Tibet – a travel country?
Once upon a time, Tibet was the dream destination of all adventurers – and is probably still on its own terms. The days of a feudal clerical rule are over, but bad has gotten many times worse since then. The Tibetans live in an occupied country. And for one of the world’s most marvelous cultural figures, unfortunately, it has no prospect of change. It is paradoxical and sad that Tibet is now ruled by a people who, under the pretext of liberation, have not the slightest interest in the country’s rich cultural heritage, religion and language. The regime is harsh and relentless – in Tibet, apartheid is alive and well. That the Tibetans have nevertheless preserved both language, religion and cultural identity is a miracle – and if you go out into the country, you will experience it for yourself – even up close.
Tibet is a “hard” and very difficult travel country – or rather the travel country of the great experiences, but without the great service and support you know from other countries. In Tibet, there will be changes along the way – trust it. Therefore, please read the following.
Service, not a familiar concept in Tibet
When traveling in South and Southeast Asia, one is accustomed to smiles and tremendous helpfulness. But this does not apply to the Chinese part of Tibet. Here circumstances and reluctance prevail quite often.
Tibet is NOT a tourist country – or at least not in the usual sense. On our many trips to Tibet since the beginning of the 90’s, we have experienced so many small problems and reluctance that you should know it from home. The guides may seem a bit machine-like and are not always particularly interested in us travelers – not in the same way as you see it in Nepal and India.
So take it easy, enjoy the glories – but arm yourself with patience; it can be an ordeal.
But again, Tibet is a unique travel country with experiences in completely unusual surroundings – large and beautiful.
Overnight stays in Tibet
According to watchtutorials, the hotels in Nepal and China are good and solid, all in fine tourist class. Likewise in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse. But in Shegar, Rongbuk, Tingri and Zhangmu, it is “the best of the place”, which does not say too much. In Rongbuk there are small dormitories (4-6 bed rooms) and it is not clean. We are in the middle of the Tibetan plateau and at Rongbuk for approx. 5,000 meters altitude – so absolutely on the roof of the world, so they are understandable even. But it is in Ringbuk and Tingri that Tibet is experienced in the most genuine way – and it is very exciting. Therefore bring a sheet bag and enjoy Tibet’s best region.
Friendship Highway and Transport in Tibet
The roads in Tibet are better than ever before – and in many places (actually most) paved. A Highway usually creates associations to a large beautiful main road – but in Tibet outside the major tourist destinations, it is a completely different matter. Here the roads can at best be called a bad country road, however mostly a bumpy gravel road. And more often it is not there at all, which is why you drive across the plains. There can be a lot of dust along the way, which is why a good scarf or a decided dust mask can be a good idea. The trips are therefore planned in land cruisers and not in buses, as many do to save money.
We ride in buses when there are groups – they are well-functioning and you can be together. On the individual trips, we drive in Landcruisers (4500), smo is the best in the place. It is not Scandinavian standard with seat belts everywhere – but they are truly the best there is.
Some days have long rides and they can be tough, some will say a trial – but enjoy the view; perhaps it’s the most beautiful drive in the world. And worth the whole trip.
Train The train is designed to handle the trip in the heights. Partly with extra engine power and partly with extra oxygen coming out through the ventilation systems. And should there be altitude problems along the way, there is an oxygen supply in each compartment above the bed – and the train staff will help with the mask if necessary.
As everywhere in China, there are several classes. Partly Hard Seat – ie seating and partly Sleeper with 6-man coupe and Soft Sleeper in 4-man coupe. In the compartments there is a small table and nice views along the way from the large windows. There is free access to (safe) boiled water in the aisle near the laundry facilities. And there are toilets at each end of the train (remember toilet paper). One end is usually just a hole in the floor. And they can be well soiled, but are otherwise well-functioning.
There is a nice dining car on the train and a meal of food costs 5-15 USD. The staff does not speak English and the menu is in Chinese. But take it as an experience. The food is simple but perfectly fine. At the stations there is time to go out and buy some snacks and drinks. It is a really good idea to buy a mug or glass for tea or coffee, as there is free boiled water on board – to remember to drink plenty of fluids after Golmud.
From Beijing, the trip takes 48 hours and the itinerary is arranged so that the most beautiful part from Golmud is run on the last day, so you get the Tibetan plateau in the best way. All in all, it is a long but very exciting trip across China and along the way you experience the Chinese in their everyday life on the way to the roof of the world.
The Chinese expect to continue the line to Nyingchi in the east and Shigatse in the west – and in the foreseeable future, even to Yadong on the border with Sikkim and India – as well as to the Kyirong Valley on the border with Nepal and even to Darchen at Mount Kailash.
The actual stretch from Xining to Lhasa is 1,956 km, of which 960 km. is at an altitude of 4,000 meters. The line reaches an altitude of 5,072 meters in Tanggula La and is thus the world’s highest railway.
Important notes about the Sky Train:
The tickets on T21 are torn away, often by party functionaries etc. Furthermore, the Chinese open for issues as late as 10 days before departure, so we can not guarantee the seats until 10 days before. The trip is based on Hard Sleeper (sleeping car in second class), as Soft Sleeper (first class) in 90% of cases is not possible to get your hands on, due to the large black market that has arisen in the wake of the route. In short, expect to get on Hard Sleeper, which is neither bad nor hard!
The sky train is not ready – it is difficult to get seats and we (like everyone else) can tell nothing about real status before 10 days before departure. If we cannot get the place on the agreed day, we may be forced to book for the day after or before the original itinerary. Furthermore, we can not guarantee which seats are given – whether it is the same compartment or not. This is important information, not meant to scare, but because NOBODY can guarantee the seats before 10 days before train departure at the earliest, which is why technically there can be day changes in the program if there is only space the day before or after the scheduled.
Furthermore, we cannot promise larger groups that they will sleep in the same compartments, one can be spread in several compartments.
So there may be day changes from Beijing to Lhasa – a day before, a day later. It does not happen often, but in high season it is up to a third of the departures. Of course, we make sure to have extra tours and pay expenses in that connection. This is not to chase fear in the lives of you, but to be honest about the train situation to Tibet.