Here is my recent trip itinerary, trip report, and tour operator review of Tibet:
The planning for this trip began 9 months prior to this May 2011 trip for my large group of 28 adults. To say the least, obtaining the Tibet Travel Permit was a roller-coaster ride and we didn't know we were going to enter Tibet until just 15 days prior to the trip when we were finally issued our permit. When I initially chose our trip dates in May several months prior, there was no chatter on the internet that their would be any problem. However, things change as they often do in China and it looked highly unlikely that any permits would be issued for May travel for foreign tourists just like what happened in March. We were told to start thinking about making alternative plans which would have been very disappointing. However, to everyone's surprise, the Chinese gov't. moved the 60th anniversary festival of the so-called "liberation of Tibet" from May to July which opened the door to getting our Tibet Travel Permit. As a point of information, do as much homework as possible ahead of time to make sure there is anything that may be controversial happening near the dates of your travel. For example, it was recently announced that Tibet will be closed to foreign tourists from late June through late July probably due to the festival. You just don't want to get stuck with non-refundable airline tickets iike we almost did.
After searching for a reputable tour operator, I submitted the below itinerary for quotes and reviewed many tour operators and checked references. I wanted a tour operator who was experienced, responsive to e-mails, and who offered a great price. I finally settled on a Tibetan tour operator based in Lhasa called "Tibet Highland Expedition" (www.highlandexpedition.com) and dealt with the owner, Lhamo Tseten ("Momo"). Tseten kept me apprised on what was going on with the permit and was very responsive to my e-mails and telephone calls. Before I even met him, I felt I had a friend in China. For such a large tour group, I had to gain a lot of confidence. I worked with Tseten in choosing the best hotels for the money and used the reviews I read here on Tripadvisor. I was very pleased. Tseten chose the restaurants and my group was quite pleased with his selections.
The only bump in the road was that our tour bus was broken into on our last afternoon in Lhasa and an IPad, and IPod, and and small backpack was stolen when we were told by the bus driver that "it was okay" to leave our possessions on the bus while we did a walking tour as he would be with the bus. However, he made a quick trip to his home and according to a witness, two teenagers had crawled through a back window of the bus that was left ajar by one person in my tour group. Nevertheless, I personally feel the bus driver should have checked all the windows before he left the bus and made sure everything was shut and locked. The four hours at the police station was time consuming, but we felt the Tibetan police were trying to do the best they could in investigating the crime. Words to the wise is don't leave anything of real value on the bus at any time no matter what the bus driver says. Of course, any bus can be broken into, but this incident, I feel, could have been avoided. We chalked it up as a loss and moved on so that we could continue to enjoy the rest of our fantastic trip.
In Tibet, especially in Lhasa, be prepared to see the military everyhwere -- even marching in formation down streets. I never been in a war zone, but it sure felt like an occupied country. I also noticed our Tibet Travel Permit was checked at least 15 times and we all had to show our passports at least four times to the military en route to Mt. Everest on the Friendship Highway. They would simply check off our names on the Tibet Travel Permit as they viewed our passports.
Of course, the tour guide of any tour can make or break a tour. Tseten contracted with a great Tibetan guide named Sangye Kyab to lead our group and he did all he could to enhance our trip in Tibet. He was very patient, very knowledgeable of Buddism in explaining the temples and monasteries, and always williing to lend a hand where needed. He said that he has been guiding for 8 years and lives in Lhasa. I will definitely request him again as well as the tour operator , "TIbet Highland Expedition", for possible future return trips to Tibet..
A few fantastic highlights of the trip were:
1) The whole Mt. Everest Base Camp Experience and staying with a Tibetan family in their tent at the Tourist Base Camp.
2) Picnic by Yamdrok Lake in Tibet
3) Potala Palace -- its huge with many stairs to climb but well worth it!
4) Visit to the Nomad’s home high up in the snowy mountains in Tibet at 16,000 ft.
5) Off-roading from the Everest Base Camp to Old Tingri in Tibet on bumpy dirt-roads with fantastic mountain scenery all around. You truly feel you're in the middle of nowhere.
6) Visit to the Dickey Orphanage and Blind School ("Braille without Borders") and especially hearing the young blind girl sing solo for us and also hearing the group of kids at the orphanage sing "You are my Sunshine" in English). The Blind School is also where the six blind teenagers were from who starred in the highly acclaimed documentary, "Blindsight", and we met a couple of them.
7) Getting a foot massage at the Blind Massage Clinic in Barkhor (Old Town) of Lhasa (cost was only $18 for 50 minutes).
We were originally going to fly into Xining from Guangzhou and take the famous Tibet Railyway into Lhasa but China Southern Airlines changed their flight schedule right at the time of ticketing (45 days prior to the trip) which would have caused us to miss the train due to the late arrival. China Southern Airlines alternatively flew our group directly into Lhasa.
Here is our final itinerary that we used:
SUNDAY, MAY 15TH (GUANGZHUO - LHASA)
Morning: After flying for 7,216 miles from the U.S., we arrive in Guangzhou (CAN) at 6:00 a.m. We will collect our baggage and go through customs and passport control. We will re-check our baggage and board China Southern Airlines flight #3463 departing at 9:00 a.m. for Chongqing (CKG) arriving at 10:55 a.m. We will continue on China Southern Airlines flight #3463 and depart Chongqing (CKG) at 12:00 noon to fly to Lhasa (LXA), Tibet.
Afternoon: We arrive Lhasa (3,650 m/12.000 ft.) at 2:35 p.m. and be warmly received by our local Tibetan tour guide and driver at Gonggar Airport where we will receive a Hada (called a “Kada”) as a gift, which is a white scarf that symbolizes good luck and happiness in Tibetan culture. We will then be transferred 63 km (39 miles/90 minutes) by bus to our hotel in Lhasa, the Kyichu Hotel (www.hotelkyichu.com), and check-in. On the way to our hotel we will pass through a 5-km tunnel and also enjoy the spectacular scenery, typical Tibetan villages, as well as yak-skin-boats cruising on Yalung Tsangpo River. The rest of the day will be free to explore the local area and to take it easy. You can also walk to the Jokahng Temple or Barkhor Street. We will be spending three nights in Lhasa to help us acclimatize to the high elevation prior to beginning our journey to the Mt. Everest base camp.
Evening: We will have dinner at a local restaurant and overnight at the Kyichu Hotel (D)
MONDAY, MAY 16TH (LHASA)
Morning: The first two days we are in Tibet will be put towards sightseeing in Lhasa. After breakfast at our hotel, we will visit fabulous and typical Buddhist and historic sites, including the three important monasteries Jokhang Temple, Potala Palace, and Drepung Monastery. The first and foremost is Johkang Temple, the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism, which attracts pilgrims all over the Tibetan area. It was built during Songtsen Gonpo's reign by Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty, 647 A.D. The Jokhang Temple, built mainly for the "Jowoe" who brought along Princess Wencheng from Xi'an during the Tang Dynasty, is grouped into the World Cultural Heritage list by UNESCO. We will also explore the circular pilgrim route Barkhor while visiting the Johkang Temple, to make contact with local folks here, and if possible purchase some traditional Tibetan artifacts, religious implements, antiques, books, Tibetan music instruments, Thangkas, and traditional Tibetan clothes, etc.
Afternoon: After lunch at a local restaurant we will also visit Norbulingkha Palace. "Norbulingkha" is a Tibetan word which means "treasure garden" or "jeweled park" and lies at the western suburbs of Lhasa within 2 km from Potala Palace. It is listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. The Norbulingkha Palace is called Summer Palace and built by the seventh Dalai Lama in the mid-18th century.
The successive Dalai Lamas studied and stayed here during the summer time. We will then visit the Tibet Museum and also explore the famous old Barkhor Street Bazaar where we can experience the local style and shop for traditional Tibetan trinkets. This area of the Old Town is both the spiritual heart of Lhasa and the main commercial district for Tibetans.
Evening: We will have dinner at a local restaurant and overnight at the Kyichu Hotel. (B,L,D)
TUESDAY, MAY 17H (LHASA)
Morning: After breakfast at the hotel, we will visit Potala Palace, the highest palace in the world and the must-see in Tibet, recently considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Potala Palace is divided into two different parts; a red and a white palace, which take at least a good two hours to visit the rooms, halls and chapels. We can explore the grandest of the myriad chapels, its audience halls, the jeweled and golden burial chortens (Stupa Tombs) of past Dalai Lamas, and tremendous numbers of Buddhist frescoes, Thangkas, and combinations of mandala, figures of the Buddha.
Afternoon: After lunch at a local restaurant, we will also visit the Drepung Monastery located in the suburbs of Lhasa, and hosted by hundreds of Monks, learning, praying, studying, and living there. It is situated at the foothill of a mountain and was founded by Jamyang Choeje in 1416. The monastery is divided into two different colleges: Drepung Loselling and Drepung Gomang College. The Ganden Podrang is famous among them as it was the government center during the fifth Dalai Lama and later moved to the famous Potala Palace during that era.
Evening: This evening we will experience a great dinner and folk culture show with traditional Tibetan music and dancing to provide a memorable experience of Tibet. Then, we will overnight at the Kyichu Hotel. (B,L,D)
(Note: The sequence of sightseeing will be based on the reservation of Potala Palace. Time permitting; we will also visit a Tibetan orphanage in Lhasa.)
WEDNESDAY, MAY 18TH (LHASA – GYANTSE)
260 km, 8 hours of driving time on asphalt road in good condition (3,650 – 5,045 m)
Morning: After breakfast at our hotel we will check out, load up our seven 4-wheel drive Toyota Landcruisers, and begin our 900 km journey on the Friendship Highway to Mt. Everest (known as “Qomolangma” in Tibet) and on to Nepal. Following the Friendship Highway, we drive from Lhasa to Gyangtse (3,950 m/12,956 ft.) via Yamdrok Tso Lake (4,408 m/14,462 ft.), one of Tibet's three holy lakes and located 110 km outside of Lhasa. It takes 3½ hours to drive to Yamdrok Tso Lake. Climbing over the snow pass of Kamba La (5,030 m/16,503 ft.), we get our first stunning views of the clear, deep turquoise-blue waters of dazzling Yamdrok Tso Lake (Scorpion Lake), which lies just several hundred meters below the road. Far in the distance is the huge massif of Mt. Nojin Kangtsang (7,191 m/23,593 ft.). Ahead and westward we drive down to the lake and travel along the shoreline with barley fields on the other side of the road for about 30 km. We will stop and enjoy a nice walk by the lakeside where we will have a picnic lunch among spectacular scenery (weather permitting).
Afternoon: After our picnic lunch, we soon again begin to climb on a windy and bumpy road to Karo La Pass, (5,045 m/16,550 ft), renowned for its unusual hanging glacier. From here the road to Gyantse levels out and follows a line of slightly incongruous looking mud brick telegraph poles. We continue on to Gyantse, the third largest city in Tibet, where there is a fine monastery – home to the huge Kumbum Stupa, and also an impressive dzong or fortress. The imposing hill fortress, Gyantse Dzong, dominates views of the town and is a great place for sunset views over the town. This is also the place where British Indian Forces, under Francis Younghusband, invaded Tibet and were at war with the Tibetans in 1903 - 1904. The events are recorded in the fortress interestingly named, “Museum of Anti- British”. Here we will visit the Pelkor Choide Monastery, founded in 1418, and its associated Kumbum (three-dimension mandala) temple. Housed within the compound of a rather barren looking Pelkor Choide Monastery, Kumbum (meaning 100,000 images) consists of 8 levels and a total of 75 chapels with wonderful murals revered by art scholars around the world. Gyantse, at 13,050 ft., is a small agricultural town offering a splendid view of the Kumbum Stupa situated at its northern edge and is famous for its wool carpets and the Palkhor Choide Chorten (monastery). On the way to Gyantse, we will visit one of the Nomad’s home (yak-hair tent) to see how the Nomads live. (Be sure to leave a small gift or tip.)
Evening: Check-in and overnight at the Jian Zhang Hotel in Gyantse. (B,L,D)
THURSDAY, MAY 19TH (GYANTSE – SHIGATSE - SAKYA)
266 km, 6½ hours of driving time on asphalt road in good condition (3,850 – 4,485 m)
Morning: After breakfast at our hotel and enjoying and exploring Gyantse, we will check out and set off through an almost bucolic landscape toward Shigatse, about a 94-km (2 hours) drive from Gyangtse. Along the way, about 1½ hours, we will stop at Shalu Monastery built with Han, Tibetan and Indian style architecture. After a brief view of the monastery we will drive further toward Shigatse (3,850 m/12,631 ft.). Along the way, we will visit with a mountain village family for a glimpse of everyday Tibetan life. (Be sure to leave a small gift or tip.) Shigatse is Tibet’s second largest city and is steadily growing in political importance and cultural significance. The city provides us with some interesting places to visit. Undoubtedly the most important place in town is Tashilhunpo Monastery, traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and one of the sixth largest monasteries in Tibet. Unusual, but not without good political reason, the monastery was spared significant damage during the Cultural Revolution, and consequently still comprises an impressive array of temples containing many original artifacts. At the Jamkhang Chenmo Temple, we come face to face with the world’s largest gilded copper image, a huge 26m high statue of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Tashilhunpo Monastery is the major attraction of Shigatse, being one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet. Shigatse bazaar also buzzes with life. Stalls, selling everything from slabs of yak butter to yak wool, prayer wheels and rosaries, line the streets and Tibetans vie with each other to win a sale. Be tempted by the antiques, jewelry and fur hats with elaborate gold brocade designs or perhaps visit the carpet factory where hand-woven carpets are made to traditional designs. Then perhaps join the pilgrims on their evening kora (circumambulation) around the perimeter of the monastery.
Afternoon: After lunch, we will travel 172 km (4½ hours) to Sakya (4,280 m/14,041 ft.), crossing over Tsola Pass (4,485 m/14,715 ft.).
Sakya is the home of the Master Monastery of the Striped Sect, with a famous and long history, large-scale construction complex and great influence in Tibet history. Its North Monastery was built in 1073 and named Sakya (meaning “gray” in Tibetan) as it was situated on a gray mountain. We will visit Sakya Monastery, the Master Monastery of the Striped Sect, well-famed with its long history, large-scale construction complex and great influence in Tibet history. What we see today is the Sakya South Monastery built in 1269 by Phagpa. The outside walls of the monastery were painted with red, white and gray, symbolizing Avalokitesvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani.
Evening: Check in at the Manasarovar Sakya Hotel (shigatsetravels.com/hotel%20pages/hotel_saky…) and have dinner at a local restaurant. We can also walk around the local’s houses and hike around old town or take a hike up to the fort. (B,L,D)
FRIDAY, MAY 20TH (SAKYA – LHATSE – RONGBUK MONASTERY - EVEREST BASE CAMP)
296 km, 9 hours driving, asphalt road mostly in good condition (4,050 - 5,340 m)
Morning/Afternoon: After breakfast, we continue on our expedition 45 km to Lhaste and then on to New Shegar (also called New Tingri) for another 90 km. Time permitting, we will stop in New Shegar (4,050 m) and hike up to the Shegar Zzong where a great view of the Himalayan foothills can be seen. Then we will drive the remaining distance where the last 102 km will not be paved. We arrive at the highest monastery in the world, the Rongbuk Monastery (5,050 m/16,568 ft.). The monastery here was first built in 1902 by the Nyingma Lama and originally housed more than 500 monks. Today, only about 50 monks and nuns remain, sharing the same prayer hall but with separate residences. Upon arrival, we can take a 30-minute animal carriage ride or, if you like, trek 2 hours to the Mt. Everest Base Camp (5,340 m/17,519 ft.), but be wary because it is hard to breathe. Since we will overnight at the Everest Base Camp, we will have a great chance to see the sunset of Mount Everest (Qomolangma). At the Everest Base Camp we can wander around the area. We can then take a 25-yuan (around US $4) minibus 7 km up to the real Everest Base Camp here climbing expeditions on Mt. Everest begin. This US $4 is to be paid by the travelers themselves. Walking back is an option and takes about an hour, but be wary as the air is thin. We will enjoy the stunning views, make a phone call home, and maybe see some mountaineers getting ready to summit!
Evening: We will have dinner and overnight overnight in tents at the Everest Base Camp (B,L,D)
SATURDAY, MAY 21ST (EVEREST BASE CAMP – RONBUK MONASTERY – TINGRI - ZHANGMU)
(260 km, 9 hours, rough road around mountains (5,340 - 2,300 m)
Morning/Afternoon: After breakfast, we must start early because 260 km stand before us. The initial part of the road down the highway (approx. 4 hours) is a rough one – but spectacular views adequately compensate – both Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) and Cho Oyo is visible for much of the way. Another 5 hours to Zhangmu crosses one of the most spectacular of passes – topped with prayer flags and wind-driven prayer wheels you truly feel on top of the world as we must get across the 5,000 m (16,400 ft.) high Nyalmo Tong La Pass, which is decorated with multicolored prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The Nyalmo Tong La Pass is what is known in Tibet as a Sky Burial site. With a clear view of Shisha Pangma (also called Gosainthan), the 14th highest mountain in the world at 8,013 m (26,289 ft.), appears on one side and on the other side the enormous Gaurisankar Ranges stretch forward in the distance. We will drive over the Thang-La Pass (5,214 m or 17,100 ft.) to Nylam. Afterwards we will visit the meditation cave of Milarepa. Milarepa, the yogi, has played an important role in the religious life of Tibet and his teachings still influence the people everywhere. Along the zigzag road we drive down Nyalam (3.600 m/11,800 ft.) and leave the landscape of the high plateau behind us and see the Himalayas covered in the sea of clouds.
Evening: We will have dinner at a local restaurant and overnight at the Hotel Caiyuan (B,L.D)
SUNDAY, MAY 22ND (ZHANGMU – CROSS BORDER INTO NEPAL – DHULIKHEL - KATHMANDU)
Morning: After breakfast, our Tibet guide will drop us off at the Friendship Bridge (border bridge) across the Bhote Koshi River and the Nepalese guide will come to the China Side to pick up the group. Please do not leave our Tibet tour guide until we meet the next guide. We will say goodbye to our Tibetan guides and drivers, walk across the Friendship Bridge with our luggage into Nepal, and obtain our Nepalese visas at Immigration Control in Kodari. At this point we are only 132 km to Katmandu.
We will then load our luggage onto our tour bus, and then our Nepal tour guide will drive us to Dhulikhel for lunch, served at the Dhulikhel Lodge. (BE SURE TO HAVE YOUR NEPAL VISA APPLICATION COMPLETED AND HAVE TWO PASSPORT-SIZE PHOTOS WITH YOU FOR YOUR VISA AS WELL). Note: If someone needs a porter to carry their bag across the bridge to transfer to the Nepal side, the cost is 200rs (about $2.75) for each bag.