How to Experience Tibet Without the Red Tape

Ah, Tibet. Full of mystique and intrigue, Tibet holds a special place in the minds of many travelers. The ancient rituals and traditions. Potala Palace. Everest Base Camp. What’s not to like?

Sadly, actually seeing Tibet first hand can be an exercise in frustration. Given its rather tumultuous history under Chinese rule, the government doesn’t make it particularly easy for foreigners to visit. Want to go solo? Sorry, that’s not possible. Try a group tour! Want to enter from Nepal? Okay, but not with a Chinese visa. Try a group visa that won’t be valid beyond Tibet!

But what if I told you there was a way to experience Tibet without jumping through all the hoops that the Chinese insist that you jump through? What if I told you that you could go solo and it was entirely legal?

What’s in a Border?

You see, back in the day, Tibet used to extend beyond its modern borders, meaning that areas in neighboring provinces near the border are fully Tibetan…so much so that you won’t even believe that you’re in China anymore! And best of all, since these areas aren’t technically part of what the Chinese consider the province of Tibet, none of those crazy restrictions exist, allowing you to generally travel wherever you please completely solo (which is not to say the government doesn’t on occassion close the area to foreigners)!

Temple Carvings

Incredible carvings inside a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Litang

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway

One of the most popular ways to explore these areas is via the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which runs between Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province and Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Given the restrictions on entering Tibet, you cannot legally head to Lhasa this way, but you can get awfully close to the Tibetan border into some very isolated territory!

Be forewarned: the journey is not an easy one. You’ll experience very long travel days, some of the highest altitudes in the world and roads that Lonely Planet so eloquently termed “ass killing.” (I’m talking buses that travel dirt roads and get stuck in the snow here…)

Kangding

Kangding Street

Downtown Kangding

Bur rest assured, the rewards for your troubles are immense. Even after the first day, when you arrive in the city of Kangding, capital of the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the differences are immediately apparent. From Prayer Wheel street lights to that distinctive maroon stripe on buildings, it’s clear that this isn’t the same China anymore!

Prayer Wheel Street Lights

Kangding's Prayer Wheel street lamps

As you continue on west towards the Tibetan border, you are immersed more and more into Tibet. Higher and higher into the Himalayas the buses climb, topping altitudes of 14,000 feet or 4,267 meters and treating you to spectacular views of some of the most stunning mountain scenery you have ever seen! It’s a slow going journey, but some 300km (186 miles) or 10 hours away is the next major stop on this epic journey…

Himalayas

Himalayan peaks, as seen from the bus.

Litang

Litang Street

Downtown Litang

From the moment you roll in to the town of Litang, you know that you are deep into Tibet. This is a place that few foreigners travel to, partially because it is so difficult to access! Believe it or not, it sits higher than Lhasa at a whopping 13,169 feet or 4,014 meters, meaning that life here has had little influence from outside sources. It’s hard to walk down the street without constantly hearing, “Tashi Dalek!,” the Tibetan greeting, even from the most imposing looking Tibetan men (who happen to some of the friendliest!).

Stupa Decor

Decorations on a stupa outside Litang's temple.

Tibetan traditions are in full swing here. People wear traditional dress (though not nearly to the extent that those in Bhutan do), eat Tibetan food (Yak meat anyone?) and have strong ties to Tibetan Buddhism! The town’s impressive (and enormous) temple sits at a perfect spot overlooking the region, while the tradition of “sky burial” is still followed, where ones corpse is chopped into pieces and fed to birds. Sounds hugely unpleasant to many in the west, I know, but think about how wood is scarce at this altitude and how the ground tends to be frozen solid…

Buddhist Temple in Litang

Litang's brand new Buddhist temple.

This is a land where you can have those local experiences that are cherished by so many travelers. Duck into a restaurant only to join the owner for a cup of Tibetan Butter Tea. Chat with the children who are more than eager to practice their English. These are experiences that you really couldn’t have so easily on the guided tours you must take in “real” Tibet!

Tibetan Boys

Tibetan boys in Litang.

Something to Consider…

Sure, you won’t get to see the majesty of Lhasa first hand, but I can almost guarantee you that you will get a far more genuine experience. And your spending will go straight to the people versus padding the pockets of a tour company.

So before you shell out the cash for a tour to Tibet, don’t forget that there are other ways to experience the culture and have an incredible adventure in the process!

What do you think?

Have you been to Tibet or Tibetan-regions in China? What are your thoughts on the experience?

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23 Responses to How to Experience Tibet Without the Red Tape

  1. Odysseus May 25, 2011 at 1:28 am #

    Nice! I’m definitely taking this into consideration as I go through China. It will be like getting a “bonus” country. 🙂

    • Aaron May 25, 2011 at 2:01 am #

      Hahahaha much in the same way that Hong Kong is a “bonus” country? Cuz, it pretty much is! Even more so than Tibet, as it maintains seperate laws, currency and immigration from the mainland!

  2. Norbert May 25, 2011 at 2:19 am #

    I don’t know much about Tibet nor its restrictions on travelers, but this way of experiencing it does look very appealing to me, even with the ass-killing bus ride!

    Tibet is on my list of places I would love to visit, so I should make a note on this for when the time comes. Thanks!

    • Aaron May 25, 2011 at 2:53 am #

      Fortunately, that ass-killing bus ride comes with some awesome scenery! Just be aware that if you go in winter or even spring, you may just get stuck in the snow and have to dig out your bus! That’s what happened to me! They say that builds character, right? 😛

  3. MaryAnne May 25, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    I’d been out to Chengdu last year during mid-Autumn festival and had wanted to go further (but time! Time restraints! Argh!) and now I know I definitely want to go further. Thank you for this post, for re-inspiring me about being in China. There IS a lot I still want to see. Here in Shanghai, working my butt off, I tend to forget that…

    • Aaron May 25, 2011 at 2:55 am #

      China is such a huge and diverse country that there really is so much to see! That’s why I chose to focus on a very small area (just 3 provinces…Guangxi, Yunnan & Sichuan for my 2 months in the Middle Kingdom. You should definitely head back to Chengdu when you’ve got some time and head west! It was definitely one of the absolute highlights of my trip!

      • MaryAnne May 25, 2011 at 3:03 am #

        It is indeed a very huge and diverse country! Unfortunately I have to work (am a uni instructor)and can only get away during peak times. So far, in two years here, I’ve been to Guilin/Yangshuo, all around Chengdu, Beijing, Hong Kong/Macau, Harbin, and all around the Shanghai vicinity (aka Nanjing, Hefei, Hangzhou, etc). Am hoping to be semi-unemployed come September, with time to travel…

        • Aaron May 25, 2011 at 11:21 am #

          Nice! I was a huge fan of Yangshuo (Guilin…not so much…) and never actually made it to Beijing. Started in Hong Kong, spent a couple days in Guangzhou and ended in Shanghai (in time for the World Expo last year!).

          China has so much to offer! I can’t wait to get back there and see more!

  4. Rease May 26, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Looks beautiful! I definitely like the idea of feeling more like you are helping and getting to know the locals instead of going on a group tour.

    • Aaron May 28, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      Agreed! And it is insanely beautiful! Well worth all the work it takes to get there!

  5. Carl May 27, 2011 at 3:20 am #

    This area of historic Tibet is majestic. We stayed with nomads in Tagong via Angela at the Khampa Art Cafe, a truly incredible experience. She is an American and married to a nomad, and the experience was one of the best we have had on our travels so far.

    Our Tagong experience is here http://cockmansgoforth.wordpress.com/tag/tagong-grasslands/

    Glad you enjoyed it too!

    • Aaron May 28, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

      What a cool experience!!! When you are able to connect with locals on such a personal experience, it’s always so special! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Acceleratedstall June 3, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    I do appreciate the content, but Wow! Your photos captivate!

    • Aaron June 4, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

      Thanks!

  7. Chris October 9, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    What a trip! Did you see many other foreigners in Tibet (travelling alone, at least)? How easy was it arranging for a place to sleep, etc. there?

    • Aaron October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am #

      So, just to clarify, I wasn’t in Tibet proper. I was in Tibetan regions of China’s Sichuan process. But in the week I was there, I only saw one pair of other foreigners and they were doing what I was doing but in reverse, Clearly they get some foreign tourists as the place I stayed in Litang had plenty of literature in English (it’s probably busier in the summer when it’s warmer). Generally in terms of sleeping, unless I’m going to a major city (or sometimes even if I AM going to a major city), I don’t usually arrange accommodation in advance. I just show up and figure it out, which is why it’s so important to pack light. All the towns along the Sichuan-Tibet highway are on the smaller side so they’re easily walkable and I just walked and found a place. China’s it’s own kind of beast in terms of finding places, as English is really not common so it’t not the easiest place to get around in general, so once you’ve got that down, the Tibetan regions aren’t much different. The Tibetan people were amazingly warm though! Someone invited me to join them for traditional Tibetan (Yak) Butter Tea in Kangding!

      • Chris October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am #

        Yak Butter Tea…so tell me, is that literal or figurative hahaha? You mentioned the lack of English, which made me wonder about the language there. I imagine that the greated Tibetan region has it’s own language separate from Chinese, but what did you hear most on the street? Can someone who has, say, picked up a few phrases of Mandarin get by?

        • Aaron October 9, 2012 at 7:29 am #

          Yep, literal! Butter made out of the milk of the Yak. No cows at that altitude. And you’re talking to a guy who knew 2 words in Mandarin before setting foot in China (“Hello” and “Thank you”) and, by the time I made it to here two months later, only knew about 20 words. I survived China not being able to communicate at all, which was challenging at times (I loved China though). You get by with a lot of hand signals and pointing and by having people write things down for you in Chinese so you can show people. They do speak Tibetan primarily though in the Tibetan regions, but I do believe that Mandarin education is compulsory, so I think everyone understands it. I don’t think you need to worry though since I really didn’t speak any Mandarin or Tibetan…

  8. Melissa Davis November 8, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    Great tips Aaron! Traveling in Tibet seems to be hard for foreigners. Based on what I have read in your blog, I can say that it’s worth visiting. I love it.I hope I can visit it someday 😉

    • Aaron November 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      Thanks Melissa! It’s definitely worth visiting and for anyone up for a little adventure, I don’t think its hard at all!

  9. Odette Cyr May 6, 2014 at 2:54 am #

    Thank you Aaron for sharing this amazing information about travelling alone in Tibet. I’ll be in Nepal mid-September and I was wondering if I can travel by train or bus from Katmandu to Tibet. Do you have info about it.

    Odette
    Québec, Canada

    • Aaron May 10, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

      Hi Odette,

      To be clear, what I shared was not information about actually traveling IN Tibet, but about surrounding Tibetan regions within China. Solo travel within Tibet proper is not possible. You cannot travel by train from Nepal to Tibet. The only train connection from Lhasa goes to cities within China. You can travel by bus, but there are some complicated visa formalities and you’ll need to book a tour from Nepal to cross the border.

      In order to travel independently, you would have to fly to obtain a Chinese visa and fly to Chengdu, then set off like I did in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of Sichuan province.

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