Q I’ve heard that both the altitude and political troubles can impede travel to the Tibetan Plateau. What do I need to know?
Lee Cobaj, travel writer: With its fairytale temples, snow-capped peaks and a population that radiates spirituality, Tibet has achieved near-mythical status as a travel destination. But appearances can be deceiving. Since 1949, China has exercised strict control over what’s today called the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). There’s a military presence here, with tight restrictions on religious and intellectual pursuits, and there are concerns surrounding the forced resettling of the population. But despite these worries, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s leader-in-exile, encourages people to visit the country, to see as much as they can and to tell others what they’ve seen and learned. Travel to the area is monitored; you’ll need to travel in a group or with a guide at all times.
Alternatively, travellers can make for ‘Greater Tibet’ — where Tibetan exiles have made their home. As well as the TAR itself, this includes Qinghai, a fifth of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a third of Gansu province, two-thirds of Sichuan province and a quarter of Yunnan.
While there are still restrictions on Tibetans living in China, they’re noticeably more relaxed than in the TAR; Buddhists can chat about the Dalai Lama, there are more Tibetan-owned businesses, and nomads (and hikers) can strike out across those magnificent lands without restraint.
Yaow Butwisate-Lok, Wendy Wu Tours: There’s nowhere else on Earth like Tibet; the scenery is breathtaking, the people are welcoming, and the ancient religious culture offers travellers the opportunity for spiritual rejuvenation. Special travel permits for Tibet can only be granted by the Chinese authorities after the traveller has booked a tour and has had a visa for China approved by the UK embassy. Most tourists have no problem getting a permit but travel has to be with an escorted group, operated by an authorised tour operator or travel agent. At Wendy Wu Tours, our China office handle the permits for all our groups.
Altitude can prove a physical challenge. Fitness levels have little bearing on altitude sickness, so allow at least one day of rest on arrival. Keep hydrated and avoid coffee, tobacco and alcohol for the first few days. It also helps if you travel up to higher altitude gradually. On Wendy Wu Tours’ Tibetan Wonders itinerary, we go to Shangri-La City, which is at lower altitude to Tibet, before flying up to Lhasa.
For me, Tsedang — the ‘cradle of Tibetan civilisation’ — in Lhasa is unmissable, home to the second-century Yumbulhakang Palace and Samye, Tibet’s oldest monastery.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)