During the second half of our China trip, Jeremy and I planned on visiting Tibet. The landscape, the people, coupled with our increasing interest in Buddhism, meant that this “autonomous region” in Western China held a strong allure for us. But there are realities to travel in Tibet (besides the obvious political ones), and after doing a bunch of research while we were in Beijing, we decided against the trip. Here’s why.
- It’s a long train ride…
…48 hours from Beijing to Lhasa, to be exact. And from all accounts we’ve read, it’s like 48 hours on the Yangzi River Boat (read about our experience here: Three Gorges Yangzi River Cruise: Chinese Immersion School), only sans private bathroom (and if you’ve ever been in a public Chinese toilet, you know that this is no small matter), the aisles are filled with boxes of food and instant noodles (the Chinese love nothing more than to make sure they have enough to eat at all times), and you’re stuck on the train. That being said, it is supposedly a breathtakingly beautiful ride, and if all the other parts of visiting Tibet added up, we totally would have done the trip. But the realities of getting to Tibet are something you really must consider. Sure, you could fly too, but its expensive to do so and you would miss out on seeing the grandeur of the landscape on the way to Tibet. The train track to Tibet is the highest in the world, and each car reportedly contains oxygen masks in case you need help adjusting to the altitude.
- The permit application process
Permits have long been required in order to travel to Tibet, and it takes 7 working days to process them, though some places can arrange them for you in as little as 3, while others require a full 10 days. For travelers like Jeremy and I, who barely know where we’ll be tomorrow, much less next week, this restriction did limit our options. Currently, the only way to get a a Tibet travel permit is to sign up for a tour, which brings us to our next point:
- In order to travel in Tibet, you must be on a guided tour with the same itinerary as everyone else
Due to the protests in Tibet last year, the Chinese government is being more strict about requiring visitors to be on a tour in Tibet. It used to be that a tour group could consist of 1 person, and we also hear that you used to be able to travel to Lhasa on a tour and then explore the rest of the region independently, but that does not appear to be the case any longer (or if it is an option, it is a very expensive option). We talked to many tour companies, and most itineraries looked identical (with the exception of one Tibetan-based tour company). To make matters worse…
- Tibet is a Chinese Disneyland in the summer
The period we wanted to visit Tibet (late July), is tourist high season in Tibet. Every DAY, 12,000 Chinese tourists flood into Lhasa. We just didn’t want our experience of Tibet to be entangled with the pushing crowds and the megaphone-wielding tour guides like so much of China seems to be flooded with these days. In 2009, the Chinese government gave out a large number of travel vouchers to use for domestic tourism in order to stimulate their home economy. Quite frankly, it would kind of break our hearts to see the spiritual center of Buddism turned into a Chinese playground.
- It’s not cheap
For the privilege of visiting Tibet, you must be willing to pay at minimum about US$150 per person per day, not including meals. Given that our budget for China was about US$120 per day for the both of us, this really broke the bank. Also, be aware that the cheaper tours are typically offered by government-sponsored travel agencies in Beijing with Chinese (not Tibetan) guides leading the tours, and very little of your US$150 per day will go into the pockets of Tibetans. The government-sponsored agencies are often able to offer lower prices because they have an advantage in procuring train tickets (they are allowed to purchase tickets in big blocks before they are available to the rest of the public…and then sell them to smaller tour operators at marked-up rates).
WHAT YOU CAN DO
We don’t necessarily advocate avoiding a region or country altogether when you don’t agree with the political climate. But we do think it’s wise to do your research and make sure the bulk of your tourist dollars are going to the right places.
- Plan ahead and do your research
Quite frankly, this is where we got stuck…if we would have started researching the Tibet trip earlier, we probably could have made it happen. But waiting until we were in the country to do our planning (which is our normal M.O.) just doesn’t work for Tibet. Read as much as you can on the travel situation, as it can change dramatically from month to month. Here’s an excellent website we found: Life on the Tibetan Plateau. And of course, check out Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum. Also, as with any tourism you do, be sure to read up on the local culture so you can be a culturally sensitive traveler!
- Make sure you choose a Tibetan operator and get a Tibetan guide
You can make arrangements for your Tibet tour in Beijing, Xian, Chengdu…basically any big city in China. But many of these travel agencies are Chinese-owned, which means very little of your tourist dollars will actually go to the Tibetan people. Make sure your money is benefitting the people who are most affected by your visit and find an agency than actually operates from Tibet. Also, we found that many of the Tibetan-operated agencies had different itineraries, so you won’t be hitting all those gorgeous sights when all 11,999 other tourists in the region are flooding in.
We sincerely hope that the Tibetan travel situation eases up in the future. We would love to one day explore this magical land without the restrictions that have been a reality of the recent past.