Tibet: Altitude, Agencies, and Weather

Altitude, Agencies, and Weather

Some tips for planning a trip to Tibet

So, you are planning a trip to Tibet. I confess, I’m a bit jealous! The short time I spent in Tibet was both inspirational and transformative.  I remember it as one of those rare places that embed themselves in every part my being.

Last spring when my friends and I planned our trip, we had a number of questions and concerns.  Many of those questions were answered by our travel agency, and some by travel sites on the internet.   I’ve consolidated a lot of the information we gathered to try and aid you in planning your trip to Tibet.

Tibet
On the Road in Tibet

Permit

If you do not have a Chinese ID card, you must apply for a permit to enter Tibet. The permit will be carefully checked before you board your flight or train, and again as you enter.  You cannot get into Tibet without a permit, and you cannot get a permit without a tour. The tour must include a guide, driver, and hotel reservations. Most tour agencies include the permit as a part of their service, so getting a permit should not be a problem once you book your tour.

Chomolungma, Everest in Tibet
Our guide warned us not to take pictures with signs or flags because previous tourists who staged a protest here “caused very many problems for us.”

Do not be surprised if your tour agency tells you that the government closed the region to foreigners during certain dates. That happens quite a lot, so try to plan a certain flexibility around your trip if you can.

Try to remember that because of past transgressions, the Chinese government sees foreign tourists as trouble-makers when it comes to Tibet. As a result, we are kept on a very short leash. For the sake of your Tour agency, and all future foreign travelers, pleas behave in a way that is respectful to the Tibetan people and to the Chinese government while you are traveling in Tibet.

Altitude Sickness

One of our big questions about travel in Tibet was altitude sickness. Lhasa, the capital, sits at an elevation of 3650 meters  (nearly 12,000 feet) above sea level. Altitude sickness commonly occurs above 10,000 feet above sea level. While the only way to avoid altitude sickness all together is to spend time acclimatizing to high altitude along the way, the nature of the Tibetan plateau doesn’t allow for that as an effective strategy when visiting Lhasa.  Here is what I did to ward off the altitude sickness.

Everest at night
My worst night of Altitude sickness was at Everest Base Camp (17,060 feet). I felt like someone was pulling my brain out through my temples

1. No Alcohol 

I stopped drinking two days before flying to Tibet and didn’t have a drink until our last day in Lhasa before heading out. Restrict consumption of alcohol before you go, and don’t have a drink until your body has fully adjusted to the altitude (that takes around three days).

2. Ibuprofen daily

I took ibuprofen throughout the trip (after reading about this study) and only experienced severe headaches due to altitude twice. The worst was the overnight at Everest Base Camp, but I also had a pretty bad headache as we descended from the Karo La pass.

3. The Herbal Stuff

I also took Rhodeola Rosea in capsule form before arrival and during the stay.  Our guide later told us the capsules were useless and recommended liquid form.

4. Water (water water water…did I mention water?)

Most importantly, I drank tons of water. Tibet is incredibly dry and it is very difficult to stay hydrated.  I probably drank 4 liters of water each day. If I felt a bit light headed I drank water. If I felt a bit sleepy, I drank water.

Honestly, I think the water and the Ibuprofen made the biggest difference. I’m not sure the Rhodeola Rosea had any effect beyond that of a placebo – but if you are nervous about the altitude, it can’t hurt. You can check the altitude of the places on your itinerary on the very useful yowangdu.com list.  You can also read more practical advice about altitude sickness on China Highlights, Fodors, and Lonely Planet.

5. What’s this business about showering?  

I’ve heard this one before in Central Asia and in China. Most guides recommend that you not shower for three days.  They argue that you don’t want to unnecessarily strain your body which is already under a good deal of strain as it adjusts to altitude.  They also argue that the temperature differentials in bathing puts strain on your body, and that feeling cold will make you more susceptible to catching cold.  Can you imagine trying to breathe through congested sinuses at 12,000 feet? I took their advice (I was taking no chances until after Everest Base Camp), but I don’t actually think it makes any difference to shower or not.

 

Tour Agencies

There are a lot of tour agencies to sift through.  We used Windhorse Tour and they were really fantastic. Our guide was good. He had great English and did a great job narrating the trip. We had a private van with plenty of room and since we were the only people on our tour (there were six of us), it allowed us a certain degree of flexibility within the itinerary.

On our trip, we had to change our tickets once due to government restrictions on travel. Our agency was fabulous about rearranging things for us. Be aware that some of the cheaper tours will be large buses that offer you no customizations.  You will probably stay in the same hotels and visit the same sights but the experience will be less personal. Make sure you clarify group size with your agency.

On the Road in Tibet
On the Road in Tibet

Weather

On a Yak in Tibet
Even on the windy mountain passes, a mid-weight fleece over a long sleeve shirt was sufficient to keep me warm

Regarding the weather, if you hope to catch a glimpse of Everest, you will want to avoid Nepal’s monsoon season (usually June- September).  In mid June we had cloudy days, but no rain. The temperature was warm during the day and the only times I needed a jacket were on the high mountain passes.

Even when I needed a jacket, mid-weight fleece was more than sufficient for me – even at Everest Base Camp. This Climate Chart (Temperature and Precipitation) for Lhasa will show you temperature ranges for Lhasa. Explore Tibet also has good information about temperature and Climate in Tibet.

Reading List

Monastery in Shigatse
Shigatse, Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism Tibet is an intensely spiritual place where political history and religious history weave together.  Most itineraries will have you visit a number of truly stunning monasteries.

After a while one monastery blends into another and the significant points get lost in the details.  You will find the tours of those monasteries more engaging if you understand a little bit about Tibetan Buddhism.

Across China is great to read just before you travel to Everest Base Camp. It chronicles the journey of the Author, Peter Jenkins across the same terrain thirty years ago.  Even though the writing style is uneven, Peter Jenkins’ narrative adds significance to otherwise unassuming points along the way.

Dragon in the Land of Snows by Tsering Shakya is the book for anyone hoping to immerse themselves in the history of the place.  While the careful and exact style is a bit dry for the casual reader, it manages to maintain an objective tone in the telling of Tibetan History.

As Usual Wikitravel has a very comprehensive article on Tibet and is a great place to begin research in planning a trip to Tibet.

 

Ready to Go?  Good – I know you will have a great time!

Read More: 

Everest to Shenzhen – An overland journey from one side of China to the other

Everest to Shenzhen Part 1: Welcome to Lhasa (Tibet)

Everest To Shenzhen Part 2: On the Road to Shigatse (Tibet)

Everest To Shenzhen Part 3: The Ancient Majesty of Gyantse (Tibet)

Everest to Shenzhen Part 4: The Road to Everest Chomolungma (Tibet)

Everest to Shenzhen Part 5: A night in Shigatse (Tibet)

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