Getting there and getting around Tibet

Colorful Tibetan prayer flags adorn a bridge across the Yarlung River. Credit: Lon Abbott and Terri Cook. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags adorn a bridge across the Yarlung River. Credit: Lon Abbott and Terri Cook.

Tibet is a long way from most everywhere. There are no direct flights from North America, so it’s usually cheapest and most convenient to fly into a major Chinese city such as Beijing and then catch the next flight to Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA). Air China, Tibet Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and China Southern are among the carriers offering direct and connecting flights to Lhasa from most major Chinese cities. Sichuan Airlines and Air China also provide nonstop service from Kathmandu, Nepal. The Lhasa airport is located 65 kilometers south of the city center and takes about an hour to reach.

Lhasa is also accessible via the long-distance Tibet Railway from Xi’an, Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities throughout China. The railway station is 8 kilometers from the city center. Most tour companies will arrange to pick you up at the airport or railway station and transport you directly to your hotel, but, if necessary, taxis are available at both locations.

All foreign visitors must prearrange tours. The costs of tours, which include transportation and a guide, are typically about $100 per person per day and include basic accommodations and a few meals. We used Great Tibet Tour company and found them to be excellent, with an outstanding guide.

Before traveling to Tibet, U.S. citizens must obtain a visa for China, as well as a special entry permit for Tibet. Unless you can appear in person at the embassy, you’ll have to use a visa service. We hired the extremely efficient Mile High Visas to obtain 10-year tourist visas ($209+ per person). Your tour company should take care of processing the Tibet permits for you. In our case, they did this but could not ship them overseas, so we spent a night in Beijing and picked up the permits at our hotel there before flying to Lhasa. The permit cost was included in our tour price.

A Tibetan pilgrim enjoys a hard-earned break. Credit: Lon Abbott and Terri Cook.A Tibetan pilgrim enjoys a hard-earned break. Credit: Lon Abbott and Terri Cook.

Your tour company will arrange all accommodations for you. These tend to be modest hotels and guesthouses with amenities that are not up to Western standards. In some cases, it may be possible to upgrade to “four-star” hotels, but even these are not luxury experiences.

One note: Our tour company did not accept credit cards; we paid deposits both by PayPal, which charges a 4.2 percent transfer fee, as well as by wire transfer, for which our bank charged us $35. We paid for all transactions in China’s official currency, the yuan.

Another note of warning: The region’s elevation is challenging even for people like us who live in Colorado at 1,700 meters elevation. It took us several days to acclimate to Lhasa’s 3,500-meter altitude, so if you live closer to sea level, it could take a week or more to adjust. Drinking plenty of water, eating salty and carbohydrate-rich meals and avoiding alcohol and caffeine consumption all help in acclimating to the high altitude. Plan for plenty of acclimation time. Finally, bring plenty of warm and windproof clothing and be prepared for cold temperatures and rain or snow, even in the middle of summer.

Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Terri Cook ( is a science and travel writer based in Colorado and an EARTH roving correspondent. Lon Abbott is a geology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 06:00

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