Thin Air, Don’t Care: Three Days in Lhasa Tibet

| |
Potala Palace Lhasa Tibet

The week before I departed the U.S. last month, I’d all but lost hope for my visit to Tibet. My entry permit had fallen through at the last minute which necessitated a re-booking of flights and a complete revamp of the itinerary for our second stop.

After significant research, I was able to locate a travel agency – Windhorse Tour – that could arrange for the permit and guide and just like that my trip to Lhasa was back on track! Albeit significantly delayed.

Luckily, I hadn’t solidified my flights to Hainan Island for the last week of the trip yet so I was able to do some shuffling around and squeeze Tibet back into the agenda. (Scroll down to the end of this post for a detailed guide on planning a visit to Tibet.)

After Khao Lak, I flew back to Bangkok and then had a brief connection in Kunming, China in order to reach Lhasa Tibet. Since the Tibet entry permit cannot be delivered outside of China, I would need to locate the travel agency representative in the Kunming airport to obtain the permit before being allowed to check-in for the continuing flight to Lhasa.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

I was sure this would be cause for alarm but, amazingly, the company representative was waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it as soon as I came out of customs.

Hooray! I was really going to Tibet! I don’t think I actually believed it until I had that permit in my hands.

Lhasa Tibet
Landing in Lhasa, Tibet

After a quick and scenic flight on to Lhasa, I landed on the Tibetan plateau known as the “Roof of the World.” The city of Lhasa Tibet sits at a lofty 12,000ft which I worried might be difficult for me as I’d spent much of the past two weeks cavorting at sea level.

I was greeted by my guide for the next 3 days, Tenzin, and I was pleased to discover that his English was excellent – you’d be surprised what passes for an “English-speaking-guide” in some places. As I settled into the back of the SUV for the hour-long ride into Lhasa, Tenzin began telling me about the local culture and the landscape we were passing through.

The Rules for Visiting Tibet

He also filled me in on some of the Do’s and Don’ts for visiting Tibet. For example:

Do: Drink lots of water to combat the extreme altitude.

Don’t: Take pictures of any military or police activity (this is harder than it sounds because this sort of activity is literally everywhere).

This last one, Tenzin cautioned, was extremely serious. Even if you think you are being subtle about taking a photo from the car, there are cameras everywhere and they will record the car’s license number and they will know who you are and who your guide is. All of this information is diligently recorded with your entry permit and there are serious repercussions for breaking the rules.

For this reason, it’s important to always err on the side of caution when it comes to photography and video within Tibet. (Both for your protection and for your guide’s.)

St. Regis Lhasa Resort Tibet
The St. Regis Lhasa Resort

We arrived at the stunning St. Regis Lhasa Resort and I was shown to a beautiful suite that would be mine for the next two nights. It seemed like the perfect place to combat altitude sickness and luckily there were oxygen canisters in the mini-bar in the case of an actual inhalation emergency.

The St. Regis Lhasa Resort was the first international luxury hotel to open in Tibet and since the day it opened in 2010, I’ve wanted to stay there. I could hardly believe I was finally here. At Tenzin’s urging, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking it easy and acclimatizing to the altitude.

Touring Lhasa Tibet

The next morning it was time to tackle our city tour of Lhasa. We had three stops on the agenda: the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Monastery and the Summer Palace (Norbulingka). We started with Lhasa’s most iconic structure (and the most challenging because of the steps), the Potala Palace. Built in the 7th century, this Tibetan palace is more than 1,300 years old and is the largest, intact group of ancient buildings in Tibet.

Potala Palace Lhasa Tibet
Getting ready to explore the Potala Palace

When we arrived, Tenzin pointed out the scores of local Tibetans who were out for their morning prayer walk around the palace. They walk in a clockwise direction, many spinning their prayer wheels and repeating Buddhist mantras. According to the lineage texts on prayer wheels, prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma).

Potala Palace Lhasa Tibet
Potala Palace Lhasa Tibet

We watched them for a few minutes before beginning the slow climb up to the entrance to the palace. Like most places we would visit that day, no photos were allowed inside the palace so all of my photos are exterior shots but the palace is incredibly impressive, both in sheer size and in design.

There are actually two palaces within the complex, a red and a white palace. Prior to 1959, the Potala Palace was home to the Dali Lama in the winter months.

Jokhang Monastery

We finished up our tour of the palace and then Tenzin suggested we take a rickshaw to our next stop, Jokhang Monastery. Since the monastery was only about a mile away, it was easier to catch a rickshaw than to walk back to the car and park it again. And it certainly beat walking now that the sun’s unhindered rays were beginning to beat down on us.

Also built in the 7th century and more than 1,300 years old, the Jokhang Monastery (Da Zhao Si) is the oldest wooden structure in Tibet. Its name, Da Zhao Si, literally translates as the “holy monastery for worshiping the big Buddha statues” and it has a supreme position in Tibetan Buddhism. Many temples in Tibet belong to a certain sect of Buddhism but the Jokhang Monastery is respected by all sects.

Again, there were no photos allowed inside the monastery but there were several open courtyard areas on the upper levels where you could take photographs of Barkhor Square below and the Potala Palace in the distance.

Tibetan Woman Lhasa Tibet
A Tibetan woman circling the Jokhang Monastery with her prayer wheel

Since Jokhang is considered the spiritual center of Lhasa, there were even more local people circling it while spinning their prayer wheels. The course around the temple is marked by four large stone incense burners and it was fascinating to watch the local pilgrims circle the temple lost in their mantras.

After leaving Jokhang, I did a little shopping in the nearby Barkhor market on my own (totally unsupervised!) and then re-joined Tenzin at a local restaurant for lunch.

Norbulingka – Summer Palace

For our final stop, we got back in the SUV and made the short drive out to the Summer Palace (Norbulingka). Norbulingka means “lovely garden” in Tibetan and I couldn’t think of a better name for this place if I tried.

Tenzin laughed as I marveled at all the flowers and said, “it doesn’t look anything like this in the winter.” Originally built in the 1840’s, Norbulingka has 374 rooms including a separate residence that was built for the current Dalai Lama (#14) in 1956.

It was only used for three years before the Dalai Lama’s exile to India in 1959. As we walked through the Dalai Lama’s former residence, Tenzin pointed out the different rooms where he studied, slept and met with foreign leaders.

Summer Palace Tibet
Summer Palace (Norbulingka) Tibet

By mid-afternoon our tour was complete and we headed back to the oasis of the St. Regis. I was a little tired but felt like I was holding up fairly well with the thin air situation. I freely admit that I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel awful either. I think with one more day to adjust I would have been good as new.

Tenzin, obviously impressed with my supreme athletic ability (ha!), commented that most of his guests want to go back to the hotel to rest after just the Potala Palace. That made me feel a little better.

St. Regis Lhasa Resort Tibet
Back in my room at the St. Regis to relax after a full day

That night I took it easy and got a good night’s sleep before Tenzin returned to pick me up the next morning for my transfer back to the airport. It was certainly a brief stay in Tibet but I’m so grateful that I was able to sort out the details to go. It’s such a unique and beautiful region of the Himalayas.

How to visit Tibet legally

As you may have guessed, Tibet is a complicated place to visit. Of course, it’s easier now than it was even a few years ago but there are still a lot of hoops to jump through if you plan to visit this sky-high Himalayan destination. Here are a few things you need to know if you’re planning a visit to Tibet:

First, you need a Chinese visa. And if you intend to visit Tibet, your visa application is probably not the time to mention it. If you indicate that you’re planning to visit Tibet while in China, your application will likely be denied. So, I’m not saying you should lie, I’m just saying you might want to decide to visit Tibet after you apply for your Chinese visa.

Second, you need a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). The TTP must be requested on your behalf by an authorized travel agency within Tibet and it will only be requested as part of a package tour to the region. It is not possible to apply for the permit on your own which means independent travelers like myself have no other option but to book through a travel agency.

Tibet Travel Permit
The all-important Tibet Travel Permit (TTP)

The other key part of the Tibetan Travel Permit is that it MUST be requested at least 15 days prior to your arrival in Tibet. This is where I got into trouble. A delay in response from the hotel’s in-house travel agency put me within the 15 day window making it virtually impossible to obtain the permit in time.

Third, you must have a licensed guide with you at all times within Tibet. You also must have a car and driver from the minute you land until the minute you leave. The only place you’re technically allowed to be on your own is inside your hotel, though this is generally not strictly enforced within Lhasa. The agency that requests your entry permit will make all of your arrangements within Tibet, including your driver and guide.

While the permit itself costs just a few dollars, the travel agency that applies for your permit is basically taking on sole responsibility for whatever you do while in Tibet. That means if you take pictures of military activity or police, they can lose their license…or worse. So with every tour they book, they are risking their livelihood and that of your guide.

Lhasa Tibet transportation
Tibet’s standard tourist vehicle, the Toyota Land Cruiser

You should also be aware that your guide has the ultimate authority to have you removed from Tibet immediately (with no refunds) if you disobey his instructions. My guide, Tenzin, told me that he had invoked this right more than once with previous visitors.

When you arrive, you’ll hand over your entry permit to your guide and they hold on to it from then on – meaning they control your ability to remain in Tibet. Seriously, the police will take you to the airport and put you on the next flight out if your guide pulls the plug. When in Tibet, take everything your guide tells you as law. It is.

Summer Palace Lhasa Tibet Norbulingka
Summer Palace Lhasa Tibet Norbulingka

And finally, none of this comes cheap. When I first started looking into my permit, I already had my hotel taken care of. All I really needed was airport transportation, the entry permit and a full-day tour of Lhasa. I kid you not; the first five agencies I contacted quoted me a price in excess of $1,000USD for this. Remember, the actual fee for the permit is only a few dollars. That’s $1,000 for airport transportation and a city tour! I was flabbergasted.

Luckily, after days of research, I was finally able to find a company willing to provide what I needed for slightly more than half the original estimates. The company was Windhorse Tours and they were terrific, both in the pre-planning stages, in the delivery of my permit at the Kunming airport and in the selection of my guide, Tenzin, who was fantastic.

But most people don’t go to Tibet just for a few days, like I did. There’s much more to see and the prices are better for longer trips. Most visitors come for the easy access to Mount Everest Base Camp which is drivable in an SUV. Yes, you read that right, drivable. No need to make that pesky, death-defying climb from the Nepal side, just fly into Lhasa and in a few days you’ll be posing for that Mount Everest photo op courtesy of a Toyota Land Cruiser.

So yes, it is possible to visit Tibet and currently it’s easier than ever. But the political situation is constantly evolving. In fact, as recently as this past March the issuance of entry permits was temporarily suspended. So, if you want to visit the “Roof of the World” start planning your trip now…before the rules change again. And don’t let the cost deter you, this is one destination that’s worth the price of admission.

Next stop, Hainan!

Disclosure: Accommodation graciously provided by the St. Regis Lhasa Resort.