Is it right to travel in Tibet?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 20th, 2012. Updated on July 7th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Tibet.
Yamdrok Lake in Tibet

Yamdrok Lake in Tibet

Travel in Tibet and get a nice welcome

A man in a hand-washed cheap black suit lurched towards me. Ahead another man pointed and yelled at a tourist. Beside me a local pushed my hand down and waved the other man away.

“No photos, put your phone away before they take it.”

I was crossing the friendship bridge between Nepal and Tibet overland. It was my first experience of the Chinese Governments iron rule. Unknown, unidentifiable men were shouting in anger at any tourist who tried to take a photo at this historic crossing point known as the “Friendship Bridge”.

In seven days I’d see a lot worse. I’d arrive in Lhasa, the capital, and witness a violent second uprising. I’d see both Tibetans, and the Chinese Army do terrible things. And, I’d document it. (Riots in Tibet, photograph of Tibetans in front of Chinese tank,) 

How dare I mention traveling in Tibet!

That was in 2008. And, every time I mention anything to do about traveling in Tibet online since then I get hounded by “Free Tibet” type organisations and strange unknown people looking for photos. Indeed, I’ve had to block most from Twitter as they spam me with hate messages.

(edit: within a few days of publishing this article the above twitter account of @TIBETANS was suspended from Twitter. I’d also like to note that the amount of Tibet hate spam on Twitter has lessened greatly. Thank you to the Twitter spam team!)

It doesn’t stop with one tweet though. “Strangely” many copycat tweets start to emerge following the first.

Someone from Twitter is paying attention though as this user has now been removed!

Yes, the nation of peace & love has an army of twitter and comment spammers spewing out hateful guilt messages.

Are they right to condone me for my visit to Tibet? Let alone for sending a Tibetan news tweet out? Or for my belief that yes you should travel in Tibet?

Brief Facts about the Tibetan Autonomous Region

Before my travels in Tibet I thought it was an occupied country, in part, I was wrong.

  • China maintains that Tibet has been a part of China since the 13th century
  • China had no effective control over Tibet between 1912 to 1951
  • In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was formally proclaimed in Beijing and in 1950 launched an armed invasion of Tibet
  • The U.S.A. U.K, and many other nations have publicly noted that Tibet is a part of China

Even the Dali Lama, is quoted as saying:

 “Most of the world who notices about Tibet, who pay more attention about Tibet, everybody knows, I am not seeking independence.” (source)

The problem with Tibet is not about wanting independence, though some would argue that point It is about many other things from freedom to civil-rights and equal rights to human rights atrocities and the list goes on.

Potala Palace Lhasa, Tibet

Potala Palace Lhasa, Tibet ... should you visit the "occupied" home of the Dali Lama?

For me, when I traveled through Tibet what I personally witnessed was something few people speak openly about and in some regards is much worse.

Witnessing Cultural Genocide in Tibet

While visiting a monastery in Tibet I spoke with a Monk. This, after being warned not to mention anything about “Free Tibet” or the “Dali Lama”. I was asking about the tiny red and gold boxes filled with scrolls along darkened red walls.

This was the monasteries library. It contained the history of both their monastery but also writings from others about Tibet over many centuries. There was only one problem with all this.

Buddha Statue from Tibet

Beside this Buddha Statue Tibet lies a different history that it bore witness to

“This library holds our history,” said the Monk with an air of sadness. “But inside here is someone else’s history.”

I probed further and got my second taste of one nation eradicating the history of another. The Monk said these scrolls now contained a new history written by Beijing. Not being at my brightest at the time I had to ask again.

“Do you mean they replaced the original scrolls with their own?”

The monk nodded.

“Where are the old ones now?”

He shook his head and turned away.

Again later I asked another man about all this. And he gave it to me bluntly.

“Beijing replaced our records with what they see as the real history of Tibet, not ours.”

Beijing has wiped out the cultural and historical facts written by Tibetans throughout the ages and replaced them with their own version of history

If that’s not a part of cultural or historical genocide I don’t know what is.

China is not alone in re-writing its version of history

The further you probe into history books and compare events the sooner you’ll see different opinions on historical facts. The Vietnamese account of the Vietnam War is very different to the U.S.A. account. Indeed even if you read an English high school history book and compare events in it to similar books throughout Europe you will see clashes and alternative views.

So is China simply trying to make sure the entire nation is reading out of the same book when it comes to its history? Yes. But is it the right thing to do? In my view no. And in many more people’s view it’s not the only reason China has replaced old texts with their own.

Personally I can’t abide the eradication of a complete history. The Dali Lama himself in an interview offers his own take of Tibet’s history as a nation with a diverse history of independence (source). Some might question him, others will question the Chinese version. Either-way it’s important that somewhere both are recorded, and neither eradicated.

Who do you believe when all you hear is one voice?

I’ve already written my accounts of what happened during the riots in Lhasa so I won’t repeat the events here. However upon reaching Xi’an and later Beijing I was stunned by the Chinese Medias account of the riots.

Chinese riot police in Tibet

First the Chinese riot police with tear gas ...

  • Reports first told of a few trouble makers in Lhasa – I just came from a city in flames. 
  • As the international media started getting footage, the Chinese Media categorically said there were no foreigners in Lhasa during the events – Sorry, but what am I nor the dozen others I met as the army moved in?
  • Chinese Media blocked the BBC and censored out international coverage of the events saying they were spreading provocative lies – A bizarre series of interviews were shown with a couple of “highly educated” western people denouncing international media and governments for supporting radical terrorists in China.
  • When I asked a hotel owner in Xi’an how the situation was he looked at me in confusion? What problem in Lhasa? It’s nothing. He wasn’t interested. No one in mainland China seemed to be. Why? Well, judging by the news reports, not much was going on.

I left Lhasa under armed escort. It was a city covered in black smoke from violent explosions, fires, and riots. I left Lhasa as the Chinese army poured in like a river of green and black. I left Lhasa staring out a window watching a foot stomping army and convoys of concrete screeching tanks charge in for hours upon hours. I left Lhasa seeing that same army take whole families away based upon hearsay. I left Lhasa having met some brave people who stood up for what they believed in, and knowing I, nor anyone else would see them again.

Chinese Army Move into Lhasa

Then an Army move in to clean up

Paying the price for witnessing history

I was offered over USD$10,000 by an international media company for my photographic and video footage of what happened in Lhasa during the live events. I know of people at the time who accepted such offers. I did not take the money, nor share the footage.


I saw the look of terror on local Tibetan’s faces as CCTV showed grainy images of people on the streets that may have looked like them. They were terrified of the Chinese Army that were making house calls with the same images looking to take away people for questioning.

Not just the individuals but their entire families. These were just random people on CCTV on the streets that “could” look like anyone.

These were the same people who helped keep me and others safe when our building caught fire. The same people who sheltered us from the Chinese Army as they raided buildings.

I could not ever morally nor ethically hand over any image that could harm these same people.

Yet in the years that followed I’ve been harassed through email by many people. Some from organisations looking for these images and video footage. Many claiming to be from Free Tibet organisations, or historians, or even researchers.

Most of these people have come up short on proving their identities and true intentions.

The Aftermath of the Lhasa Riots

The Aftermath of the Lhasa Riots

Back in 2008 I contacted the Tibetan Government in Exile and asked them what I should do with the footage. They said “Don’t give it to anyone.”

The others argue that they don’t want it getting out as it incriminates people.

I never published the identities of anyone. I never accepted payment for any footage, nor gave it away. And again, whenever I mention about traveling in Tibet online I get hammered by Free Tibet organisations.

So yes, from both sides I’ve had my fill of harassment about Tibet.

Travel in Tibet and listen to the Tibetans

Today I listen to tourists in Nepal ask about how to travel overland to Tibet. I help them with the correct practical information, and indeed managed to help them get the cheapest tour prices.

If there’s something I’ve born witness to over the past seven years of no-return travel and watching the world go by it’s this:

“take everything under consideration until you witness it yourself”

Before going to Tibet I had incorrect facts. Upon traveling there I learned the correct facts in person from many sides.

I don’t think what many Tibetans online are doing is correct in trying to promote their causes. However I strongly dislike the replacement of Tibetan culture and history by Beijing. What’s more I have a disdain for international governments who disapprove of China’s human rights atrocities in Tibet yet keep open trade agreements with them.

Forget politics, travel to Tibet for people, spirituality and natural beauty

Of course you could just throw caution to the wind and travel inside Tibet to see its raw beauty. From Mount Everest’s North Side, to remote near lunar like mountains. Experience the Tibetan people who not many get to visit in their well spaced out towns. Taste unique Tibetan food and enjoy a beer in a local bar. Wonder at giant natural blue ice lakes and monasteries built into mountains.

To do this you simply need to work through some bureaucratic red tape and plunge yourself into a mandatory tour that’s approved by Beijing. Or, given the winds of change a not so mandatory tour depending on how Beijing sees the current Tibetan “situation”.

Either way it’s not hard to get lost in Tibet’s relatively untouched natural beauty. There are few places like Tibet’s landscape on earth.

Mount Everest from the Tibetan Side

The sheet remote beauty of Tibet is unique in the world and a must see!

Is it right to travel in Tibet?

Having witnessed this “region”, and China among many more I can categorically say if you have doubts on visiting Tibet based on politics, put them aside. Go and visit Tibet and see for yourself.

I can write twenty articles on the subject, but it will still be my view. You will see, hear, taste, feel, and experience amazing things on so many levels upon visiting Tibet yourself it won’t be hard to come to your own conclusions.

Moreover, if you are very fortunate, you might meet people who will tell you tales of the past. A past that’s slowly vanishing. In doing so you will bear witness to history and even record snippets of it.

If you are planning a trip to Tibet do check out my guide on: How to travel overland into Tibet

It’s by experiencing and seeing things for ourselves that we learn the most. No matter who is right or wrong what you take away from traveling in Tibet can only help to document what’s happened there.

Comprehend it based on this and give others an inkling to also see Tibet for themselves. It’s only once you have the knowledge yourself that informed decisions can be made that can make eventual changes.

These are my views on visiting Tibet. What do you think? Would you travel to Tibet?

This is an additional feature travel article

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18 Great responses to Is it right to travel in Tibet?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said! I left Tibet with the same questions and in the end felt like it was right to travel there. I also got spammed like crazy on Twitter!!!! Tibet was one of the best trips of my life to date.

  2. paul nunan says:

    we had friends come to china last year in june and wanted to go to tibet but couldnt book tickets..i went and checked out travel agents here in nanjing and tibet was closed to foreign tourists because there wasnt proper accomodation available….I asked the agent not to blatantly lie to me in this wayand he just smiled and reiterated the same answer….evidently it was closed for months bexcause it was the 90th anniversary of the communist party in china….all iknow that for my friends to come all the way from Indonesia to go to tibet and not be able to was disapointing especially as officially it was open and there was no official government information saying it was closed….as a person who has lived in china for many years i was very disapointed and am really not interested in going to tibet until there is some sort of improvement in on going communication from the government about whether it is open or not….i have also been to gansu before abnd Xiahe a famous tibetan place was closed but again unofficially closed…

    • That’s an excuse from an agent not so long ago too. “Accommodation suitable for tourists was not available.” And “Transport suitable for tourists was not available.”

      This year they also closed the border again in March due to fears of unrest. No notice, just closed it with no real date for it to be opened again. April most tour operators say. Truth is they don’t know. They call the Chinese foreign office everyday until one days they say “Yes it’s open, but here are the new restrictions.” I think the latest is that you have to have a flight or train booked out of Tibet post tour before you can be allowed in.

      Generally I find if you are on a tight time frame it’s hard to plan anything in traveling to Tibet due this sort of behavior and lack of communication.

  3. Shawn Blair says:

    Hi I’m traveling to Tibet in June with my friend and will be traveling from Nepal to Tibet. You said it’s better to buy your tour in Kathmandu but it looks like I will need to buy my tour before hand. What is a reasonable price I should expect and is buying online safe to do? I have already gotten a quote from Tashi Delek for 1,000 each person and I had read that is the same agency you went through! Should I try to haggle while I’m all the way in the States? I had read that 1,000 dollars seems to high and I’m beginning to see that people are paying way less for the same tour. Hope you can help me out and thanks for this post.


    -Shawn A. Blair

    • Hi Shawn,

      You’re right on all accounts. $1000 is over twice what many people pay by buying in person in Kathmandu. There are some small things like nationality re permit expenses, and either return flights or trains onto mainland china which up/lessen the costs.

      But there’s no doubt buying a tour online is a lot more expensive than buying one in person from the Nepal side.

      I know a few years ago there were two companies using that name online. One based in China, the other in Nepal. They are the same but the prices were different. It might be worth while noting the address of the company just to be sure.

      I also found talking to them on the phone not so good. They are well used to people calling up looking for prices. Re competitors etc. So they won’t say anything until you actually go into their offices.

      Hope this helps. But ultimately buying online will be more expensive. If at all possible doing it in person is cheaper, though that’s not always possible I know.

  4. It might be flying over my brain right now, but I don’t know why Free Tibet folk would harass you for condoning travel to Tibet. It is bc they see it as supporting the Chinese government?! How hypocritical, if you’re talking about striving for freedom

    Obviously, it’s true what China is doing is wrong. But I think the spirituality and the beauty of the land (& what’s still existent of Tibetan culture) is what still attracts me and makes me want to go and learn more. And yes, I want to visit there still!

    What continues to hold me back is the expense and annoyance of having to be on a tour in order to get in!

    • I spent many fruitless hours arguing with them on Twitter to no avail. “Read my articles on the riots” But nope, they couldn’t and just started this anti mention anything about Tibet campaign.

      To be honest the really worrying issues have always been from the people that have emailed looking for these photos (unedited and large usually). Lot’s of reasoning, but always when questioned for documentation they disappear. I’ll worry more when “these people” manage to create a fake history of their reasoning to wanting these photos.

      By the way. Once you are in Nepal it’s quite easy to arrange a tour into Tibet. Not so expensive either. The problem is when Beijing closes the border with no warning and the permits needed to go anywhere else in Tibet. Also known as “You can’t go anywhere other than where the official tours take you.”

  5. Excellent article Dave – Greetings from Shanghai. Agreed Tibet is a unique experience of landscapes and culture BUT the on-going political situation is very grim … and whether tourists visit or not, nothing will change in the foreseeable future.

  6. John Dwyer says:

    Great piece Dave. I’ve thought a lot about that very subject. I visited Tibet in 2004 and fell in love with the place. I’ve thought about going back but wasn’t sure if it was right considering what was happening to the people. This is a problem not only with Tibet but also other countries that are ruled by brutal governments.
    So, if I and others choose not to visit Tibet, will that mean that the situation will improve for the people? The opposite I think will happen. Ordinary Tibetans rely on tourism to make a living. We can tell the world about the dangers they face. I’d encourage people to go and visit this unique part of the world. Take time to get to know the people and as much as possible, ensure your money goes to local business and not the central government.

    • Thanks John. I don’t see things changing in Tibet in the near future, so anything to help the locals would be a good thing. Including recording the changes that have happened to that region for the future generations to ponder over. Lost history is hard to recover.

      All overland tours from Nepal to Tibet now follow a fixed route and one can’t veer from it. They even insist on a pre-bought ticket to exit Tibet at the end of the tour. And a host of other permits to visit anywhere else in Tibet. All said permits take anywhere between 2 and 5 weeks to get approval. So as you can imagine not many people are able to avail of them.

  7. Greetings from Hangzhou … yeah, back in China to work and experience a new region of this vast and fascinating land.

    On the road, I avoid talking – in most situations – politics and religion as it leads nowhere (conversations are too often argumentative cycles of wasted energy.)

    As for my experience of Tibet: it was back in 1994, hitching across the country from Lhasa to Kathmandu over a month; yeah, the good-old days of backpacking freely in Tibet. But the politics were still the same … :(

  8. Sascha says:

    Great post, good to see some on the ground info that shows the complexities

  9. Roja says:

    My boyfriend went back a couple of months ago, to Beijing where we leave, after traveling to Nepal and coming back through Tibet. He loved it and this made me want very much to go there!
    The problem was he got from Nepal a group visa as it is needed, but I don’t know if it was strange or fake or just not Beijing’s taste: It canceled his chinese visa without knowing it. He had to go out of China and explain to the authority he was traveling, that’s it… Does this happen all the time?
    I would suggest that people that want to go there don’t try to go to both China and Tibet…

    All these lies around China and Tibet, all these talks that people canot have. Thanks for this article, things need to be seen from inside. But for all this mess, it does not make me want to go there yet, waiting to be sure not to come back to China.

    • Hi Roja,

      Sorry to hear about your boyfriends problems with visiting Tibet. Yes, they will cancel your Chinese visa once you apply for a Tibet Permit. It’s been that way for many years. There’s really no way around it other than to leave China and come back in again.

      So if you have a multiple entry Chinese visa an travel from Nepal to Tibet and on into mainland China they will cancel the Chinese visa leaving you with only 21 days total for travel in both Tibet and China. As the Tibet tour is normally only 8 days. That’s 8 days removed from you permit leaving you with only 13 days left to leave mainland China. There have been reports of some people getting an Tibet permit extension, but it’s very rare.

      Many people simply leave Tibet and either travel a little of China, or go to Hong Kong officially leave China and then get a Chinese visa to return.

      I’m not sure if you’ve seen my guide on how to travel overland into Tibet but in the Visa sections there’s some information that might help you

      Tibet permit and Chinese Visa information

  10. It seems that Twitter account must have been re-instated. I’m being repeatedly hounded by the same account just because we recently published two posts about Tibet on our travel blog. One was just mentioning a competition run by Lonely Planet to win a photography tour in Tibet, and the other was a guest blog post written by someone else suggesting the top 10 things to do in Tibet.

    As a result of publishing those, I’m getting repeated tweets (must have been about 20 in the last 3-4 days). Stuff like “#Alert @luxury__travel is sustaining Chinese brutality to Tibetan in occupied #Tibet, #boycott #China.#UK #Immoral” and then cc’ing a whole bunch of other travel accounts. Whilst I’m sympathetic to the plight of Tibetans, bullying me into never mentioning Tibet on my travel blog also doesn’t endear me to the likes of @TIBETANS