The last few years has seen a drastic improvement in the Tibet transport infrastructure and the region is now well connected by air, road and rail links making getting to Tibet easier. New airports have come up and there are five highways to Lhasa, the capital. The Tibet railway link connecting Qinghai and Tibet is the highest rail line in the world and is very popular ever since it became operational in 2006.
Inside Tibet, travel along mountain roads through the amazingly scenic countryside is an incredible experience. However, distances are large and travel in Tibet can be arduous at times in this remote land boasting an average altitude of 4,000 metres. Snow, in the winter, closes many passes while during the monsoon rains wash away roads in the southern and eastern regions.
Foreign travellers to Tibet need permits and there are many Tibet travel restrictions because of the political situation. This makes independent travel difficult and visitors usually go for packaged tours offered by Tibet tour operators. Do contact us on the political situation and prevailing regulations before going on a trip to Tibet. (This year for example foreigners are banned from entering Tibet from mid June through July in connection with 90th anniversary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party.)
Getting to Tibet
The easiest way to get to Tibet is by plane and millions of visitors do so every year. Gonggar airport, 95 km from Lhasa, is the main airport and operates several flights from mainland China as well as from Kathmandu, Nepal. The other four airports – Nyingchi airport, Gunsa airport, Chamdo Bangda airport and the latest addition Shigatse airport – are less frequently used apart from Nyingchi which has daily flights from Chengdu, Sichuan. Chengdu, 90 minutes from Lhasa, is the main hub for flights to Tibet, though direct flights are also available from other Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Xian.
Many domestic carriers operate services to Tibet and an airline based in Lhasa, Tibet Airlines, is set to start operations soon giving further fillip to air transport to the region.
The Friendship Highway from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa is a fabulous road and one of the highest in the world. The 870 km route passes through spectacular countryside and, even though it is a long trip, there are many takers for this overland tour to Tibet. The highway is closed during the winter months. The Qinghai-Tibet Highway from Golmud to Lhasa is another, less preferred, option. The other three highways are, however, more remote and rarely used by foreign travellers.
Completed in 2006, the remarkable Qinghai-Tibet railway line from Xining to Lhasa (27 hours) is the highest in the world and touches heights of 5000 m along the way. Piped oxygen is provided in cabins to help passengers cope with altitude sickness. The train from Beijing to Lhasa takes under 48 hours; you can also catch trains to Lhasa from Shanghai, Chengdu and other cities. The amazing landscape you come across makes up wonderfully for the long hours. The line is currently being extended to Shigatse, Tibet’s second city.
Since inauguration of the railway, the train tickets to Lhasa have been very tight to book, especially for soft sleeper (there are about 64 soft berths only on the train). If it is part of your planning, you are kindly advised to fly in and take train out if possible.
Note: Many believe taking train into Lhasa is helpful in acclimatization however this is still controversial. In our experience, many tourists complain the train journey is too tired (more than 40hrs from most places incl. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi'an etc) and they can't sleep well and feel headache on the train. In this situation, taking the 2hr flight to Lhasa and getting good rest might be better for acclimatization.
Getting Around Tibet
There are very few domestic flights inside Tibet and most travellers prefer overland travel.
Roads are getting better all the time, but some parts of Tibet are still hard to reach, especially the higher regions during winter and eastern areas during monsoon. Taxis are not hard to find in the major cities and are cheap. Buses, minibuses and four wheel drives are other popular means of transport inside Tibet. A lot of travellers prefer to go for jeep tours to explore this beautiful but rough land. Hitchhiking is an option provided you have time on your hands; small fees are expected.
Touring Tibet on bicycles is becoming increasingly popular among foreign and Chinese visitors. Bicycles are available for rent in Lhasa and other major cities. Attempt it only if you are very fit because the air is thin and the terrain and roads make it tough.