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Access to Tibet

Potala Palace
Potala Palace by Masashi Akiyama

Travel information in Tibet is very fluid and the situation can change quickly, but if you are wondering if you can travel freely in this area, the answer would be that probably you can. It is true that besides a Chinese visa, a permit is also required for you to enter the TAR and there are also many places where lone foreign visitors are prohibited from entering. Nonetheless, many individual travelers have found ways to travel relatively freely throughout Tibet and many of them have been enjoying this freedom for years.

Of all the Tibetan areas in China, the TAR is a special case. Along with a visa, foreign visitors are officially required to have a permit issued by the PSB to enter the province. Without it, you'll be unable to buy air or bus tickets. However, you don't have to worry about where and how to get these permits. If you take common routes, such as Chengdu - Lhasa (Air), Golmud - Lhasa (Bus), etc., foreign travelers must buy both the permit and the ticket together through a travel agency.


Alien Travel Permit

In China, there are open and closed areas for foreign visitors. Unfortunately, most areas in the TAR are closed. If you want to go to the closed areas, you need to have the local PSB near those areas issue an 'Alien Travel Permit' showing your destination. The availability of these very much depends on the situation at the time. To find out, either ask the PSB directly or gather some information from your fellow travelers. In case you can't obtain a permit for yourself, the other option is to charter a car through a travel agent. Using this approach, you can get permits for many of the closed areas, except some of the more sensitive border areas. In Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and other areas outside of the TAR, many Tibetan places are open to foreigners.

In Closed Areas
In most cases, you can easily reach the closed areas when there are bus services running. In case you do turn up in a closed area without a permit by mistake you should be aware that you are breaking Chinese law and that you are all right as long as the PSB officers don't find you. Staying at a plain guesthouse at the end of town is less conspicuous than staying at a hotel in the center. There are also many towns where a notification prohibiting foreigners to stay at a hotel will prevail. In this case, you have no choice but to stay at a designated hotel. Even so, some guesthouse owners will still allow you to stay at their place, even though they know the regulation is in force. Many of them are Hui or Tibetan. On the other hand, some of the owners will notify the PSB and there is also the real possibility of being found out in town. If you are found in a town where there is no PSB foreign affairs section, your case might end simply by presenting your passport. In towns on a highway where foreigners often pass through, you are usually requested to move to a hotel designated by the PSB (even in closed areas, there are towns with designated hotels for foreigners on package tours). In most cases, the hotel that you are assigned will be the most expensive in that town. The PSB then puts a deposition on record and fines you. If you stay just 1 night, the PSB might not be too strict; however, in the TAR the local PSB might fine you up to Y500 (US$60). Once again, this price is negotiable and the amount of the fine depends on the place and the official. Some PSB officials will just make foreigners buy a bus ticket for the following day to get them out of their hair as soon as possible. Strangers are a real nuisance for police officers! In case you are caught on the way to, for example, Lhasa, some experienced travelers suggest that you tell the PSB that you actually came from Lhasa. Basically, the PSB then orders you to go back. Some foreigners have taken this a step further and prepared diaries to show local officials to prove this. In closed areas, you are frequently warned not to take photographs and the PSB have confiscated pictures from some tourists in the past. Even if you didn't intend to enter a restricted area, you should be careful.

REMEMBER- You are still breaking the law!


Roads to Tibet

Now, you are in the mood to embark on more adventurous travel than you have previously envisaged, let's look at 'Roads to Tibet.'

To get to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, foreign travelers usually start from Chengdu in Sichuan, Xining in Qinghai or Kathmandu in Nepal:

[By Air]

1) Chengdu, Sichuan to Lhasa Direct daily flights are available between Chengdu, Sichuan, and Lhasa. You can easily get a ticket through a travel agency in Chengdu. There is also a comfortable 2-hour flight twice weekly between Chongqing and Lhasa.

2) Kathmandu to Lhasa From April to November there are 2 flights a week available between the Nepalese capital and Lhasa. You can get to Lhasa whilst enjoying a spectacular flight over the Himalayas. However, individual travelers can get neither a visa nor an air ticket, which are only available to members of an organized group.

[By Land]

1) Xining, Qinghai via Golmud to Lhasa This bus trip is tough going and takes a minimum of 2 nights and 3 days along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. Although uncomfortable this is still the most popular route for travelers sticking to land transportation.

2) Kathmandu via Dram (Khasa) to Lhasa As with the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, the China-Nepal Friendship Highway is a popular route for travelers. This route brings you close to a number of famous sights, such as Shigatse, Gyantse, and the Everest Base Camp. It takes 5-7 days of traveling over the Tibetan Highlands to get to Lhasa via this route. This overland trip also subjects individual travelers to the same restrictions as access by air from Nepal.

Extract taken from "Mapping the Tibetan World"








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