Tibet – incredible once in a lifetime experience

My first Asia trip. Never thought it’ll be China though. China was never on my „bucket list“. So how did it happen that I ended up doing my first Asia trip to China? My friend asked me, if I want to join her on her trip to Tibet. A few minutes later I agreed and here we go 🙂 Ok, you probably know that the political and geographical circumstances with China and Tibet are difficult. I am not going into detail. My personal view is: Tibet is Tibet and China is China. Although, officially Tibet is part of China.

General information

Tour operator in Tibet

The planning phase started in January 2018. We were looking at different Tibet tour operates (note: you’re not allowed to travel Tibet on your own, except Lhasa, you need to book a tour!) and decided to book with Tibet Budget Tours. They were about 200-300 US $ cheaper than the others. The main difference was the accommodation. Our hotels were 3 star hotels. Anyway, I think there are operating maybe 4 different agencies under different names, offering different prices, depending on the accommodation you prefer. We did the 8-day Mount Everest Base Camp tour at a cost of 760 US $ excl. entrance fees, lunch and dinner. The entrance fees in total are a 125 US $ on top and having lunch and dinner is quite cheap. It is said, to calculate 5-10 US $ per day tip for the guide and the driver each.

Chinese Visa and entry permit for Tibet

The chinese Visa costs 125 Eur, if doing it the direct way going to the visa application center in Germany (Duesseldorf or Frankfurt). You need to mention your flight and travel inititary (incl. Hotel bookings) on your visa application form. It is said, not to metion that you intend to travel to Tibet as your visa could be declined. To be honest, I don’t know if it’s really true, but we didn’t mention it and I just booked a hotel in Beijing for our whole stay and canceled it afterwards, free of charge of course. Within one week your visa is ready for collection. Then, you need to send a copy of it to your Tibet tour operator and they are taking care of your entry permit to Tibet. Yes, you need an entry permit if traveling to Tibet.

Traveling to and from Lhasa

You can travel either by plane to Lhasa, e.g. from Beijing, costs are around 300-400 Euros. That is the fastest, most comfortable but also most expensive way . The other option is taking the train. Also, you cannot book the train ticket on your own. Either you need to have a chinese friend who can do it for you or you need to do it through your (Tibet) travel agency. Believe me,  I did some good research about it on the internet. It is not possible to do the train booking on your own! We decided to book the train ticket through our Tibet Tour agency. Thats was the cheapest and most convenient way. We flew from Beijing to Xining and took the 24h train into Lhasa.It is said, that you can slowly adjust to the altitude and also the landscape you get to see on the way is very beautiful. We paid 166 US $ for the ticket.

We booked the soft sleeper, which are a bit more expensive but also a bit more comfortable. My personal opinion, as everyone who has done it, might have a different one: It is a nice experience taking the train, but I would not do it again. I am even not too sure, i fit really helps to adjust to the altitude (I would have prefered to be in Lhasa one more day to adjust as I was really suffering from the altitude sickness). Also, I was sleeping 70% of the journeyand here comes the question: is it worth doing it for the landscape views? Anyway, I do not regret to have taken the train, I just would not do it again and neither recommend it.

Flight to China

We booked our flight with Etihad. As mentioned before, we had a stop over in Abu Dhabi and flew from Abu Dhabi to Beijing. You do not need to built in such a long stop over like we had (although I can recommend to visit Abu Dhabi :)). The flight from Düsseldorf to Abu Dhabi is 6h and from Abu Dhabi to Beijing another 6h. We payed 570 Euro. The most expensive were the domestic flights in China. From Beijing to Xining, which is a 2h flight, we payed 250 Euros and from Lhasa to Beijing around 300 Euros, including the HongKong stopover. We booked our domestic flights with AirChina and Southern China.

Arrival to Beijing, China

Finally, after our 12h stopover in Abu Dhabi, which was totally worth it, you can read here more about it, we arrived to Beijing. Guess, what happend? YES, my backpack was gone! Without going into detail, I got it delivered to our accommodation at midnight luckily, as we were flying to Xining already the next morning. Be prepared, that it is quite difficult to communicate in English, even at the airport. Also, security and passport check before entering the country, is quite time consuming.

After we arrived to our accommodation, I tried to explain  that I need to go to a shopping center. We also tried to figure out, what we could do that day to not waste it. Communication was via a speaking translation app 😀 In the end, we went to a shopping mall and later the driver took us to a park.

 

It was nice, a typical chinese garden full of locals visiting as it was a long bank holiday in China.

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It was a short night for me. My backpack was delivered at midnight so I was waiting for it. We had to get up at 3 AM to go to the airport. Our flight to Xining was early in the morning at 6 AM.

 

Xining

From Xining airport, we took a bus to the city center. Bus tickets you need to buy inside the airport. On the bus, we met an Austrian couple and a Chinese guy who was speaking English, yeeeeah, jackpot! You rarely meet local people who speak English… All of us got off at the same stop and he organised a taxi for us, so we could arrive to our hotel. Most of the time, you need to show the taxi drivers the address you going to in chinese language as they cannot read the English translation.

Next challenge: Nobody was able to speak English at our hotel. The check-in took a while. Somehow we managed to explain, that we want to go the famous salt lake and they organised a taxi for us. Do not believe photos on the internet so much. It was not worth to go to the „biggest salt lake“ in China! First, it is a really long drive, about 2 hours one way and second, there is nothing special nor beautiful to see. By the way, we paid around 400 RMB for the taxi.

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Honestly: It was a waste of time and money. But hey, that’s ok. Shit happens while traveling 😀 The way back was just horrible for me. I had a really bad headache, so bad that I had to vomit. Probably because of the altitude. Pills did not help me. Also, we got a really bad traffic jam on the way back and arrived at 2 AM back to the hotel. My recommendation: if you go to Xining, just explore the city!

Train Xining – Lhasa

The next day we catched the train around 2 PM to Lhasa. I would recommend to buy some instant noddles and any other food you like either at the supermarket in the train station. You can also buy some food in the train but no idea about the prices and what the actually offered . I guess you can buy more or less the same things like in the supermarket. There is hot water available on the train so you can make your food, your coffee or tea. We booked a soft sleeper cabin which was fine. There were us and a young Chinese couple in the cabin. They were nice, also tried to talk to us but same challenge: no English 😀 The four of us gave up after 1 hour, haha. Well, not much to write about the train, as I was sleeping most of the time. If you take the train, do not worry about pillows and blankets as everything is provided. Soft sleepers are the most expensive but also most comfortable class to travel by train. The train is making some stopps as people are getting off and on.

 

 

If you wish to have more information about the train, just get in touch with me 🙂

Day 1: Arrival to Lhasa

Finally, after 24h we arrived to Lhasa. We were picked up by our tour operator and brought to the hotel. The hotel was good. You could actually feel that the air is thin. I felt dizzy and had a small headache again. Anyway, I suffered from altittude sickness the whole trip :-S It got better with every day but it did not dissappear till the end.

The first and second day we explored Lhasa by ourselves. Wow, it really is a different world!All the pilgrims, the way Tibetians are dressed and the whole surrounding, is really something special and unique!

 

Tibetans are really friendly people. They were greeting us, smiling at us and asking them, if it is ok to picture, was also no problem at all! They do not ask you for money or anything like that. The only thing, some may ask you for, is to show them the picture you took 🙂

 

Ok, let’s move on to the interesting part of that day. All of a sudden, someone just started talking to me in English on the street. I was a bit surprised, but at the same time, I was really happy, that someone was speaking English. After a usual small talk, he said: „I am going to show you the real Lhasa. Follow me!“ I was a bit sceptical, obviously! My friend as well, she told me that later but she actually didn’t say anything just followed. After my sceptical 5 minutes I thought: Fuck it! We just follow him! We are anyway in „the land of where big brother is watching you“. If we feel uncomfortable, we just leave. If he takes us to a weird place, we just leave. He told us, that he is a University teacher and that he is not afraid tob e seen with us because we could be his international students. Anyway, you could see, that he was a bit nervous. Why? Because it is not allowed. If a Chinese official would have seen us, I guess he could have get some real trouble. At the end, we gave him some money. He did not ask for it, but still, you do it, obviously.

 

We did not regret it. We were lucky. We saw places, we would not have seen on our own. We saw places, no tourists are taken to. At the end of our Tibet tour, I showed our guide the pictures of the places and he was really surprised and said, that we were lucky to have seen these places!

 

My personal opinion is, that 2 days are enough to visit Lhasa. In the end, it is just another big city. Of course, the historical city is great but you do not need more than 2-3 days to see the city and the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. It’s definitely recommendable though, to spent around 3 days in Lhasa before going on a tour to adjust to the altitude.

Day 2 & 3 Lhasa City Tour

I am not going to describe every day in detail as it would get boring. I just give you a short overview about each day of our tour.

On these days, we meet our group and our Tour Guide Kelsang. A really cool and young Tibetian guy. Luckily, he was real Tibetian, as I read, that it also happens quite a lot, that you get a Chinese guide instead of a local ….

 

Anyway, on these 2 days we visited Barkhor Street (Old Lhasa), the Potala Palace, the Sera Monastery, the Drepung Monastery and the Johkang Temple.

 

The Potala Palace is a museum and main pilgrim destination now.

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The first 3 monasteries you visit, you are excited and they are all beautiful but in the end similiar. That’s what also our guide told us right at the beginning. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the histroy behind each monastery as it was really a lot our guide was telling us about them. I need to admit, I do not remember everything.

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On the second day, we also had a welcome dinnerat really nice restaurant serving local food.

What is local tibetian food? Yak meat and yak cheese and also yak milk/tea. Some people like the milk or tea with yak milk and some not. I didn’t really like it as it is too sweet. It was good try it but I didn’t have to have it again 😉 I really liked the yak meat though, it tastes like beef JYou won’t find any sea food in Tibet. Why? Because Tibetians are buddhists and buddhist respect everything what is alive. But obviously they eat meat. The difference is, a fish is small. You cannot feed a whole family with sea food. If you kill a yak for meat, a whole family can eat from it for one year.

Day 4 Lhasa – Gyantse – Shigatse

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On day 4 we started in a mini van towards Gyantse and Shigatse. We got to see a really beautiful landscape. It was breathless!

 

We passed Yamdrok Lake, the Karola Glacier, we visited the Pelcho Monastery and the Kumbum Stupa.

 

The highest pass was 5.800 m above sea level. Just for comparison: Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world is 8.884 m above sea level. We only did a short stop over at the pass to take some photos and to enjoy being so high. You could really feel it :-O

 

We were also lucky, as our group was quite small. We were 8 people: my friend and me, a Brazilian guy and a Ukrainian couple.

 

Day 5 Shigatse – EBC (Everest Base Camp)

Just before we arrived to the EBC we made a stop over to visit another monastery and the little village next to it.

 

Finally, the Himalaya range, the Mount Everest! Seeing that and being so close was a real once in a lifetime experience! It was just amazing and leaving you breathless.

 

 

At the Mount Everest Base Camp we had the choice to either sleep in a „Guesthouse“ or a tent, which was just opposite the Mount Everest. As the EBC was at 5.200 m above sea level and the Guesthouse only at 4.800 m and it also gets freezing cold at night. We choosed the Guesthouse. My friend was not really happy about it as she really wanted to sleep next to the Mount Everest. Our tour guide did not want to split the group and he also told us, that everybody who sleeps in the tent, is actually not sleeping as it is soooo cold and everybody is sick afterwards. The do have heaters in the tent but they are switched off later and there is not much left of the warm.

 

The 5 of us shared a room in the Guesthouse. We got heating blanketsto survive the cold. I was not really cold at night, as the blankets were really great but again, I got a really bad headache and had to take some oxygen out of the oxygen bottle. I also bought some chinese medicine before, but it didn’t really help.Still, not everybody gets altitude sickness. My friends for example, she had nothing! The bad thing about it is, that you cannot train yourself towards the altitude. You can train yourself to do some long hiking or to climb a mountain but you cannot train to not get the altitude sickness. Everybody reacts differently.

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One really important thing I want to mention is: there is WIFI at the EBC!!! I was more than surprised! In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Himalaya range and the Mount Everest you have internet connection! Going on the highway at home in Germany, you lack to have connection most of the time! So, don’t worry 😀 You’re connected even in the middle of nowhere 😀

We watched the sunset at the EBC, which was really beautiful. Afterwards, we went back tot he Guesthouse, had dinner and went to bed as we decided to get up at 5 AM and to leave at 5:30 AM to see the sunrise.

Day 6 EBC – Shigatse

Early in the morning, we started our way back towards Lhasa. We saw the sunrise at the Mount Everest and stopped again in Shigatse and spent one night there. The landscape we got to see on our way back was different, as we were taking a different route. We passed some really beautiful sceneries.

 

All hotels we were sleeping in were 3 Star Hotels and they were really good. Breakfast was always included. Lunch and dinner was at our own cost. But that was not expensive.

 

Day 7 Shigatse – Lhasa

It was almost the end of our Tibet tour. At about 9 AM we started from Shigatse our way back to Lhasa. On the picture you can see a Yak 😉

 

On the way, we visited one more monastery, the Tashilumpo Monastery. We arrived around midday back to Lhasa. We went to our favourite coffee shop and at night for a last tibetian dinner.

I am sure you know the movie: Seven years in Tibet, with Brad Pitt, right? Did you know, that the movie is prohibited in Tibet and China? Also, Brad Pitt is not allowed to travel to Tibet and to China. I didn’t know that!

Day 8 Lhasa – Hongkong

We were dropped of by our tour agency to the airport in the morning. Our next stop was Hongkong. Literally, 1 night in Hongkong 😀 The flight from Lhasa to Beijing via Hongkong, including a 24h stop over, was a 100 Euro cheaper than a direct flight. We didn’t only do it because it was cheaper but also because we had the chance to visit HongKong 🙂 I’ll will do a separate post about HongKong.

Some final words

Tibet is really beautiful and it was indeed a unique experience. There are different tours and tour lengths you can book in Tibet. Be aware, that you need to book a tour. You are not allowed to travel Tibet on your own! From what I learned on our tour, Tibet changed a lot. The Chinese a doing a lot of construction, building streets here and there, building more and more hotels etc. I’m quite sure, that in 10 years time, it won’t be the same anymore. We did our tour at the beginning of May. It is a really good time to visit Tibet as there are not so many tourists yet. High season starts a bit later and it is also quite crowded and you have to wait in long queues to get into the monasteries.

We spent our last 2 days in Beijing. I’ll will write a separate post about it.

If you have any further questions, please contact me 🙂

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