Tibet always fills our mind with images of Buddhist monks reciting mantras, caravans of yaks across frozen lands, prayer flags waving in the wind, wide windswept horizons and the high peaks of the Himalayas in the background. Tibet is a vast territory situated in one of the harshest places on earth to live. However, perhaps because that, it generated -and also expanded- a particular millenary culture and, deep down, a way of seeing and understanding the world. It is in Tibet that Buddhism achieves a degree of integration into society, a mysticism and a way of expression not found in other countries.
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, not just administratively but also religiously, is worth a trip in itself. With the Potala temple dominating its streets, buildings and temples, one feels absorbed by its spiritual power. It is also here that the conflict and clash of the Tibetan personality with the Chinese authorities, present in Tibet since their invasion in 1950, is most vividly experienced. Tibet’s integration into China has brought economic, technological, modern and infrastructural advantages, but has not been respectful of its culture and way of life, and certainly, not of its basic freedoms.
With the end of the Mao era and the “unofficial” revision of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, China gradually began to “normalise” and the Tibet region was opened to international tourism in 1980. However, especially since the uprisings of 2008, there are severe restrictions and it is not possible to travel independently in Tibet.
In recent years, and coinciding with the opening and increase in tourism, they have rushed to rebuild everything that had been destroyed and to “normalise” the situation. “Normalised”, because although there is a relative understanding and adaptation between the two communities, the Chinese authorities maintain an unpredictable policy in this territory, always susceptible to any hint of rebellion from the Tibetan community.
Here you have some brief travel notes and useful information for your trip to Tibet. Since you have a short stay in Nepal, which is your gateway to/from Tibet, we also add some useful information about Nepal.
VISA and entry permit to Tibet – VERY IMPORTANT-
To access Tibet from Nepal, the visa to China and the entry permit to Tibet must be processed at the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Kathmandu. Tibet visa obtained outside of Kathmandu cannot be used to enter in Tibet from here.
They are making things more and more difficult in what seems like a clear attempt to steer Western travellers away from Tibet. Now it takes 5 (working) days and you must go personally to the Chinese Consulate in Kathmandu.
The instructions received by the Chinese Embassy in Nepal are as follows:
1- There must be a minimum of 5 people to be eligible to apply for a Tibet visa.
2- You need to produce your hard passport copy (they don’t say about photos)
3- They spend 5 days to complete the visa procession.
4- You need to be physically present at the China visa application centre for biometric.
It seems the procedure is at follows:
Day 1 – Form fill up.
Day 2 – Visa process at VFS (Visa Facilitation Services)
Day 3 – Biometric data
Day 4 – Visa Process
Day 5 – Visa Process
Day 6 – Visa in Hand
Please note that visa regulations for Tibet may change at any time without prior notice.
The Chinese Yuan ¥ is used in Tibet. If it’s possible, it is best to change before arriving in Lhasa, but you can change at the Bank of China in Lhasa, Shigatse, Zhangmu and Purang. It is best to carry small to medium denominations of 10, 20 or 50 notes, as higher denominations can be difficult to change in small towns. Interestingly, coins are not usually accepted in Tibet. There are ATMs in Lhasa, Shigatse, Tsedang, Baiyi, Lhatse, Zhangmu and Saga, but don’t rely on them too much and use them only in case of emergency.
In Nepal is used the Nepali Rupee (NPR) and in general you will only use notes, which go from 5NPR to 1000NPR. In some remote areas or during the treks it may be difficult to get change for big notes, so it is advisable to bring small notes as possible, but in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Patan or Bhaktapur there will be no problem and even some restaurants accept payment with Dollars or Euros, although we always recommend that you pay in the local currency. You will pay the real price and it is respectful to the country.
There are innumerable small bureaux de change in Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and Pokhara, which you will see for their street panels where they indicate the exchange rate applied on the day for each currency. There is almost no difference between them and they are reliable. Naturally at the airport you have a change office with worse change value, while changing at the banks always means a small saving, but it is so small that it does not compensate the time invested. Many hotels offer exchange rates like those of small offices, but they usually charge a commission.
Tibet is a non-tipping country as a general rule. However, tourism-related workers can expect a tip if the work has been done properly. About ¥12 per day of travel per person is a guideline for your guide and about the same for the driver, although it may be a little less.
In Nepal the tip forms a large part of the final income of a worker, so they will expect the tip as part of their salary. For a tourist guide as an orientation level are usually 300 or 400 rupees per day of travel and person. Drivers get a little less.
Some local service providers or assistants can also expect tip but it will not be significant, between 50 and 300 rupees is more than enough. In most accommodation and some restaurants there are “tip boxes” that are shared among the workers. It is optional for each one.
As for restaurants is usually round up. In addition, the invoice usually carries the concept of “service”. Otherwise it is between 10% to 15%. With taxis you have already fixed a price so it is not necessary to leave a tip.
Mobile, internet and WIFI
In Tibet there are different operators with international agreements, but as always, the cheapest way is to use a SIM card from a local company, which you can buy by showing your passport. The easiest way to charge is to buy the usual cards with different values.
Most hotels and venues have WIFI, but internet and data connections can be erratic, as the Chinese government tightly controls all connections. In many places, you have to show your passport to access the net, and many websites are blocked and others work intermittently. Of course, be careful about the websites you visit or the comments you make in your communications.
In Tibet, there may be different plug types, as in China. The three most common types are the European round-tipped, the parallel flat-tipped and the Australian angled flat-tipped.
The voltage is 220V in both countries.
In Nepal, most of the sockets you will find are multiple, which means that probably you won’t have any
problems with your own plug format, either thin or thick, flat or round, although it is true that sometimes they are not very well held. UK sockets are more difficult to find. Be sure the switch is in “on”, and check that your device gets power.
Tibet is one of the highest regions in the world and is a continental plateau with the world’s highest mountains in the south, so you can expect cold and some areas or some days can be frozen. The wind can blow with intensity in open spaces, making it feels colder. Differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures are noticeable. However, Tibet is a huge region, so the weather is not the same in all places.
The best time of year for temperatures is between April and October, summer and autumn, although it can rain frequently, almost daily, during July and August, though usually in the evening. Even so, the weather is cool, with daytime temperatures averaging around 20º Celsius and a minimum of 10º Celsius. In autumn they are lower, and the minimums can already be under zero.
In winter, you can expect the atmosphere to be cold, but more because of the snow and wind than because of the temperatures, which will be between 10º and -10º on average. Even so, some roads may be closed and traffic will be more difficult.
The sun’s radiation at this altitude is intense, so good sunscreen for the skin and lips is a must, as well as a cap (watch your ears) or a hat.
Nepal is a subtropical country, so the climate in the most inhabited areas is usually from warm to hot and the sun at noon tightens. Summer is the rainy season and the monsoon visits Nepal normally from June to mid-September (getting longer some of the last years). The rain causes the temperatures to be a little softer and it usually rains in the afternoon or at night, not causing very serious damage in general terms. During July and August, you can travel to Nepal perfectly, just keep in mind that it can rain. You will see the whole lush and very green landscape, with abundant water, small and big waterfalls everywhere. Even you will have less chance to see the summits of the Himalayas, the clouds surrounding them will give you amazing pictures. Although it is cold in winter, it is not an extreme cold in the cities. In Kathmandu it is very rare to see snow, although frost can be common on winter mornings. Obviously in mountain areas we notice the difference and from 3500m is quite cold at any time of the year and especially during the nights.
General equipment recommended
As for clothing, it’s up to you but keep in mind that it can get cold in Tibet. Don’t rely on average temperatures. The fact that they are average means that can be hotter and also colder. You already know that in places where we can have significant variations in temperature, it is best to dress in layers: short sleeves, fleece pullover, jacket, raincoat. The thickness and quantity will depend on the season in which you visit us.
Nepal is naturally less cold. In Kathmandu, between June and September (and sometimes also October) is the monsoon season, so it can rain regularly, usually in the evening or at night. That implies that when it rains, temperatures don’t rise too much, but when it doesn’t rain and the sun comes out, can be hot. Cool summer clothes, shorts and light, easy-to-remove shoes are best.
In winter it will be necessary to bring clothes for colder temperatures, although during the day it won’t be freezing, with average temperatures between 2º and 20º.
We suggest you some items to include in your personal equipment and/or luggage. They are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. Consider what to take depending on how hot or cold you feel and your specific needs. It is up to you to decide what to take or not, but you will almost always find a shop that can help you with a forgotten item.
- Clothing at your discretion and depending on the season and your sensitivity to heat and cold.
- Warm sleeping clothes for cold nights at high altitudes.
- In Tibet, a cotton or silk sleeping bag may be advisable, as in some of our destinations the accommodation is basic.
- A small torch will be very useful in the dimly (or not at all) lit streets.
- Spare battery(ies) and a power strip for plugs and charging various devices. Plug adapter to be on the safe side.
- Sunglasses and sun protection for skin and lips.
- Small first aid kit, with scissors, tweezers, plasters, antiseptic, and some basic medicines: paracetamol, ibuprofen, antihistamines and anti-diarrhoea medicine.
- A small sewing kit is always a lifesaver.
Although no vaccinations are required to enter Nepal or Tibet, we recommend that you visit a foreign medical centre and, above all, get the most common vaccinations regularised. In terms of health, it is not a country with too many problems for Western travellers with minimal concerns. Although there is no such thing as zero risk, it is not a matter that should be a traveller’s obsession.
There are pharmacies where you can find most of the standard medicines you might need on your trip, although you will need to know the generic name. They are safe, affordable and sold in blister packs, not boxes.
In both Tibet and Nepal it is very difficult to find tampons, and if you do, they will not be the ones you are used to. Pads are more widespread, but you will probably feel the same problem. Our recommendation is to bring them from home.