Last Updated on September 29, 2022 by Sammie
My first experience traveling in Tibet.
It wasn’t a long lived dream of mine to travel Tibet. The idea actually came from talking to my buddy over a bottle of wine. Our October dark was on the rise and my options were 1) Go back to the motherland (USA), 2) Put on a bikini and sip out of coconut or 3) search for a “more authentic” adventure. After having gone to Mongolia and camping in the steppe for a week back in July, my expectations for travel are morphing into that stereotypical soul searching hoopla. Nothing was sparking interest. But you know what tickled my fancy? Being invited to go to Tibet with my fabulous friend Tim. Along with us came a scuba diver in our show and his friends who spoke just enough english to critique my chopstick technique. Sold. Where do I send my ridiculously large deposit.
Logistics to travel Tibet
Getting there is 99% of the adventure. Seriously, good freaking luck finding anything direct. To get the logistics settled: We took a flight from Macau to Xining, stayed the day for hot pot, then took the evening 24 hour train (liars, it was 22 hours) from Xining to Lhasa. Stayed 2 nights in Lhasa then began our road trip from Lhasa to Tibetan basecamp.
Tibet Travel tip ALERT
*If choosing to take the 24 hour train ride, get your tickets early to reserve a “soft bed”.
This expedition is brought to you by my ridiculously Asian travel savy pal, Tim. He had the brilliant idea to get our train tickets early so we could score the “soft beds” for the trip instead of being left with the “hard beds”. And it was a good idea because only 2 were left when we went to book a week out from the trip. Also brilliant because eastern definition of soft may be closer to our definition of firm to rock like.
Being stuck on a train might not be everybody’s cup of coffee but it was just our cup of tea. But in all seriousness, they didn’t serve any of the above so bring your own! You can find hot water so it’s very useful to bring a thermos. The thermos also doubled as a heater to make a nice water bath for our facemasks before applying (you find ways to kill time).
The trip was picturesque. We took the night train leaving at 21:20 so we were able to catch the sunrise and sunset the following day. I set my alarm and put my phone on time lapse . This way I could lay back and enjoy the morning rays cast the first light onto the constantly changing scenery from my bunk. Apart from the stunning colors, the possibility of seeing my first yak kept me from dozing off.
Tibet Travel tip ALERT
*Independant travel in Tibet is not allowed. You must register with a tour to obtain a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit. This website has helpful information to travel Tibet.
To travel Tibet you must be accompanied by a registered tour guide. This, to an extent, explains the cost of the trip. Once again, no independent travel. We couldn’t even leave the airport without someone from the tour company picking us up. We also spent our entire first day walking Lhasa on foot because foreigners are not permitted to use public transport. (However we did manage to score a taxi the last day.)
If you have the time to spare, I highly suggest taking a day or two in the capital, Lhasa. Amidst the Potala Palace, the temples in and around Lhasa are well worth the acknowledgement. The ancient town of Lhasa is paved with cobble stone and small storied buildings. The people watching is a must where women are adorned with traditional dress and colorful clothed belts. And of course, Barkhor Street, filled with plenty of shops of well made Tibetan crafts and clothing readily available to take your yuan.
Tibet Travel tip ALERT [Potala Palace]
*One of the most iconic stops of your trip. But learn from my mistake. Be careful about the types of questions you ask about the Dalai Llama inside the palace. Try to limit the number of questions about the reasonings behind the Dalai Llama leaving Tibet. Learn and be curious but be respectful as well.
Road Trip through Tibet
Some choose to hike to Mount Everest, Tim and I decided to road trip it. With our van filled with slightly less enthused travelers we were on our way. Making pit stops at Gampala Pass, Korola Glacier, and Manak Dam Lake on our way to Gyantse. It was in Gyantse where we were able to visit Pelkor Monastery. No trip is perfect and as much fun as I had road tripping, I did find the sheer number of photo stops a tad distracting to the peaceful landscape and Buddhist culture. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good “candid” photo but what made the trip special was learning and appreciating the resilience of Buddhism in this country.
After spending the night in Shigatse and sorting our Alien’s travel permit (just one of the few permits needed to enter Mount Everest National Nature Reserve) we were on our way to see the world’s tallest mountain. It was hours in the car, most of which was spent glued to my window, watching the world get colder as we ventured to basecamp.
Tibetan Base Camp at 5,200 meters
The amount of respect I have for those climbing this mountain is inconceivable. We arrived shortly to the Tibetan Side Base Camp before sunset and my heart was pounding from the lack of oxygen at 5,200 meters. We quickly settled into our rooms at Rongbuk monastery. It was a short walk away from the basecamp (an area further down the road, laden with rocks and high winds) where in the normal hiking season people would pitch their tents. The monastery closes the Tibetan basecamp to campers in low season as a way to encourage people to stay in the monastery. At first, I was disappointed to not have the true base-camping experience. But my lack of proper outerwear made me painfully grateful to have a proper room with a heated blanket for the night. That coupled with my underestimation of altitude sickness humbled me VERY quickly.
Tibet Travel Tip ALERT
*Tibetan Basecamp provides tent hostels from April to November. Or you can choose to stay at the monastery.
Tim and I power walked our way down the road to Basecamp in time to catch the sky being painted and repainted in gorgeous reds and oranges reflecting off of Everest. Was it beautiful? Of course! But it was more than that; It’s a feeling of being somewhere only few in the world have the opportunity to see. It’s the understanding that nature can humble the strongest of souls without batting an eye. I can still feel the needles in my hands from the beginnings of frostbite, and the tears the wind made me surrender. It was so painful. But it made it so memorable. I wasn’t necessarily enjoying the discomfort but I was appreciating it.
The night was brutal. Our guide had to come in with oxygen for some of the people in our room who couldn’t get enough air into their lungs. The air makes it feel like you forgot how to breath. I would be close to getting a dose of REM and suddenly it was as if someone put a hand over my mouth and I would be up panting. Eventually, I did manage to fall asleep around 6 am, about an hour before waking up to catch the sunrise. I woke up to my friend shuffling in the dark layering EVERY piece of clothing he had to prepare for the crippling morning winds. Following suit, I prepared the best I could with what I had.
The cold is humbling.
It’s funny how quickly you can forget what cold feels like. Not as funny, the reminder. We practically had basecamp to ourselves with the exception of a group of 4 standing proudly with a Chinese flag. After setting up our timelapse we forced our frozen butts to stay still until the sun was high enough to warm us a few degrees. Majestic in the video? For sure. Make no mistake, I almost left because I couldn’t bend my fingers when my brain told them to do so. But we stayed and I’m proud of us. There’s a sense of accomplishment associated with the difficulty. I wanted to feel a sliver of the pain that every climber endured. We stayed and the image of the day’s first sunrays on Mt. Everest will forever be windburned into my eyes.
If you have any information about current Tibet travel restrictions due to Covid-19, leave a comment below!