July 16, 2005
In response to a couple of emails and a comment on the blog, here is my 2 cents on how to travel to Tibet cheaply:
1. Realize that Tibet is not just the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the Chinese designated Tibetan area on maps. Geographical, historical, cultural Tibet encompasses large swaths of what is now called Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, Qinhai, and Xinjiang. Travel in the Autonomous Region is heavily controlled by the Chinese government. Visas are expensive and there are lots of governmental hassles. Travel in the rest of Tibet does not require a visa and travel is unfettered by bureaucracy. As a side benefit, because of the way the lines are drawn on the map, as well as because of poor roads, high mountains, etc, tourists have largely ignored these areas.
2. Find a cheap round trip ticket to China. Generally the cheapest tickets are to Beijing/Shanghai/HongKong. This is your one big ticket item. But over the years I have always found cheap round trip tickets through diligence and planning ahead. Prices change daily sometimes hourly, so check often. Also try to travel in the off season. My current ticket was a little over $700 on China Air.
3. Get out of Beijing/Shanghai/HongKong ASAP. You can blow your whole budget in no time flat. If you must stay in one of these cities, stay with someone. There are thousands of Chinese bloggers to hook up with, travel exchange programs etc. There are cheapish hotels, but if you stay with someone most of your expenses will be taken care of.
Your destination from your point of entry will be Chengdu, Lanzhou, or Xining. These are the gateway cities.
Chinese trains are still ridiculously cheap. If you are buying train tickets and have trip of more than 9 hours go for the hard sleeper option, by far the best in the price to comfort ratio. Chinese Airfare is still super cheap. The nice thing about both planes and trains is that prices are fixed. Chinese airlines discount tickets as it gets closer to flight time if they have empty seats left. Chinese mass transit likes to be full. Don't bother getting tickets here. Get them there the day of or the day before departure.
When in one of these big cities check out the map room of the foreign language bookstores (usually hidden away upstairs). This is the best way to find maps with both Chinese characters and English translations. The bigger the map, the better. I usually buy one and cut it up. Most Western maps are terrible/inaccurate, but of all of them I've found Nelles Northern China/Southern China to be pretty good. The roads and cities are in the right place and the geographic info is useful. Still it is woefully incomplete. Chinese bus and train stations often have very good bus/train schedule booklets (with city maps). They are usually bound in blue or green and have pictures of buses and trains on the cover. Even though there is no English translation if you can match up characters they can be useful. In remote areas you won't have to worry about this. There is usually only one road, and schedules are clearly marked.
4. Once in Chengdu, Lanzhou, or Xining (these are also big cities with millions of people) head out by bus ASAP. Within one day of each of these cities, you will be in the mountains and immersed in Tibetan culture.
5. This is a map of some of my favorite bus routes. Note that each connection is generally 12-20 hours. Also most cities have 2 bus stations and many smaller independent private bus services. Even tiny cites often follow this rule.
By far the most popular route for backpackers is Chengdu-Songpan-Langmusi-Xiahe-Lanzhou and for good reason. Songpan is surrounded by National Parks and offers horse treks and camping. Langmusi is still a relatively unspoiled backpacker paradise and Xiahe is home to the Labrang monastery one of the biggest most active monasteries in all of Tibet. The popularity of this route is due to the Lonely Planet which many backpackers hold on to for dear life as they go through this area rarely venturing off the main road. But all the best places are off the main road. I recommend getting yourself a good map, ditching the LP, and just exploring. Feeling really adventurous. Just flag down a bus full of the most interesting looking Tibetans and go where they are going. This is easy if you follow my #1 travel rule which is to never take more than you can easily carry.
6. Once on the road your costs will be minimal. Even 20 hour bus trips are often only $5-20 and guest houses range from $2/night for a basic bed to $50/night in a place outfitted for Chinese tourists. I try to stick to the $2/night places. Food costs are negligible. In fact if you spend 2 months in Tibet traveling this way you'll generally spend much less than you would in say, New York City. Save money by traveling!
7. This is my plan for this trip (these plans always change on the road):
Jigzhi (Drukcen Sumo)-Aba (Ngawa)
If you are playing along on a map note that many of the cities have alternate spellings. Derge is Dege for example on many maps. Sershul is Serxu and so on. This is because there are Tibetan city names, Chinese city names and many alternate Romanizations.
People always ask about language issues, but these have never really been a problem. The further you get from "civilization" the more patient people will be with 'foreign devils'. That's about it, now you have no excuse not to hit the road. Many pictures from my previous trips can be found on my photoblog. I'll be posting images from my new trip there as well.
An account of one of my previous trips can be found here.
p.s. Many people don't feel like they've "done Tibet" (I hate the "doing" a country phrase by the way) unless they've visited Lhasa. I'm sad to inform you that Lhasa is Chinese Disneyland. The Potala Palace is a museum and this city is now majority Chinese. If you must go, the cheapest ways to get there are by bus from Golmud in Qinhai or via Zhongdian in Yunnan. Rules and regulation seem to change daily but both cities have backpacker friendly travel places that will arrange the permits.