How to Travel Overland into Tibet?
I traveled from Nepal to Tibet overland, but was delayed in Nepal due to bad weather in mainland China. Due to this, I was able to take my time and search out all the possibilities of this great overland adventure ... yes this page is fully up-to-date!
There are several ways to do this trip. I will stick with the main route focusing on Nepal to Tibet as it's often times the one that causes the most confusion.
For an easy trip: do the China Tibet route. Less visa hassles and it's pretty straight forward meaning less time spent researching - but its very much a dry follow the leader style tour. Simply book a tour from Beijing and off you go. I'll cover the tour-less option in the FAQ's. Meanwhile, for those who like independence and adventure - the Nepal to Tibet overland route is the one to go on!
Nepal to Tibet Overland:
Post March 2008 the Chinese created all sorts of restrictions on travel to and from Tibet. In 2012 the Chinese again changed permit rules into Tibet and Chinese visa rules the updated next section will deal with what you need. In 2015 the earthquake in Nepal caused damage to the Tibet road and friendship bridge - tours will reopen mid-October 2015 (they were opened, but then promptly closed in December 2015 for all of 2016).
2019 updates - The road is official repaired and the Chinese authorities as of September 16th 2017 opened the border so Nepal Tibet China overland Tours started operating again!
You can read more about why the Nepal Tibet overland tours keep changing.
Here's a list of what you need:.
(1) A tour company leaving Kathmandu
(2) A Tibet Group Permit (one can only get this through a tour company - solo permits are now also being handed out in 2019)
Be a part of a group of the same nationality (read on)
(4) A passport
(5) An onward ticket
What you do not need
(1) A Chinese visa
Do I really need a tour company to travel into Tibet?
For Chinese Nationals or a Tibetan National head to the border yourself. For everyone else you have to be a part of a tour. Period.
In Kathmandu there are 100s of agency's offering tours. The prices vary a lot yet the Itineraries vary little.
Why? Well, there are only
four three actual tour operators
left running these tours; everyone else is just an agency for them.
What does that mean? It means that there are only three company's running the 4X4's and mini-buses from the Nepali border to Lhasa. All the agency's work through them. Most of the 4x4's since 2016 have now been replaced with mini-buses.
Costs of Tibet Overland Tours
Keep in mind that booking online is far more expensive than in person. It will also take about the same amount of time if leaving from Nepal.
So who did I book through? For me, I always go for the top dog. Agencies are not in charge, the operators are. If you have used a nice agency for a trek and want to use them for the tour it's the same thing - though it might be more expensive. But if you prefer to locate and deal with the Tibet tour operator yourself then you can.
Which is better? For me the operator. But, unless you are good at one on one conversation and dealing with people. It might be a hassle. Your travel agent may be able to contact them with the latest info that bit faster.
Can I do it over the internet? Sure, but just like a trekking tour, it will cost a lot more. Doing it in person will be cheaper. However if stuck for time then there may be no choice but to book online. Just remember, you'll still need to give them your passport for the permit once you get there.
So, if possible do it in person - here's a guide to the times to help. Tibet tours leave every Tuesday and Saturday (usually Saturday) numbers and weather permitting. It takes 5 - 15 days to arrange a permit, but ... for an $40 extra it can be done in three days. So that's your time frame for doing it in person.
Who's cheaper? Ha! The great question. I spent 6 weeks snowed in and visited so many it was boggling. Since then I've had guidebooks to Nepal published and continue to stay in touch with all the operators. In the end there were some huge differences. Today and actual overland tour to Tibet is around $600 excluding visas. However most people seem to book through agents and end up paying $1500+. On an actual tour I've met people paying an average of around $1000.
When updating my guidebooks to Nepal in 2019 I learned that due to the Chinese government scrapping the older jeeps and enforcing the use of their own vehicles the price has increased. The lower priced tours now start from around $825 with all included. Feel free to bargain. Unfortunately it doesn't end with just this cost as you'll need to pay for a permit and onward journey too. However, there are ways to reduce these costs.
A flight to or from Tibet for your "onward journey when included with overland tours are more expensive due to the crazy cost of the flights from Tibet to Nepal. Tours alone also jumped up to around USD$950-$1350. Plus RTN flights of USD$450-650. You can half this by going overland to mainland China instead of flying back to Kathmandu via a bus or more easily a train.
In general there is a difference between the agencies and operators as far as the Tibet tour price went re commissions- $50 - $10 -$400. However there are a crazy amount of agencies around Kathmandu charging around $2200-$5600. Online, it's even worse. Avoid the big international travel companies who really are charging crazy prices. So watch out!
Where do I find
the Tibet Overland Operators?
Kathmandu! Go find them. Over the years many people have emailed me promising the world for this information. I'm still waiting ... even a thank you would be nice. The information on this page is already more than in any other gudiebook. So these days if you want the full contact details on these Tibet overland operators with maps they are available in my exclusive guide book to Kathmandu city, y are available in my exclusive ongestwayhome.com/nepal-guidebook-shop.html">guidebook to the Kathmandu Valley and my guidebook to Nepal.
As mentioned previously if entering into the Tibet from Nepal you do not need a Chinese visa. The Tibet permit will do you until you leave mainland China, e.g., Beijing, Shanghai etc. Do not get confused when the Nepali travel company calls this a Chinese visa (it is not a visa, it is a slip of paper that you keep inside your passport)
(1) If you do have a Chinese Visa it will be cancelled on entry so don't get one.
(2) A Tibet Permit is for 21 days though with a bit of persuasion can get 28 day permits
(3) It takes up to 15 days to process the Permit. 3 Days urgent for an additional fee of around $30. Fees are higher for USA citizens starting at USD$175, Canadians $110, Europeans & Russians $85 for express.
(4) The Tour Company you book with will arrange all your permit needs. But make sure to keep an extra couple of photocopies.
(5) You do need an onward ticket out of Tibet. Your tour company (Nepali) can arrange this in the form of either a flight (to mainland China or Nepal) or a train ticket (to mainland China). You could also swing a bus ticket if you book one yourself on-line, but it will need to be genuine and in both Chinese and English - the train option is easier).
Note: Previously you needed to have a group permit. Since late 2013 this is no longer needed. Just in case the Chinese Authorities reintroduce it here are some tips.
- The Tibet Group Permit must have a minimum of two people of the same nationality on it.
- It is possible to get a group permit with just one persons name on it. But, it will cost you over $1000, and a little time (this changes randomly, so do ask)
- If you are with others using a Group Permit you will need to leave China together at the same exit port.
- Europe: USD $85.00 (excluding Romania)
- Romania USD $115
- USA USD $175
- Canada USD $155.00
Again, you no longer need to be on a group permit.
However, it is now mandatory to have an exit ticket out of Tibet before a permit can be obtained. This can either be a flight ticket or a train ticket or even a bus ticket. Both of these can be purchased from your tour operator if need be as it's usually easier this way. Otherwise you are free to book your own - but do print out the tickets when applying for your tour in Nepal as they will need them to prove you have them!
For more information about visas check out my tourist visa help section.
If you need to book a hotel in China once you leave Tibet try my hotel search here.
Okay no matter which agency or company you choose the overland route is the same (if you fly into Lhasa the itinerary is different). Overland you'll be going along the friendship highway.
The average itinerary is for 8 days. Each agency will add their own wording etc. At the border your Tibet guide is the one who decides what town you stay at that night. They will usually say weather conditions, hotel problems or whatever to work the multitude of itinerary's into one that conforms to all. Either way, it's still 7 days and 8 nights.
Here's a sample Nepal overland to Tibet Itinerary:
Day 01: Kathmandu - Nyalam (3750 m.).
Drive from Kathmandu to the Tibetan border at Kodari (Zhangmu).
Day 02: Jeep tour, Nyalam to Lhatse (3950 m.).
A remarkable day's drive across the Tibetan plateau with Spectacular Mountain views from Lalung-La pass (5050m). Passing through the town of Tingri for Everest View.
Day 03: Jeep tour, Lhatse to Shigatse (3900 m.) via Sakya Monastery
En route, visit Shakya Monastery before crossing the Lalung-La (4500m).
Day 04: Jeep tour, Shigatse to Gyantse (3950 m.) via Shalu Monastery
After visiting the Tashilimpu Monastery.
Day 05: Jeep tour, Gyantse to Lhasa (3650 m.) via Yamdruk Lake (Turquoise Lake)
The journey ends in Lhasa.
Day 06: Lhasa sightseeing tour
Guided sightseeing tour of Lhasa - You will see Potala Palace, Jokhang temple and Summer Palace of Dalai Lama.
Day 07: Lhasa sightseeing tour
Guided sightseeing tour of Lhasa - You will visit Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery.
Day 08: Flight - Lhasa to Kathmandu OR flight/train to mainland China
For the price of each tour you get transport, accommodation and breakfast included. Your accommodation is dorm style for the first two nights in tea houses. Meaning basic accommodation sharing with one other or possibly more from the same tour. There after you will share the room with one other person in better accommodation.
You can arrange with your Tibet Guide for private accommodation at an extra cost once you are at the Tibet border.
Money changing can be done at the border at a high rate or at the first / second town. There are ATM's after the first town.
The Chinese authorities continuously change the overland border openings. As of September 16th 2017 the overland border is open. However, in case you want to go by flight - you still need to be a part of an official "tour" just like above.
It does make things a little more expensive. As a one way flight can cost USD $650-$750!
Fly to Tibet and overland tour from Nepal itinerary:
Day 01: Fly to Gonghar Airport and drive to Tsedang. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 02: Tsedang, sightseeing in Yambulakhang, Tadruk Monastery and Samya Monastery. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 03: Tsedang – Gyantse, Drive through Yamadroke Lake, visit Khumbum Stupa and Palchor Chode. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 04: Gyantse – Sigatse, visit Tashilumphu Monastery and Local market. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 05: Sigatse – Lhasa, drive to Lhasa through mid-road. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 06: Lhasa, sightseeing in Potala Palace, Barkhor Bazar and Jokhang Temple. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 07: Lhasa, sightseeing in Depung Monastery and Sera Monastery. Overnight in Hotel.
Day 08: Drop to Airport or Train station for your onward destination.
Please note that there is a difference between a Tibet permit and a Chinese visa. They are not the same although the Tibet permit is often called a visa by way of Nepali communication issues. It is in fact a separate piece of paper that you keep in your passport. It is generally for 21/25/28 days and also allows you into mainland China.
If you already have a Chinese visa in your passport it will be cancelled as the Tibet permit replaces it. The Tibet permit allows you entry into mainland China but cannot be extended with ease.
Tibet permit fees vary per country.
How many people per bus? 12 though they will run with less people. There are never more than the capacity of the bus allowed.
What type of mini-bus? Toyota mini-vans that usually hold about 12 people.
I really don't want to take a tour, can I go it alone? Do you speak Chinese? Do you look Chinese? Can you avoid one by one passport checks at the only bridge crossing into Tibet? Can you survive 1000's of KM alone walking barren off road terrain with no food or water? Take the tour or wait for the regulations to relax.
Can I book a tour alone or as a couple? Yes, no problem. But you'll need to join the larger group on a the same bus. If you want an exclusive private tour with just you or a partner then expect prices above USD $5,000.
Can I get out and trek on the tour? No. You make several stops en route. Toilet breaks, Everest viewing and various highlight stops. Once in a city or town you are free to wander around monasteries etc. Some of which are set into mountains. Consider it a day trek.
Is the high altitude an issue? Yes. You will be in high altitude so Altitude Sickness can be an issue. Please consult your doctor about this. Personally, I had a headache, as did others. The tour staff are not medically equipped. If you suffer from any serious aliments you should be aware that you will be in remote areas and away from hospital care. There are hospitals en route but they could be a day away depending on your location. Again, seek medical advise before going on any high altitude tour or trek.
Do I need to bring Tibetan or Chinese Money? Tibet uses Chinese Yuan. I would change money in Kathmandu before departure. You can change at the border and all the little border money changers will tell you that it's the last place to sell Nepali Rupees. It's money. You can sell it further on if you want though once you leave Tibet the rates are not so good. Be patient and don't bow to their pressure.
What's the breakfast like? Not so great. But not so bad either. Coffee, eggs, bread and noodles. There are plenty of shops in the towns and plenty of places to eat lunch and dinner. Bring a translation or picture menu book if you are not adventurous with what you eat!
Can I buy souvenirs? Yes. But there's a better selection of Tibetan goods in Nepal.
Can I talk, bring photo's or books about Tibetan Culture or the Dalai Lama into Tibet? Dodgy. You can bring them in. But if the person receiving them is caught, or seen, then it's them not you who will get into serious trouble. Either on the spot, or after you have left.
Do I have to fly back to Kathmandu? No. You can go where ever you want afterwards (permit permitting). Beware that many other regions in Tibet require different permits though. Most needing a week or two to clear. So with an average 21 day permit, you will be restricted time wise. The easiest thing to do is to take the T28 train (worlds highest) either direct to Beijing or stop off in Xi'an. Then go on to Hong Kong, break your Group Permit there, get a new Chinese Visa and come back in again.
Do I still need a group permit? No. Every few years the Chinese change the rules. It's no longer a requirement to have a a Group Permit. However if you are confronted with a change in regulations by the time you get there then do what everyone else has done. Get one with just your name on it. I got one. Technically it's not possible, but anything is possible if you try hard enough, ask the right questions and say the right things. ;-)
There's lots more practical information in my Nepal guidebook.
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