The Best Way to Travel to Tibet

Sitting on the high-altitude Qinghai Tibet Plateau the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is one of the most spectacular tourist destinations in Asia. An ancient and spiritual land, Tibet is a place of Buddhist monasteries, high snow-covered mountains, and stunning crystal-clear lakes. The best way to travel to Tibet is depending on individual preference.

Tibetan stupas and temples -Explore tibet
Tibetan stupas and temples

As one of the top tourist destinations in China, thousands of international travelers make the long journey to Tibet every year, discovering the plateau land for the first time and experiencing the way of life on the Roof of the World. While their plateau is a popular destination for tourists, knowing how to get there is one of the most important parts of planning any Tibetan vacation tour.

How to travel to Tibet

Independent travel in Tibet is not permitted, and all travelers must be on a pre-arranged tour of the region with a registered Tibetan tour operator, such as Explore Tibet. However, this is not as complicated as you might think, and having a tour operator handle your travel requirements makes the whole trip planning so much easier.

Tour operators handle all of the major aspects of the tour, from the details of the itinerary and the hotels you will stay into the permits and passes that you need to get into Tibet. They will even handle the visa for entry into China if you are entering the region from Nepal, though for those entering from mainland China, you will need to apply for the Chinese Entry Visa yourself before booking the trip.

air tickets to Tibet
Flights to Tibet

The first thing to do when planning to travel to Tibet is to contact a registered tour operator to arrange the itinerary and book the tour. Once the tour is booked, the tour operator will handle the applications for all the permits you will require for the trip, which includes the Tibet Travel Permit, the Alien’s Travel Permit, the Restricted Areas Permit, and the Frontier Pass. They will also make all the arrangements for the entrance tickets to the various attractions that you will visit in your tour. All you need to do then is decide how you will get there.

Travel to Tibet by Flight

Traveling to Tibet by flight is the most popular way to get to the plateau’s stunning capital, Lhasa. From mainland China, there are currently flights from around two dozen different airports across the country, most of which have direct flights to the Tibetan capital’s Lhasa Gonggar International Airport. Airports such as Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Xi’an are four of the most popular departure locations for Tibet, or you can choose some of the more obscure departure locations, such as Xining, Kunming, or Nanjing.

Flight times and fares do vary from airport to airport, and the flights usually range from as short as two hours to as long as 8 hours, depending on the departure airport. The best way to find a good flight to Tibet is to check the flight comparison websites, where you can get some good discounts on Chinese domestic flights.

Qinghai Tibet Railway
Qinghai Tibet Railway

The other option is to travel to Lhasa from Kathmandu in Nepal. As the only country with international access to Tibet, Nepal has flights daily from its Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. On average, there are around two flights a day to Lhasa in the low season, with as many as eight flights a day in the peak tourist season for Tibet. Flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa take around 90 minutes, and fly direct over the summit of Mount Everest on the flight plan to Lhasa.

Travel to Tibet by Train

Trains are another option for traveling to Tibet from mainland China. There are seven “gateway” cities to Tibet, with trains departing from these locations daily or every other day. The seven departure cities for Tibet Trains are Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Lanzhou, and Xining. While the trains are not the fastest way to get to Tibet, taking from 22-53 hours to make the journey, they are one of the most adventurous means of travel, and for train lovers, this is an ideal way to get to the roof of the world.

The trains to Tibet are also rated as being the lowest cost option for travel to the plateau from mainland China and are often less than half the price of the flights to Tibet from the same or nearby departure locations. Travelers also have a choice of soft sleeper or hard sleeper, based on the cost of the ticket, with the soft sleeper berths being the first-class option for travel.

The food trolley on the train to Tibet
The food trolley on the train to Tibet

Xining in Qinghai Province is the shortest and cheapest of all the trains to Tibet, taking just 22 hours to reach the plateau capital at a cost that starts from around 75 US dollars per person. The longest and most expensive is from Guangzhou, which takes around 53 hours to reach the plateau at a minimum cost of around 130 US dollars per person.

Aside from the cost, another great aspect of the trains to Tibet are the fact that they all travel over the Qinghai Tibet railway to get to Lhasa, giving you great views of the northern area of the plateau along the way. The trains all pass through Xining, and then climb up to the Kunlun and Tanggula Mountain ranges, crossing the vast open prairies of the Kekexili Nature Reserve and the immense Changtang Grasslands on the route to the Tibetan capital.

Travel to Tibet Overland

While overland travel from mainland China may not always be available for international tourists, there is always the option of traveling overland to Lhasa from Kathmandu in Nepal. Thanks to the reopening of the Sino-Nepal border crossing at Gyirong Port, to the northwest of Kathmandu, travelers can enter Tibet from Nepal traveling overland, taking the trip to Lhasa in the reverse of the normal tour of Tibet.

8 days Tibet Overland Group Tour to Kathmandu
8 days Tibet Overland Group Tour to Kathmandu

All of the same rules and requirements for Tibet apply when entering over the border from Rasuwa Gadhi to Gyirong Port, and the added advantages of this route include having the visa arranged for you once you arrive in Kathmandu and the ability to end the tour of Tibet in Lhasa, the stunning Tibetan capital, and continue on into mainland China to explore more spectacular places of interest.

Tours starting in Kathmandu and ending in Lhasa can easily be arranged, and can also include a car to take you from the Nepali capital to the border, where your private guide and driver will meet you to start your amazing tour on the Roof of the World.