sightseeing or kora.
Difficulty Level: High. You’ll be trekking for three days, covering around 18km each day. Trekking at high altitude can be more difficult than usual as the air is thinner and there’s a risk of altitude sickness.
Area Visited: Lhasa, Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Shigatse, Saga, Darchen, Dirakpuk, Lake Manasarovar, Everest Base Camp
Flickr image by ccdoh1
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