Don’t be put off from visiting Tibet despite the travel restrictions you may have to put up with; Tibet is worth it.
To explore Tibet, the Chinese officials require you to travel in a group – or at least, appear like you are traveling with one. This means you have to book a tour with a travel agent, who can either put you on a general tour or organize a bespoke trip only for your group. Most people prefer the latter and travel the country in a jeep (highly recommended) or minibus (not!).
Prices between travel agencies differ greatly, but all visit the same sights and end up in similar hotels. Shop around!
You will need to fix your itinerary beforehand, and the tight government control means that it is very unlikely that can change it while you are on the road. Even just passing through another village might be impossible. So plan your itinerary wisely - we recommend the following:
You’ll start off in Lhasa, a city of tremendous sights – from the Potala Palace, which was once the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, to Barkhor Street for your souvenir shopping. From Lhasa, you should go on a couple of monastery-heavy daytrips to check out the Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery and Ganden Monastery. Be warned that the Chinese government may sometimes temporarily close down several monasteries to foreign visitors.
Then drive up to the scenic Nam-Tso Lake, one of the three “Holy Lakes”. Be blown away by the view of the lake over sunset. Nam-Tso Lake is 1100 meters higher than Lhasa so be prepared for the altitude as well. The author of Seven Years In Tibet (which was later made into a popular film), Heinrich Harrer, supposedly crossed this lake on his journey to Lhasa.
After a stop-over back in Lhasa, Gyantse is a few hours away. Here you can visit the impressive Pelkhor Chode Monastery known for its Kumbum Chorten, and you can chill out a bit with a picnic at Yamdrok Lake. The view of the surrounding valleys is breathtaking, especially from Samding Monastery, so be sure to pay it a visit.
Next stop is Shigatse, a popular destination known for the Tashilhunpo Monastery and the Shigatse Dzong. The latter was dismantled by hundreds of Tibetan at the instigation of the Chinese in 1861. It was later rebuilt between 2005 to 2007, using only old photos as a reference.
Then head down to Sakya for a dose of traditional Tibetan artwork in Sagya monastery. The monastery was originally a cave in the mountainside and was built in 1268. The region’s principal attractions are the monasteries on either side of the Trum River.
After all these monasteries, head to Rongbuk and then walk up to Everest Base Camp. Bring a warm sleeping bag as you’ll be sleeping in a tent heated with dried yakshit. And remember the altitude, so don’t walk too fast and keep yourself toasty. This is the best place on Earth to view Mount Everest (better than anywhere in Nepal), and you wouldn't want to miss this on account of a creeping frostbite. Waking up to the view of Everest at sunrise is worth every bit of cold.
After a few hours’ drive, there is no better way to end your Tibetan trip than in Zhangmu, where you will admire the sight of the rough terrains and babbling brooks as you walk across the Friendship Bridge to Nepal. After all the desert and dust, you are finally back in greenery and vegetation!
Check our Nepal Backpacker CheatSheet and continue your trip to Kathmandu and beyond.
(This itinerary is based on our Tibet Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)