Overland Through Tibet

May 2-6, 2009

From Kathmandu we proceeded northeast into Tibet.  This post mostly covers the first part of that trip – going overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa.  The next post covers Lhasa itself.

Booking Our Tibet Tour

Traveling in Tibet is not simple.  The Chinese keep a tight leash on the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (TAR), so the specific rules for whether or how one can travel in Tibet change regularly.  While Pnina and I traveled in Nepal we heard a lot of conflicting rumors from other travelers about what is/isn’t possible, so we decided to wait until we reached Kathmandu to verify things for ourselves.

Unfortunately, even in Kathmandu we never felt like we really knew for sure what the options are, but here’s what we gathered.  Note that everything we state here my change tomorrow, so it’s best to verify for yourself.

There are basically two choices for entering Tibet: you can go from Nepal or you can fly into “mainland” China and enter from the other side.

If you go from Nepal, you can only do it as part of an organized tour.  Why?  To enter Tibet you need a special permit and the China Embassy in Kathmandu will not grant this permit to independent travelers.  You can only get this permit if you go through one of the registered tour operators in Kathmandu, meaning that you have to sign up for their group tour.  The standard tour takes one week: you go overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then fly back to Kathmandu, or vice versa (fly first, then drive back).  This tour leaves on Saturday and occasionally on Tuesday, likely because those are the only days when China Air has flights from Lhasa to Kathmandu.  There is also an option to go overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then continue into China.  The trick is that the Tibet permit you get from the China Embassy is only good for 15 days (generally); it does allow you to also enter “mainland” China, but once you reach China you need to hustle into an immigration office and request to extend your visa so you can continue traveling in China.

By the way, the border from Nepal to Tibet was closed for a while, and it just reopened in early April 2009.  We’re guessing the closure was related to the protests surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising.  Anyhow, we’re lucky that the border happened to reopen less than a month before we tried to enter Tibet.

The other option, again, is to fly into “mainland” China and then head west into Tibet.  We don’t know too much about this option.  We heard that you still need a permit and that you still have to go with a group tour.  We also heard that the city of Chengdu is the main starting point for this kind of trip.  We briefly considered this option but we found that the one-way flight from Kathmandu to Chengdu costs more than $500 (and, ironically, has a connection in Lhasa!).  Other people we met (mostly Israelis) managed to get kick-ass deals by first flying to Bangkok and then booking a second flight into China (we heard this can cost as little as $250, total).  But we couldn’t find these deals.

Long story short, we ended up choosing the Nepal overland route.  We booked our trip through a company called Eco Mission Tours.  They have an office in the Thamel neighborhood in Kathmandu, a couple doors down from the Pumpernickel Bakery.  They didn’t have the best prices, but they seemed to know what they were talking about more than other tour operators.

Here’s the price breakdown:

  • The tour: $380
  • Tibet Permit: $165
  • Train Ticket from Lhasa to Golmud (in “mainland” China): $90
  • Total: $635 / person

Yes, this was another case where we decided to splurge.  We thought we were done splurging when we left Africa, but we were wrong.  Again, the thinking is that in the future China might decide to further tighten the rules on travel in Tibet, so we wanted to take this opportunity.  Of course, it’s also possible that China will loosen the rules and start allowing independent travel.  If so, I guess we’ll kick ourselves a little.  Still, it was a very convenient trip to do considering where we were (Kathmandu) and where we wanted to go (China).

Some final comments about the price.  All the tour operators offer the same tour and the price didn’t seem to vary much (we heard prices as low as $375 – not much different).  The Tibet permit is more expensive for US citizens than for all other nationalities (of course) and the price can be even higher if you want express service.  We gave our passports to Eco Mission before leaving on our week-long Langtang Trek, so they had plenty of time and we got the lowest available price.  If we needed quick service it would have been $200.  Finally, the train ticket is the worst rip-off of all.  We suspected that Eco Mission would take a nice commission for arranging our train tickets so we tried to book the tickets ourselves.  Unfortunately we couldn’t find a good/cheap way to do this online, so reluctantly we asked Eco Mission to do it for us.  To limit the expense, we asked only to go as far as Golmud (most people go to Xian or Beijing) and we asked for the cheapest class: “hard seat”.  Sure enough, we later learned that the actual price of this ticket is 143 RMB (roughly $20) so somebody walked away with a $70 commission per ticket!  Bastards!

Frustration aside, the trip was really excellent so we’re not sorry we spent the money.

Our Group

We had 22 people in our trip.  Not all of them signed up through Eco Mission – turns out the various tour operators in Kathmandu are just funnels for the same actual tour.  There was a mix of ages: six retirees, four college guys, and a bunch of other people in their 20’s and 30’s.

Most of the group on the steps of our Shigatse Hotel:

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On the first day we all filed into a bus to head to the border.  After we crossed the border we switched to SUV’s for the drive to Lhasa.  In our jeep we had Barbara and Jean-Mark, plus our driver Pemba.

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Barbara is from DC, where she works at the Kennedy Center.  Many years ago she did a Peace Corps stint in Afghanistan (before the Taliban, before even the Russians invaded), so she had some good stories to share.

Jean-Mark is from Paris where he works for Euro-Disney doing construction (new shops and restaurants mostly).  He said his job is interesting because the things to construct are never the same; e.g. once he had to build a retro-looking car to be used as a drinks refrigerator, and the car had to move.  He also said that in France there’s a law that says if you work at least six years, including 3 consecutive years in one place, then the employer is required to grant you a year’s sabbatical (unpaid) and to hold your spot.  Jean-Mark took advantage of this policy so he’s also in the middle of a year-long trip.  Vive la France!


The following map shows the route we took from Kathmandu to Lhasa:


We made several stops along the way for the night: Nyalam, Lhatse (not shown in map),  Shigatse, Gyantse, and finally Lhasa.

Entering China

There was a distinct difference when we crossed the bridge from Nepal to Tibet.  Clean streets, no random animals running around, no smell of urine.  The Chinese immigration building had shiny marble everywhere.  Soldiers enforced order and photos were strictly prohibited.

We all had our body temperature checked by an immigration officer – she held a device to our foreheads and pressed a button (it felt a lot like the “flashy thing” from Men in Black).  We’re not sure if they always do this or if it’s related to the recent swine flu outbreak.  I happened to have a bit of a cough and I was worried that they would reject me from China, but luckily I had no fever so I passed.

All of China, the entire country, is on a single time-zone designed for Beijing.  When we entered Tibet we had to change our watches forward by 2 hours and 15 minutes.  That meant that suddenly sunset was around 9-10 PM.  Weird!

Pnina heading to the border (still in Nepal here):

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Altogether we covered over 500 miles from Kathmandu to Lhasa.

A lot of the route was in high altitude, including a few passes around 5 km height.  Despite this, the road for the most part was surprisingly smooth.  Say what you will about China – they know how to build roads.

Because of the mountainous terrain, I expected the route to be very steep and twisty, but that wasn’t the case.  Once we entered the Tibetan plateau we mostly passed through wide valleys between hills and mountains, so the route was fairly straight and smooth.

The scenery along the way was awesome – dry rocky hills, snowy mountains, rivers, lakes, grassy plains.  We saw a bunch of small Tibetan villages along the way, though as we neared Lhasa we found bigger towns that had an obvious Chinese influence – modern buildings, signs in Chinese, more trees, cleaner streets.

Day 2: we make the big ascent from Nyalam to Lhatse.

Here there were still some unpaved stretches of road.  We didn’t have the best weather – grey and occasionally snowy.  Unfortunately this meant that we didn’t get a chance to see Mt. Everest way off (50 km) in the distance.  Still, we had some nice views.

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Trying to stay warm when we reach the first pass.  All the passes were decorated with thousands of Buddhist prayer flags:

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Our driver only had two CD’s with English music, and he played them over and over, which definitely got old after a while.  One was Bob Marley’s greatest hits.  The other was an odd collection that started with the Titanic theme and proceeded to various oldies.  Turned out it was actually a DVD with a karaoke option!  🙂

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Typical Tibetan house.  These villages were so isolated.

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This stretch of road was under construction so we had to take a fun detour:

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I find a friend at one of the lunch spots:

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Tibetan boy enjoying a coke:

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Another pass:

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Day 3: we had a fairly short drive to Shigatse that included the highest pass on the route – 5.2 km.

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Barbara tried to pet these yaks, which caused them to freak out and start running.  The poor Tibetan guy had to work hard to calm them down. 🙂

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Shigatse was the first modern town we saw on the way to Lhasa.

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Day 4: another short drive to Gyantse.  This time we stopped at a local mill for barley flower (tsampa).

There were a lot of irrigation canals along the way:

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Local guy hauling furniture:

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As in Nepal, we saw solar dishes used to boil water.   This was the best one:

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Day 5: a long drive from Gyantse to Lhasa.  This is where we had some of the best views.

An artificial lake formed by a dam.  The water really was this green color – amazing.

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Electrical tower?  Flags?  Why not?

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We got some fantastic views of mountains and a glacier near the Karo La pass:

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A lot of Tibetan kids wear pants with a big hole where the sun don’t shine.  We saw mothers pulling the pant-legs apart to let their kids do their business on the side of the road:

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Yamdrok Tso is the third largest lake in Tibet.  It didn’t have the green waters of the man-made lake we saw earlier, but it had some of the best skipping rocks ever:

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As we neared Lhasa, the terrain became a little greener.  It was strange to suddenly see all these trees.

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Altitude Sickness

With all the high passes we crossed, and considering that our ascent was pretty fast, it’s not surprising that several people felt ill.  Pnina was one of them – she had some headaches and once she vomited.  The tour guides were pretty concerned about her so when we reached the latter passes they asked us to spend no more than 3 minutes outside.  at one of the passes they told her to just stay in the car.  We were surprised at her reaction since we reached higher altitudes on both of our recent treks in Nepal, and we made sure to take our altitude pills.

Other people had it worse than Pnina.  One girl from Bulgaria spent an evening at the clinic in Lhatse.  The doctor gave her an IV and had her suck oxygen for two hours.  By the way, all this service cost about $20.

Several people (including Pnina and I) had upset stomachs, and some dealt with it by eating nothing but rice for a few days.  It’s unclear whether this was caused by altitude or by bad food/water.

A few of the restaurants along the way had cans of oxygen for sale.  In retrospect I kind of wish I’d tried one of these, just to see what they’re like.  I heard you need 3-4 in order to make any kind of difference.

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The majority of Tibetans are Buddhist, and they tend to be pretty religious.  There are a few Muslims in Tibet and a few that follow a religion called Bon that is fairly similar to Buddhism.

A good way to learn about Tibetan Buddhism is to visit temples and monasteries.  Tibet used to have 2700 monasteries and thousands of monks.  Many of the monasteries were destroyed after the 1959 uprising and during the cultural revolution.  Still, today there are quite a few monasteries you can visit.  We stopped at two of them on the way to Lhasa.

First monastery: Tsa Shin Lhun Po, in Shigatse.

This is one of the four largest monasteries in Tibet (the other three are in Lhasa).  At its peak it had 7000 monks; today it has 600.  In fairness, I should point out that in the old times the only way for a Tibetan to get education was to join a monastery, while today Tibetans can often attend one of the public schools set up by the Chinese, so there’s perhaps less incentive to become a monk.

Anyhow, this monastery complex included a few temples and lots of buildings where the monks live.  We went through a few of the temples and our guide told us a bit about religion and the history of this place.

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Hasina, Paul, and Pnina hanging out near the top of the monastery complex:

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You probably noticed that we didn’t take any photos inside the monastery buildings.  Nearly all the temples we visited either prohibited photography altogether or asked for a separate fee in each building; pnina and I chose not to pay the fees.  Most of the temples had either one huge Buddha or a whole bunch of Buddha statues in the middle, with a narrow path for visitors to walk around them (always clockwise).  The statues were incredibly elaborate, some using 500+ kg of gold.  Some temples had a big stupa inside: a dome-shaped structure that contains the ashes of a lama (teacher) from long ago.  The walls of the temples were decorated with carved wood and colorful Buddhist paintings (Tankhas / Mandalas).

In some cases we found paintings outside the temple and those were OK to photograph.  Our favorite was this picture of four animals on top of one another; the image is from an old story that teaches respect, though we never learned the actual story.

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Another image we found:

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Probably the best thing about the temples was watching local pilgrims go about their acts of devotion.  The temples had big bowls of butter with many wicks burning, and nearly all the pilgrims brought more butter to add to the bowls.  Tibetans believe that these lights will help them navigate in the span of time between death and reincarnation.  In the old days these “candles” were fueled by yak butter, but these days people opt for plant-based oils (basically non-edible margarine).  It comes either in liquid form (in big thermoses) or in solid form (looking like shredded cheese).  Some pilgrims also donate cash or other assorted items (e.g. school kids donate their pens and ask for help getting good grades).  All of them turn to the Buddha statues, place their hands together to their head and body, and bow.  Some bow to the point that they lay face-down on the floor (“prostration”).

Pilgrims taking a break from going through the temples:

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A few interesting things we learned…

First, you do not take your shoes off when entering a Tibetan Buddhist temple.  Why?  It used to be that Tibetans didn’t shower that often; generally they showered just once a year, during the “Star Festival” (aka the “Shower Festival”).  Pnina and I are not surprised: we wouldn’t want to shower in cold water when it’s freezing outside.  Anyhow, if all these Tibetans were to take off their shoes in the temple, it would stink, and temples are holy places.  So, they got used to just keeping their shoes on.

Second, as we were going through the temples learning from our guide and asking questions, there was a big elephant in the room: what topic is OK to discuss and what’s taboo?  The guide said that it’s OK to ask him any questions but to avoid politics.  The issue is that it’s not clear where purely religious questions stop and politics start.  For example, it was OK for the guide to tell us that in Tibetan Buddhism there are three important teachers: 1. Dalai Lama, 2. Panchen Lama, and 3. Karmapu.  All three attained a kind of enlightenment centuries ago that allowed them to break the cycle of rebirth.  Instead they elect to be reborn so as to help the masses.  It was also OK for him to tell us that there is contention about the current Panchen Lama (the 11th): one was found/identified by the Dalai Lama and one by the Chinese government.  The one found by the Dalai Lama disappeared a couple of years ago and is feared dead.  Meanwhile the government requires monasteries like this one in Shigatse to display photos of their Panchen Lama.  All of this strikes me as politics, but what do I know?

The second monastery was in Gyantse.

This was another large complex on a hill.  The  centerpiece was a pyramid-like structure that supposedly contains 1 million Buddha statues (we didn’t count).  In the hill next-door there was a fort from which we got some great views of the monastery and surrounding.

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The fort:

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Chris, Hasina, Carlo, Paul:

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Another interesting thing we learned – when you enter a temple it’s considered respectful to remove your hat and sunglasses…and to stick out your tongue.  Huh?  The tradition started with a Tibetan king, centuries ago, who destroyed a lot of monasteries and killed many monks (yup, this kind of thing has happened a few times in history).  People believed that he was a kind of demon with horns and a blue tongue.  Whenever he took a bath he invited a new woman from the countryside to wash his hair, and then he killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the truth about his horns.  One time a woman came to wash his hair and began to cry.  She said she wasn’t scared of dying, but she worried about her family who would be left to fend for themselves.  The king agreed to set her free if she promised not to reveal his secret, and she agreed.  But once out of the palace, she found that she just had to tell the truth somehow.  So she dug a hole in the ground and she shouted into it: “the king has horns”.  There was nobody around to hear her.  Years later a tree grew from that spot and a musician cut down the tree to make a flute.  When he tried to play the flute, instead of getting music he instead got “the king has horns”, and so the people knew.  Since then people remove hats and stick out tongues to show that they are not demons.

Back when Pnina and I were in Bahir Dar, we met a Dutch couple who traveled in Tibet years ago.  Back then they were able to go further off the beaten path, including various remote villages.  They told us about this custom – old people would stick their tongues out and they would look at each other and say “did that just happen?”  🙂  But in the places where Pnina and I traveled it seems this custom has fallen out of fashion.  It’s too bad.

Accommodation and Food

This trip was definitely geared towards people who like fairly cushy travel.  This means that in general our hotels were way nicer than the kind of guesthouses that Pnina and I have been used to for most of our trip.  Of course, that’s also part of the reason why the trip costs $380, and if we had our choice we would opt for cheaper accommodation.  But we had no choice, and that’s OK too – we definitely enjoyed it.

The only exception was the first couple of nights, in Nyalam and Lhatse, towns that have no posh hotels, where we stayed in simple hotels and had 4 peeople per room.  Pnina and I didn’t mind at all.  The older folks looked at it as an adventure 🙂

Simple hotel in Nyalam:

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Another basic hotel in Lhatse:

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Our fancy room in Gyatse:

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Another fancy and colorful room in Lhasa.  The list price for this room is 550 Yuan ($80) but our tour operator must have gotten a group discount.

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Breakfast was included in the tour.  We always ate at the hotel and the food was not particularly exciting – eggs, toast, and tea.  Occasionally they’d throw in some vegetables and that was a big deal.

Lunch and Dinner were not covered.  The guides generally took us to some restaurant, but the prices in those places were a little steep for Tibet (and we suspected that there was some kind of kick-back going on).  We quickly learned that we can venture off without the guides and find our own places to eat, which was a lot of fun.  The local restaurants often didn’t have English menus so it was tricky to communicate.  e.g. once, when we asked for the bill by making the standard gesture (writing in the air), the waiter gave us his pen 🙂  But somehow we got by.  In general we found that the Tibetan soup (Thukpa) is a safe bet, but Tibetan tea (which is full of Yak butter) is pretty gross.  Most of the time we opted for Chinese restaurants where we got Sichuanese food (makes sense – that’s the province next door).

Tibetan kids watch us eat breakfast through the window:

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Pnina in a Tibetan restaurant having Thukpa (noodle soup) and Yak-butter tea:

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Eating family-style in a Sichuanese restaurant – Carlos, Hasina, Chris, Paul, Pnina:

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Typical Sichuanese dish – beef and pepper:

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Skewers at a food-stand in Lhasa; they get deep-fried then stir-fried:

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In the News

While in Tibet we generally got our news from the one English-channel we found: CCTV 9.  This channel was obviously controlled by the authorities and everything we heard was very rah-rah China.

It was interesting to hear their coverage of the swine flu outbreak.  A few people in Hong Kong were quarantined because they arrived on a flight from Mexico with a fellow passenger who had the virus.  All the coverage basically said that the quarantine was totally appropriate and that the quarantined folks were being treated like royalty.  We’re curious to know how this was viewed in the rest of the world.

Also, this happened to be the 1-year anniversary of the big earthquake in Sichuan.  The TV was full of stories about the wonderful reconstruction efforts.  There was also footage of one town that was basically abandoned in its post-earthquake state.  It would be interesting to see it in person (from a distance); perhaps we’ll swing by there later on our trip.

In other news, the Prime Minister of Nepal resigned in protest after a senior military leader was dismissed.  This sparked protests in the streets of Kathmandu.  We saw footage of people burning tires and shouting.  Nepal just can’t seem to find stability.


2 responses to “Overland Through Tibet

  1. This is is almost exactly the reverse of the route we took through Tibet… the solar water boiler, prayer flag adorned electrical tower… I think that same cat sat on my lap in the same restaurant (in Tingri?). Those cheap oxygen bottles do work like a charm by the way… I sucked one down during the descent from Everest base camp to keep from getting ill.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think you guys got ripped off on your train ticket. Tour operators usually have to bribe Chinese officials for those tickets… we supposedly had paid for 4-sleeper compartments for the 48 hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa, and those turned into 6-sleeper compartments when corrupt officials re-sold our more expensive tickets to somebody else… no refund for us of course. It’s normal.

    Looks like you guys had an amazing time, good luck on the rest of your trip!

  2. Pingback: Lhasa « Honeysun

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