Travel to Tibet: a how-to guide to travel permits

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Updated: May 30th, 2013 | Comments
Tibet prayer flags_Chen bing See this link for our most up-to-date info on Tibet travel restrictions. UPDATE (22 April, 2013): TAR has reopened to foreign tourism! UPDATE (17 June, 2011): TAR closed to foreign tourist until July 25, 2011 UPDATE (8 March, 2011): The month of March marks the third anniversary of anti-government riots and unrest in the troubled region in 2008, themselves an anniversary of the failed uprising in 1959. In light of this, Beijing has decreed (through a some somewhat botched PR spiel laying the blame on cold weather and overcrowding in the TAR) that foreign tourists are not permitted to enter Tibet in March and restrictions may continue into April, 2011. Though Tibet is rapidly making its way up the list of the hottest travel destinations of the year, accessing to the "Rooftop of the World" hasn't been easy in recent years. Over the last decade, travel restrictions for foreign tourists have proved changeable to say the least, with political unrest, rioting and demonstrations leaving the Autonomous Region shut off for months and even years at a time. Today, travel to Tibet needn't be as complicated as it sometimes seems. No longer quite the remote and mysterious land it once was (the new Lhasa-Shigatse area). The big issues you're likely to face these days concern time, money and independent travel. You can get in, yes, but to make the most of your time in Tibet, careful research can make a big difference. And on the question of independent travel in Tibet, let's get that cleared up from the get-go—there is none, at least not legally. Tibet is currently a "tours only" zone. If the idea of spending your trip cooped up with a group sends shivers down your spine, then the only way to skirt round this is the more costly option of a private tour, but note, there'll be no ditching the tour guide. If you're only planning to stay  in Lhasa you can lose the car-and-driver and use public transport to get around the city, but really, if you're going to Tibet, go see Tibet and not just the capital. The best (and cheapest) option is to join a group of three or four with similar interests (track them down on travel forums and websites or inquire with travel agencies). You'll need to get your travel plans and schedule in order before arriving in Lhasa and it's advisable to give yourself at least three or four weeks to do this. Read on for the latest on travel in Tibet.... What you'll need to visit Tibet To enter Tibet, you will need a valid passport, China visa (as Tibet is part of China a single entry will suffice as you are not "leaving" the country) and a Tibet Travel Permit (TTB permit). This will get you as far as Lhasa and Shigatse. If you plan to travel beyond these areas, you will also require an Alien Travel Permit (PSB permit). For anyone venturing further afield and wishing to head overland to Kashgar, Nyingtri and Chamdo prefectures or Mt Kailash—all sensitive areas of land dispute with India—you'll  need a Military Permit. For more even highly restricted areas, a Foreign Affairs Permit is required. With the exception of journalists and government officials (who should apply to through the Foreign Affairs Office of Tibet), there are no restrictions on who can apply for a Tibet Travel Permit, and all of the above can be arranged by a travel agent, provided you book a tour and guide. How to get travel permits for Tibet Tibet Travel Permits are issued by the Tibetan Tourism Bureau only. A two-page piece of paper, this document details your personal information and travel plans and must be obtained through a travel agent (applications by individuals are not accepted) who will also be booking your tour and guide (though not necessarily your accommodation; see below). If anyone tells you they can offer a permit only service, they can't. What they can do is arrange your permits to almost anywhere, as long as you book a Land Cruiser and a guide. The process takes three to five days and costs RMB 350-650, depending on where your chosen travel agent is based. The general rule is the closer to Lhasa the better, with those located in Xining, Beijing and Chengdu offering some of the cheapest and fastest services. Scanning and emailing a copy of your passport and China visa to your travel agent provides all the required information and they will manage the application process for you. You may need to show a copy of your TTB to purchase your flight or train tickets, but if you plan to fly to Lhasa, be sure to request they send the original—copies are not always accepted for boarding. Copies are acceptable, however, when boarding the train. Once inside Tibet, your guide will retain your TTB, though seeing as you are required to have both a guide and Alien Permit to travel beyond Lhasa, this is not really a big deal—if you are stopped without any of these three you'll be sent out of Tibet and could face legal difficulties, as will the travel agents who got you your permit. If your itinerary requires an Alien Permit, Military Permit or Foreign Affairs Permit, your travel agent will arrange these for you. [callout title= Getting to Tibet:] By plane: The only international airport in Tibet is in Lhasa, which connects to Kathmandu. Direct flights to Lhasa are available from Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Xining, Xi'an, Guangzhou and Chongqing. Chengdu the most flexible schedule with 12-14 flights per day priced at around RMB 1250-1500 one way. By train: Climbing to heights  of 16,640 feet (just over 5,000 meters) above sea level, the Qinghai-Lhasa train is the highest railway in the world. Since opening on 1 July 2006 it has become the most popular form of transportation into Tibet, passing as it does through such dizzying heights and stunning scenery. Due this extreme altitude, all carriages are air-conditioned and pressurized with extra oxygen pumped in to keep passengers level-headed. Direct trains run Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xining and Lanzhou. Full fares and schedules can be found Qinghai Tibet Railway website or cnvol.com. By automobile: The roads into Tibet have improved significantly in recent years, and though driving to Tibet is an option (with a tour of course), only two of the five major highways are currently open to foreigners: the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway. However, according to Tibet TravelPlanner, the 1,214-kilometer Qinghai-Tibet Highway passes through a largely desolate landscape and you'll likely get better value and more enjoyment on the train. The road from Nepal is more scenic, with most tours taking 3-5 days and stopping along the way to take in the sights.[/callout] Choosing your Tibet guide Though you can't travel in Tibet without a guide, if you're just staying in Lhasa, they'll only be with you four to six hours per day while you visit the main attractions. However, with the number of tourists flocking to Lhasa growing rapidly, reports of poor guide services are also on the rise, so remember: once you head out of Lhasa, you'll be stuck with them for a great deal longer. Be sure to raise any issues to ensure you have a guide you are happy with before departure. Booking hotels in Tibet Having a tour and a guide booked does not mean you need to have all your accommodation pre-arranged. You'll get the best deals on hotels in Lhasa by booking yourself, though the summer months get busy, so book early. Outside of Lhasa there's no need to book; although there are fewer hotels, there are also fewer tourists and unoccupied rooms can always be found. Finding a travel agents for Tibet For the best prices use a China-based travel agent to book your tour—price decreases the closer you get to Lhasa you get so cities like Chengdu and Xining offer good choices. Before arrival in China If you are applying for a China visa in a Chinese embassy in another country, don't mention plans to visit Tibet. This could complicate and delay your application. Apply first for the regular China visa and and then the Tibet Travel permit after. Travel to Tibet from Nepal, Bhutan and India All of the above information relates to entering Tibet from mainland China. If you are traveling to Tibet from Nepal you'll be faced with a different, more complicated and more expensive set of regulations. Only group China visa and Tibet Travel permits are available (again through travel agents only).  This group permit and visa will override any existing China visa you have in your passport. It is a separate piece of paper and you must enter and exit with the same group, or you will face serious problems. There are currently no open border crossings into Tibet from India or Bhutan. And if all this seems like too much hassle or you are simply short of time and money, then a visit to Qinghai, western Gansu or the western reaches of Sichuan could be the way to go to experience Tibetan culture. Once part of the Tibetan region of Amdo, there are still a wealth of temples, monasteries, markets and museums to be enjoyed in an area that is geographically, physically and culturally (though not politically) largely Tibetan. For more detailed information on destinations and attractions in Tibet, check out our Tibet destination guide. You can also pay a visit to our China Travel Forum for useful tips and hints about travel there ,and if you're looking for fellow travelers to make up a tour, start up your own forum thread. There are also plenty more photos, in-depth travel reports and blogger comment to read about Tibet on the China Travel Blog, and our sponsors Ctrip will soon be offering travel packages to Tibet (making it even easier to set up your Tibet trip), so watch this space!
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