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To visit Tibet is a dream come true for many. While a fascinating cultural experience, travel in this high plateau is not easy. Chinese bureaucracy, rugged living and travel conditions, and the effects of high altitude may discourage all but the truly adventurous. Being well prepared, having realistic expectations and a good attitude are the most important requirements for ensuring you have a great trip. We hope you find this general guide useful as you travel into the "Land of Mysteries".
GEOGRAPHY: The Himalayan mountain range, formed about 80 million years ago when India broke away from a massive protocontinent, has effectively blocked moisture from reaching the Tibetan plateau. This has resulted in the desertification of the once lush and fertile plains. There are three distinct regions in Tibet:
(a) Northern Plateau (Chang Tang): the largest geographic region, covering about half (360,000 square miles) of Tibet's total surface area. The region is sparsely inhabited due to its year-round strong winds, bitter cold temperatures, low rainfall and brackish soil.
(b) Outer Plateau: a milder and more temperate climate with rich, well-developed agricultural areas. The region includes Lhasa Valley and Shigatse where the weather is usually sunny and dry with relatively moderate winters.
(c) Southwestern Plateau ("River Gorge country"): comprises about 1/10 of Tibet's surface area. This region is very rich in plant and animal life with an abundance of forests, deep river gorges and both alpine and tropical plants. The lowest point of the region is 5,297'.
HISTORY: Tibet has a rich mythological, as well as recorded history. The country's political and religious roots are inextricably bound. The first written records date from 600 AD when a Tibetan ruler wed both Chinese and Nepali brides who brought Buddhism to Tibet. During the reign of the Mongols (c. 1200), the first Dalai Lama ("Ocean of Wisdom") was named and given authority over all of Tibet. In the 1600s, Potala Palace was built with Lhasa as the administrative and religious centre of a unified Tibet. At this time, good relations existed between China (the Manchus) and Tibet, but by 1705, China threatened Tibetan independence. The British were also concerned about territorial control of Central Asia and sought to establish a treaty with the Dalai Lama to secure their control. After the British invasion in 1895, a treaty was established between Tibet and Britain, resulting in Chinese insecurity and tightening of control. When the Communists took control of China in 1949, incorporation of Tibet was a priority. By 1951, Tibet maintained control of their domestic affairs, but China had a significant military presence; conflict escalated as the Chinese suppressed Tibetan institutions and all things religious. In the ensuing uprising of 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India. In 1965, Tibet was established as the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China ruled by Beijing. By 1976, the subsequent systematic persecution and destruction of religious sites and artefacts reduced the number of monasteries to only ten. Since this time, Chinese control has relaxed somewhat, but 50 years of Chinese occupation continues to desecrate the Tibetan way of life.
PEOPLE: Given such a history, the people of this cold, high plateau have developed an independent and pious resiliency. Whether a nomad, a valley farmer or among the community of monks, Buddhism is shared as an integral part of everyday life. With the introduction of collectivism, the traditional Tibetan economy and way of life was severely uprooted. Tibetans have been allowed some return to their previous lifestyle. In 1995, Chinese estimated the population of Tibet at 2.3 million people. As many Tibetans have fled into exile and China's immigration policy has brought hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese into the Tibet Autonomous Region, this estimate is most likely inaccurate.
RELIGION: Buddhism teaches that ridding oneself of desire through discipline and meditation can eliminate suffering. The "self" is an illusion trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth, created by karma, the chain of cause and effect. By following the teaching of Buddhism, one can escape this cycle and achieve nirvana, the extinction of the ego. Tantric cults and the ancient Bon religion influence the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, though exiled in India, still provides guidance to Tibetans worldwide.
LANGUAGE: Tibetan is rooted in the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. While few Chinese speak Tibetan, many Tibetans speak both Tibetan and Chinese. English is now taught in most schools. Most signs are written in Tibetan and Chinese. Learning a few words and phrases is an excellent way to get to know the locals.
CLOTHING: Many Tibetans wear traditional clothing, especially nomads and those who live away from major towns. Barkhor market in Lhasa is the best place to observe the wonderful variety of dress from different areas of Tibet. Western clothes are the norm among the Chinese.
CLIMATE: Tibetan summers are generally cool and dry, though the temperature can vary from the high 40s (F) to mid-60s within a day. As expected a higher altitude, the sunlight is intense and the thin air neither blocks nor holds heat. High factor sunblock and a sun hat are necessities. It is advisable to be prepared for sudden drops of temperature at night. December through February is the coldest month with snowmaking high mountain trails impassable.
PLACES TO SEE: There are many places of both cultural and historic interest in and around Lhasa, including the Barkhor, Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace, Drepung Monastery, Norbulingka and Sera Monastery. Guided tours will be available of these and other sites.
FESTIVALS: Tibetan festivals are based on the lunar calendar, which is approximately a month behind the western Gregorian calendar. Buddha's birthday (Saga Dawa), the Gyantse Horse Racing and Archery Festival, the Ganden Thangka Festival and Yogurt Festival are among the many celebrations held throughout Tibet. We will provide you with exact dates of festivals that coincide with your travels.
PASSPORT, VISA & TRAVEL PERMIT: A Chinese visa is required to enter Tibet, as is a permit to travel to and outside of Lhasa. The rules for obtaining this visa and permit are unpredictable and change frequently. Loben Expedition will arrange your visa before you arrive in Kathmandu or immediately upon your arrival. For this, we will require 2 passport size photos and a photocopy of your passport. All visitors to Tibet must hold a passport that is valid for at least 6 months beyond the return date of your trip.
CURRENCY AND FOREIGN EXCHANGE: The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB) or the "People's Money". The basic unit of currency is the "yuan". The exchange rate at the time of printing is approximately Y 6.9 = $ 1 USD. Foreign currency and Travelers Checks can be exchanged at the Bank of China and at certain hotels in Lhasa, Shigatse and Zhangmu. Most establishments do not accept credit cards, but it is possible to obtain cash advances on a credit card at the Bank of China. Yuan notes of smaller denominations are necessary when travelling outside of the major towns.
BANKS: Banks generally open around 9:00 a.m., close in the middle of the day, and reopen until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Government and most other offices are open from 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m./4:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. in the summer and 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m./ 3:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. in the winter.
CUSTOMS FORMALITIES: All baggage must be declared and cleared through customs. Rugs and small religious objects (one or two purchased as souvenirs and sold on the open market) can be exported. We will advise you of any customs regulations regarding your purchases.
TRANSPORTATION: Getting around Lhasa by bicycle is a great way to explore the city on your own. Tricycle rickshaws and public buses are available for hire most anywhere in the city centre. Road conditions outside of the major towns are often primitive, necessitating the use of a 4-wheel drive Landcruiser or mini-van.
RESTAURANTS & FOOD: Chinese and Tibetan fare is available in restaurants in Lhasa and the larger towns. Tibetan traditional fare consists of momos (dumplings), thukpa, noodle soup with meat or vegetables, and tsampa, a doughy mixture of roasted barley flour, yak butter, and water, tea or beer. Yak butter tea and chang, a fermented barley beer, are the local drinks; Chinese tea, soft drinks, mineral water and beer are available throughout Tibet. Dried yak or lamb meat and dried yak cheese are popular among the nomads.
TIME: Tibet, as all of China, is set to Beijing time, which is 8 hours ahead of GMT.
OFFICIAL HOLIDAYS: Sundays are considered a public holiday.
ELECTRICITY: 220 volts, 50 cycles AC.
ALTITUDE AND HEALTH: Once acclimatized, few visitors to the Tibetan Plateau experience more than minor discomfort from altitude. If arriving into Lhasa (11,830') by air, you should plan to take it easy the first day, drinking as much liquid as possible while staying moderately active. Overland
arrival into Tibet should allow the necessary time for natural acclimatization. Diamox, a sulfur-based diuretic, generally aids in helping the body to acclimatize. In Tibet, many common health problems are respiration in nature, caused by dry air often laden with smoke or dust. It is recommended to wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Skin moisturizing cream and a good lip balm are lifesavers.
HOSPITALS & DRUG STORES: The pharmacies in Lhasa sell Tibetan, Chinese and some Western medicines, including antibiotics and aspirin. It is advised that you bring your own personal first aid kit and be properly immunized. (See recommended medical list.) Basic toiletries can also be obtained in Lhasa. The hospitals and medical clinics in Lhasa are primarily Tibetan and Chinese. There are few medical facilities outside of Lhasa and other major towns.
POST: The Main Post Office in Lhasa has the most reliable postal service.
TELEPHONE/FAX: International direct-dial phone calls can be made at the Main Post Office and the Telecommunications building in Lhasa. Faxes can be sent reliably from several hotels in Lhasa. Wifi is available nowadays in most of the place. SIM Card could be avail easily by producing passport photocopies and a passport size photo.
ENTERTAINMENT: Local festivals provide the best opportunity to view cultural entertainment.
SHOPPING: The best place to shop is in the Barkhor in Lhasa. The entire circuit is lined with stalls selling everything from pots and pans to prayer flags. Polite bargaining skills are essential. It is possible to shop in some of the larger stores, particularly when seeking western items; there is no latitude for bargaining when prices are clearly marked.
GIFTS/TIPPING: Small gifts such as pictures or souvenirs from your home country are appreciated when invited into someone's home or for a special favour. A cash tip is appropriate for guides, porters, drivers and cooks on both tours and treks, as are clothing or other personal items you wish to give. We recommend that you not carry photos of the Dalai Lama into Tibet. Your bags may be subject to search upon arrival and at checkpoints when travelling overland.
WHAT TO BRING: We recommend both lightweight and warm clothing that can be easily layered. Sunglasses, hat and a scarf to protect your face against dust are essential. In the mountain areas, warm clothes are a must. (See our recommended clothing and equipment list.)
Buddhism is an integral and deep-rooted part of the Tibetan way of life. When visiting monasteries, hats must be removed at the door. Walk clockwise both inside the prayer hall and outside the stupa or shrine. Most temples, stupas and monuments can be photographed, usually for a small fee. It is suggested, however, that you request permission before using a camera (particularly with a flash). Religious rituals and rites are usually not attended by foreigners.
Even in the summer, Tibetans cover most of their bodies. It is important to respect their culture by dressing accordingly. There are both pilgrims and beggars seeking alms; donating a small amount of money to pilgrims is acceptable, as many of the beggars are professionals.