On Top of the World…. Almost.
This far-flung land, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas is simply stunning. Worth every second of the bureaucratic ball ache to get your travel permit and visa. The second you clap eyes on the staggering Potala Palace in the centre of Lhasa or sit watching the sunset at Everest Base Camp your jaw will be slightly a gasp it is simply magical. Totally Bucket list-worthy.
Tibet is shrouded in mystery mainly due to its almost mythical history paired with its more recent political controversy. This, unfortunately, means very few tourists make it here.
Here are a few fast travel tips and tricks to making the most of your time in Tibet. Or if you’re thinking about booking, some information that will hopefully put your mind at ease and fuel the wanderlust just enough for you to put down the deposit. You will not regret it.
What to See
So Tibetan sites sit in two categories, temples/monasteries and mountains/landscapes. If these aren’t your bag, Tibet is not the place for you.
If you are partial to temple wandering then you will love the beautiful monasteries, each with hundreds of worshippers and monks going about their daily rituals. Tibet is a deeply spiritual place and being able to see some of these very special religious practices close up is very unique.
In terms of landscape, the whole of Tibet lies between the foothills of the Himalayas where huge, imposing, arid mountains dominate the landscape. Stunning in their simplicity in contrast with the ever-rolling clouds. Be prepared for the altitude when you arrive. Lhasa sits a lofty 3,500m (12,000ft) above sea level. Take it easy for the first couple of days, allow your body time to adjust. A packed itinerary simply won’t get done. Don’t go rushing towards higher altitude either. You will end up huddled on your bus slurping oxygen with the hardy mountain guides rolling their eyes.
The best way to describe the feeling when you first arrive is: hungover as fuck. Don’t worry, for most people, this ebbs away in the first 24-48 hours. If you’re especially sensitive to the altitude, consider getting the train there from a neighbouring Chinese province so that you make the ascent slowly.
What to Pack
Pack light, leave room in your bag for an array of awesome Tibetan jewellery, paintings and beautiful Buddhist artefacts. Lots of layers are great as you start making your way up. It gets pretty chilly at 5000m, especially at night.
Where to Go
Explore Lhasa’s ancient city, the shops, restaurants and streets are teeming with life and allow an insight into a very different culture, distinctly unique, steeped in tradition and by the harsh geography in which Tibet exists.
Even with an influx of development, new connecting roads bringing commerce and new industry to this part of the world it still seems if nothing has changed for hundreds of years, bar the smartphones. Don’t be afraid to wander without your guide, the locals are a friendly bunch and the streets are super easy to navigate. If you don’t fancy walking grab a Tuk Tuk (roughly two quid for 20-30 min journey.) This will get you from one end of the old town to the other.
The rest of your trip will mostly be determined by your tour guide. As you can only enter Tibet as part of an organised tour as a non-Chinese national. Most tours take you up into the mountains and to Everest Base Camp. This is a fantastic option. The scenery is incredible! The whole two-day journey through the twisting remote mountain paths and tiny villages is super cool. Every outlook, every rover bend, every meter climbed is just beautiful. Touring options also run through from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal. Also an awesome option.
What to Eat
If you’re feeling adventurous then there is a ton of Yak on the menu. In curries, yak ribs, yak steak oh and the Tibetan staple of yak butter tea.. think creamy, salty and slightly overpowering for all senses. Apparently though, cures altitude sickness? Worth a try because, well whilst in Tibet and all that but definitely not one for chugging when you’re thirsty. Once you’re used to the altitude you can try some of the local Lhasa beer. Beer from the roof of the world. Yeah, it is epic.
If yak isn’t your thing but you would still like to try the local cuisine then the Tibetan dumplings (MoMo) are a great place to start. Fried or boiled, both mega tasty. Or maybe try Bobi the Tibetan take on fajitas with a range of different fillings to choose from served with a killer chilli sauce and a light cream cheese. Both available in vegetarian options.
There are a few places with western options available along with lots of very good traditional Chinese food. So you won’t go hungry. There are also a few specialist vegetarian restaurants close to the Jokhang Temple in the centre of the old city in Lhasa. If all else fails, Rice! (try the MoMo they’re great).
What a friendly smiley bunch of awesome. Welcoming, helpful and warm. Lots of people in the capital can speak some very basic English, if this fails, Mandarin or of course Tibetan. 95% of Tibetans are practising Buddhist and the majority of their lives revolve around their religion. There aren’t many foreigners about so be prepared to be the focus of a lot of curiosity. Dress modestly. No shoulders, no shorts unless you want to draw more attention from the locals as well as be barred from entering any of the monasteries. Guys can get away with long shorts (double standard) but they still have to be pretty much at the knee.
The political status here is obviously very delicate. If you want to ask questions bare this in mind. Don’t push too far with your questioning you may land yourself and your guide in hot water. This is one of the only big don’t for your trip.
Ohhh one helpful piece of info. As Tibet is in China cough you will need a VPN on your phone/laptop if you want access to all your favourite apps in Tibet. (WhatsApp, Insta, Snap Chat, Google, Facebook). There are a couple of good ones that offer free trials. Have a search on App Store, read the reviews. SIM cards, 3g and 4g are cheeeap. WiFi is pretty fast and freely available in all accommodation and some restaurants.
So there you have it. Tibet. Scenery worth trekking to the edge of the Earth for. Get booking.
Happy Travels, Team Nonchalant xx