Travel in Tibet

LhasaTibet, once known as a ‘forbidden kingdom,’ a remote Shangri-la in the clouds, is now more accessible to travelers than ever before. No longer do tourists have to endure the long and arduous journey along treacherous mountain roads—a journey made even harder by Chinese officialdom trying to control or simply prevent the outside world from seeing any evidence of the destruction visited upon Tibet under China’s rule. Now tourists can enter Tibet from Chengdu in Sichuan, Xining in Qinghai, or Kathmandu in Nepal by air—and the Qinghai-Lhasa train that opened in July 2006 has made the plateau even more accessible.

Tourists may understand that the devotional element of Tibetan Buddhist religion is still thriving in Tibet, but may fail to grasp that the survival of the Buddhist culture, so critical to Tibetan identity, is facing its most severe crisis. It may also not be apparent that behind the modern urban façade, a growing underclass of Tibetans are increasingly marginalized and impoverished, without access to even basic healthcare and education. China’s economic policies, imposed from the top-down, are resulting in a dramatic and irreversible change to Tibetan people’s lives with little or no consideration for the differences between Tibetan and Chinese culture and traditions.

ICT’s alternative travel guide, “Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide to Traveling in Tibet,” explores the ethical questions of visiting Tibet, a country under Chinese occupation, and offers a perspective for the traveler to Tibet who wants to be informed about the reality of their destination, as opposed to the propaganda and the mythology.


Common Questions About Individual Travel in Tibet

General Questions

Q: Can individual travelers go to Tibet?

A: A Xinhua report of January 9, 2003 said, “At the end of last year, the regional tourism administration abolished the requirement that tourists from China’s Hong Kong and Macao have “identity confirmation letters” when traveling in Tibet, and that foreigners must travel in a group of five or more, local tourism sources said.” This would mean that Tibet is open to individual travelers; however, there may be confusion about this. Until now, Chinese embassy, consulate personnel, and Chinese tour operators regularly tell tourists that only groups are allowed.

Individual travelers have been able to travel by land to/in Amdo and Kham without a group, however permits are required for some areas. Official bus travel into the TAR from Amdo in possible only by purchasing appropriate permits and from Kham, an Alien Travel Permit is required to cross restricted and closed areas near Chamdo. By air, it is also possible to fly into Lhasa from either Kathmandu or Chengdu without being part of a group. However, new regulations and restrictions around tourism in Tibet are common, so do not rely entirely by what you read here. Check as many sources as possible.

Q: Is Tibet sometimes closed to individuals, but not to groups?

A: Chinese authorities periodically close Tibet particularly to individual travelers when pro-independence demonstrations occur or are suspected to occur. Both individual and group travel can be halted or disrupted, but groups are much more likely to continue to be able to enter Tibet even if there are some “disturbances.”

In recent times, Tibet was suddenly closed to individual travelers during the Panchen Lama controversy and when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was accidentally bombed by NATO planes, border closing took place in Kathmandu and individual travel from Chengdu was halted for a week. When Tibet is “closed,” it is almost always done by not selling plane or bus tickets from Kathmandu, Chengdu and Golmud. Within a week or two, the situation usually changes and travelers can proceed into Tibet. This is happening less than it used to but even in May, 2007 a demonstration disrupted some individual travel.

Visas

Q: Where and how should I get a visa for Tibet?

A: Obtaining a visa for travel in Tibet in the last decade has been a mixture of policies and regulations that are always changing. The following information is valid as of June 2006, but know that this information could abruptly change, and often does.

As of June 2006, travel in Tibet required getting a) a Chinese visa, b) an Alien Travel Permit, and c) if you go outside of Lhasa, other area permits (obtained through a travel agency).

It has been reported that Chinese embassy officials do not issue individual Chinese visas if Tibet is written or stated explicitly as an intended destination. Generally, individual travelers visit Tibet as part of “group” organized on the spot in Chengdu or Kathmandu, or through a more formal arrangement with a tour operator at a much-inflated price tag. In Kathmandu, the usual procedures require travelers’ passports to be submitted by a tour operator to the Chinese embassy, which issues a special “Group Visa” restricting each individual to traveling and leaving Tibet with the other members of the group. A Group Visa is issued for the duration of the group tour in Tibet. In Kathmandu, the Chinese embassy regularly cancels any pre-existing China visas, however there have been exceptions. Individual Chinese visas (i.e. a non-group visa) issued in Kathmandu are sometimes endorsed as not valid for travel to Tibet. However, individual Chinese visa issued in Kathmandu in October/November 2000 were valid for travel in Tibet.

Travelers may hear of a “Tibet Permit.” A Tibet Permit is a list of people traveling together in a group into Tibet. Normally, one can stay in Tibet for as long as the Chinese visa is valid, not for how long the group’s “Tibet Permit” was issued. Therefore, if traveling into Tibet with a Chinese visa that is longer than the group tour, and the visa was not cancelled in Kathmandu or the border, the individual will be able to stay for the duration of the visa. Upon arrival in Lhasa, travelers can usually choose to participate in or forego the guided tour although some Chinese tour guides have been rather insistent upon participation in recent years. Also, individuals may make arrangements with local tour operators to visit other parts of the TAR from Lhasa and such visits in most cases requiring travel permits that are obtained through the operators.

An individual visa should say “L” at the top corner; this means tourist (Chinese: Luyouzhe). An “F” in the top corner would indicate a business or foreign expert visa. In August 2000, it was reported that an F visa was no longer valid for entry into Tibet.

Visa Extensions

Q: Is it difficult to extend my visa once I am in Tibet?

A: Extending a visa is can be much more problematic in the TAR than outside the TAR. As of June 2006 it was impossible to get an extension in Lhasa. It has been reported that visa extensions are sometimes easier to obtain in Shigatse. The Public Security Bureau (PSB) almost always require one to produce evidence of having booked a flight orvehicle leaving Tibet.

Outside the TAR, visa extensions for one month can virtually always be obtained in Ziling (Chinese: Xining) (in Amdo), Kanding (in Kham), or in Chengdu, and some travelers have been able to secure a second month extension. Usually an extension is obtainable only in the last few days of the previous visa. Fines for overstaying a tourist visa are a steep 500 yuan per day (Ch. VII, Art. 42, PRC Law on Entry & Exit of Aliens) and have been enforced in Lhasa recently, while at the border, bargaining and bribes to lower the fine have been reported in the recent past.

Before 1999, travelers who flew from Kathmandu to Lhasa on a group visa were usually able to obtain an individual visa extension in Lhasa at the end of their group tours. Travelers should not assume that these visa extension possibilities are always available as it has varied from month to month in the second half of the year 2000. Travelers on group visas to Lhasa intending to travel by air into China are likely to be able to get individual visas in Lhasa on presentation of their onward tickets, particularly if they apply through a Lhasa agent of their Kathmandu tour operator.

In August 2000, the Chinese authorities established Tibet FIT (foreign individual travel) in Lhasa, located on the second floor of the Snowlands Hotel. Tibet FIT is the “Management and Reception Center” of the Tibet Tourism Board that officially assist foreign travelers in Lhasa with visa extensions and all travel (jeep and air) out of the TAR, working in conjunction with Tibet FIT in Chengdu. The Lhasa police stated to tourists in November 2000 that Tibet FIT are the only official tour operator who can organize jeep travel from Lhasa to Kathmandu. The stated purpose of Tibet FIT by the Lhasa police was to “reduce competition because for the last year, too many tour operators were doing business which was causing a reduction in the quality service. To have only one very good tour operator is what is needed.” Despite Tibet FIT, smaller tour operators in Lhasa are still able to work behind the “official” scene to provide overland transport to Kathmandu from Lhasa, and air tickets out of Lhasa can still be purchased at the air ticket office on the west side of Ngangra Lam near the Potala Palace. While Chinese authorities have attempted to corner the market with Tibet FIT (charging more than double than other tour operators for overland transport) and control the movements of individual travelers, it appears that it has been ineffective.

Please remember that PSB regulations for visas can abruptly change and this information is current as of June 2006.

For up-to-date information we suggest posting/researching questions on travel websites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum: http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/

What Not to Take With You

Q: Will I get into trouble for bringing the photo of the Dalai Lama or other Tibet materials to Tibet?

A: It is very important it is to be aware that photographs of the Dalai Lama, anti-Chinese literature, any book, audio cassette or video of/by the Dalai Lama, or the Tibetan national flag (yellow border with two white snow lions with blue and red rays radiating from a sun above) in the possession of a Tibetan can lead to their detention and questioning and in serious cases, even arrest, torture and imprisonment by Chinese authorities. There is usually minor implications for foreigners themselves who have individual copies of books, magazines, etc. They are usually confiscated if found, and sometimes the traveler is fined. However, sometimes tourists have been expelled from the country, especially if they have larger quantities of Dalai Lama pictures, or other literature that shows they intended to distribute them. Therefore, we advise caution and extreme discretion in taking the following to Tibet:

  • Photographs of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, including those in guidebooks.
  • Any literature, photographs, or pictures to Tibet that could be construed as political in nature by Chinese authorities, especially the Tibetan national flag.
  • Any recorded video or audiocassette tapes to Tibet that are political or connected in any way with the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in-exile.
  • To be aware that delivering packages or letters from outside Tibet can lead to suspicion and confiscation by Chinese authorities and could result in dire consequences including questioning, detention, or punishment and imprisonment for the Tibetan recipient.
Resources
  • Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide To Traveling In Tibet by the International Campaign for Tibet (available as a PDF download).
  • On This Spot: Lhasa by the International Campaign for Tibet.
  • Tibet Travel Adventure Guide 1999 by Michael Buckley, 265pgs. Available for $17.95 from ICT.
  • Many common questions about travel and visas are dealt with in Tibet guidebooks. We recommend Tibet: A Travel Survival Kit by Lonely Planet, but all travel guides contain dated information about access for individual travelers and visas.

ICT’s Alternative Travel Guide to Tibet

ICT launched an ‘alternative’ travel guide to Tibet, which describes how China is seeking to promote Tibetan culture for tourism while it continues to suppress the unique Tibetan identity. “Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide to Traveling in Tibet,” offers a perspective for the traveler who seeks a more balanced picture of their destination than China’s representations.

The report is published at a time when tightened travel restrictions in Tibet counter the impression that Beijing is seeking to convey of increased openness in the run-up to the Olympics. The restrictions affecting foreigners traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region, which appear to have serious implications for certain groups of travelers, are apparently in response to a protest by members from Students for a Free Tibet, including a Tibetan American, at Mount Chomolungma (Everest) base camp on April 25. China’s reaction indicates its concern about other possible protests in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, and shows that it is more of a priority for Beijing to prevent dissent than to earn tourist dollars.

John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “ICT’s report: ‘Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide to Traveling in Tibet,’ describes how China promotes tourism in Tibet and, at the same time, suppresses what makes Tibet unique. China wants to control how tourists experience Tibet. This alternative guide unmasks the propaganda and offers a way for tourists, and tour operators, to be aware and well-informed.”

ICT recommends that tourists read “Interpreting Tibet” before they leave for Tibet. Carrying a copy in a backpack or suitcase into Tibet could be regarded as a political or ‘splittist’ act (in other words, as an attempt to ‘split’ the motherland), and could therefore put local contacts at risk.

In contrast to travelers’ experiences in the late 1980s in Tibet, when they directly witnessed brutal repression during the years of pro-independence protests and the imposition of martial law, tourists in Tibet today sometimes do not witness any form of overt repression or degradation of the Tibetan culture. For instance, luxury hotels are built in Tibetan style, giving the illusion of the preservation of the ‘authentic’ culture, and foreigners can see Tibetan devotional practice everywhere, which can give the appearance of religious freedom or that Tibetan Buddhism is thriving.

“Interpreting Tibet” gives a reality check on the sights of Lhasa, exploring how both China’s assertions of power and Tibetan expressions of identity are revealed in the architecture of the city, as well as the reality behind Tibet’s apparent economic progress. The report advises tourists how to avoid putting Tibetans, and themselves, at risk, and offers tips on how to understand the signs of religious repression, and subtle acts of dissent by Tibetans.

New Travel Restrictions and Closure of Tibetan Travel Agency

While the authorities have not admitted to any change in travel regulations in the TAR, according to reports from tourists and travel agencies, it has become more difficult to obtain a legal permit for individual travelers to the TAR. The authorities now appear to be tending towards a more vigorous enforcement of the requirement to travel outside Lhasa as a group, and may also be considering requiring tourists in Lhasa to remain within their groups. It is not known if the current restrictions hide any other kind of enforcement aimed at specific groups of travelers, but it is likely that they have serious implications for certain groups of travelers, such as U.S. or Western-based Tibetans, or Tibetans born in Tibet but now living overseas.

An official from the state-run China Travel Service in Lhasa explained the new difficulties for tourists by saying: “We can’t let foreign tourists just go anywhere by themselves. In the past they could be left alone to travel independently as they wanted for a few days. Now this is not allowed any more…Management is tighter because of the Americans on Everest.” (The Times, London, May 14, 2007). This refers to the base camp protest of April 25, when several members of Students for a Free Tibet raised a banner reading ‘One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008’ – a revised version of the official Beijing Olympics slogan, ‘One World, One Dream’. Five Americans were detained because of the incident and later released.

News of the travel restrictions follows the closure of a local Tibetan travel agency in Lhasa on around May 17 or 18 apparently as a result of the visit of two journalists to Tibet. The reporters were later called into the Foreign Ministry and accused of producing articles that were deemed ‘unacceptable’. During his Tibet trip, one of the journalists, Tim Johnson of the U.S. newspaper chain McClatchy, reported in his blog that people he had talked to were picked up for questioning, and one Tibetan was given “an extraordinary fine on trumped up charges”. The incident highlights the risks posed to local people’s livelihoods of travel of foreign visitors within the region, and a more aggressive response from the authorities to correspondents’ reporting from the area.

Tim Johnson and Harald Maass, of the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, traveled to Tibet on tourist permits to avoid restrictions placed on press traveling in the region. While Beijing had indicated that during the runup to the Olympics journalists would be allowed to travel freely throughout China, this was rescinded with regard to Tibet. Tim Johnson had requested formal approval to go to Tibet from a Foreign Ministry official, and when there was no response, traveled as a tourist on the train. He changed to a local travel agency while in Lhasa because of his frustration with service at the main Chinese-run travel service. A Chinese official at the agency had apparently lectured Johnson on not talking to any Tibetans because of his status as a ‘tourist’ and blocked his attempts to travel within the region.

In a later blog on his newspaper’s website, Tim Johnson wrote: “The pre-Olympics easing of restrictions does not affect the rule that requires all foreigners (not just foreign journalists) to get permits to travel there. This is a very major barrier to entry.”

On their return from Tibet, both journalists, were summoned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and their reporting criticized. Zhang Lizhong, a division director at the Foreign Ministry’s information department, apparently told the reporters that they had distorted the facts and produced articles that were deemed ‘unacceptable’ (Reporters without Borders, May 25, 2007). One of the stories Johnson filed, ‘China orders resettlement of thousands of Tibetans’ reported on the forced relocation of Tibetans.

China is particularly sensitive to negative media coverage on Tibet in the buildup to the Olympic Games, because the recently announced route for the Olympic flame includes the possibility of carrying the torch up Mount Chomolungma (Everest) in spring 2008. A team of mountaineers recently carried out a trial of the Olympic flame ceremony on Everest and were successful in lighting approximately half of the torches in a test run. The Olympic Torch relay to Beijing is scheduled to be the longest torch route in history, covering five continents in 130 days.

Download a PDF of ICT’s alternative travel guide, Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide to Traveling in Tibet.

Travel Guides & Resources

Central Tibet
  • Batchelor, Stephen: “The Tibet Guide: Central and Western Tibet” (2nd edition, Boston: Wisdom Publications, April 1998)
  • Buckley, Michael: “The Tibet Travel Adventure Guide” (ITMP Publishing, UK Distributor: Cordee Books, 1998)
  • Chan, Victor: “Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide” (Moon Publications 1994)
  • Dorje, Gyurme: “Tibet Handbook: With Bhutan” (2nd edition, Footprint Handbooks, June 1999)
  • Dowman, Keith: “The Power-Places of Central Tibet” (Timeless Books, New Delhi, 1988)
  • Mayhew, Bradley; Bellezze, John Vincent; Wheeler, Tony & Taylor, Chris: “Lonely Planet: Tibet” (4th edition, Hawthorn, April 1999)
  • McCue, Gary: “Trekking in Tibet: A Traveler’s Guide” (The Mountaineers, 1999, 2nd edition)
  • Storey, Robert et al: “Lonely Planet: China” (6th edition, Hawthorn, September 1998)
Amdo, Kham and Eastern Tibet
  • Dorje, Gyurme: “Tibet Handbook: With Bhutan” (2nd edition, Footprint Handbooks, June 1999)
  • Leffman, David & others: “China: The Rough Guide” (Rough Guides, April 1997)
  • Mayhew, Bradley & Huhti, Thomas: “Lonely Planet South-West China” (1st edition, Hawthorn, November 1998)
  • Storey, Robert et al: “Lonely Planet: China” (6th edition, Hawthorn, September 1998)
  • McCue, Gary: “Trekking in Tibet: A Traveler’s Guide” (The Mountaineers, 1999, 2nd edition)
Trekking in Central Tibet
  • McCue, Gary: “Trekking in Tibet: A Traveler’s Guide” (The Mountaineers, 1999, 2nd edition)
  • Chan, Victor: “Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide” (Moon Publications 1994)
Other Resources and books
  • On This Spot: Lhasa by the International Campaign for Tibet
  • Map and Index of Lhasa City by Amnye Machen Institute
  • Tibet Travel Adventure Guide by Michael Buckley, 265pgs
  • “Lonely Planet Tibetan Phrasebook” by Goldstein, Melvyn C. (2nd edition, Hawthorne, June 1996)