If Tibet is on your mind, then picking the right tour group is a must even if you more often love planning your trip yourself. Whether you enter from China or Nepal, good local Tibetan guides can make your journey awesome. I made a trip to the very beautiful South Tibet & shared here are a few decisions that helped make it comfortable & enjoyable. For starters you don’t have a choice but to go with a Tour Partner/Guide. The Chinese Government rules make that an imperative. Also the itinerary has to be planned in advance and necessary permits taken by the selected Tibet tour agency. Solo travel I guess depends on the prevalent rules at the time you are traveling. When I was traveling it wasn’t allowed.
You can plan a rough route (and let the team fine tune it) or follow one that is already created by the tour company. My South Tibet Route was:
TIBET TOUR AGENCY SELECTION
1. Look for an agency with local roots. Guides are able to bring alive the land if they are Tibetan. Even the agency recommendations on places to visit or best route to take, local/authentic experiences etc. works well if the agents are local Tibetan people
2. Ask specifically for good English speaking local guides. Else it can get difficult to understand the deep accent. This is important especially for all those who love asking questions. And if you are on a road trip, since the guide is with you the entire journey, its important that communication is easy/well understood by both parties
3. Look for an agency that is amenable to customizing your itinerary & making small changes en route. Like a diversion, stopping often to take pictures etc. As permits have to be taken well in advance only minor diversions are possible but some agencies/guides crib or refuse, even when on the road
4. Identify one who can nimbly handle visa arrangements & permits. Since I was traveling from India, I needed help for my visa once I arrived in Kathmandu. The Tibet tour agency I finally chose, put me on to a very reliable & cheerful Nepal based person who put us up in a nice hotel for the 2 nights & even arranged a day visit in Kathmandu, both at extra cost (you pay the hotel directly ofcourse & carry money for visa charges)
GETTING THE BEST OF TIBET
1. Take the road once you leave Lhasa. And don’t get uncomfortable even if you spend 8-10 hours on the road. The beauty of Tibet is in the journey so enjoy hitting the road
2. Respect that Tibetans do not like to be photographed. Do take their permission before clicking a picture
3. If you are a vegetarian (yes the pure veggie types) nothing to fret about. Lhasa itself has 3-4 exclusive veg restaurants. No fish oil either. There is one just near the Jokhang Temple called Zong Lian Tibetan Vegetarian, which is good.
Even when on the road trip, the stopovers have small eating-places that will offer a range of vegetarian options. Though that won’t be authentic Tibetan food of course. The idea is to get a good/pure vegetarian meal…fried rice, soups, noodles without anything that passes off as veg
4. Pick a hotel that is totally Tibetan in décor. It was part of my immersion to live in a place that felt like a Tibetan home. So while it was a mite tucked away, the architecture, people, rooms etc of the hotel I picked was quaint & beautiful.
While the travel company will always recommend what they believe is best/basis your budget, I suggest you give them the brief so they can give you options. Or then look up Trip advisor & then the residence/hotel website to pick the one you believe looks & feels like a home stay.
5. Sanitation facilities at EBC are just bare minimum. Clearly these arrangements are different (no water/just a hole in the ground) and not clean if you are living in a tent at the EBC. Something you have to get used to, especially if you are living there for over 2-3 days. It did bother me mildly, but being so close to the Himalayas made me re-focus in just a few hours
Once you get a good tour partner to take care of the formalities, Tibet is an absolute dream trip. Hope you do feel the love to go on your journey real soon.
TOUR PARTNER / STAY
Tibet Tour Partner: http://www.exploretibet.com/
Explore Tibet has a team of charged up, friendly & knowledgeable folks who will manage your trip end-to-end. Given that their staff has local Tibetans as guides, the authenticity & depth shared in stories bringing alive its history & culture is palpable.
Founded by Sonam Jamphel, who in his own words was born in Tibet but discovered his stunning land through his company & the travels he did with his guests. He exhibits the spirit of Tibet with his vibrancy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I interacted tons with his team mate Kalsang who was absolutely fantastic. He put up with quite a bit of my questions (actually I inundated him) and was very patient in ensuring the trip was planned keeping my interests in mind. To me he was the perfect representation of the hospitality that Tibet is known for. Kalsang Email: email@example.com
With a 5 Star rating by Trip Advisor travelers & recommended as the most responsible tour agency in Lonely Planet’s 2015 edition of Tibet, Explore Tibet is a fab partner to put your trip together
Stay in Lhasa: Shambhala Palace & House of Shambhala on return from EBC. (You can click on the link to read about my stay in Shambhala Palace & refer the hotel contact details)
Stay in Shigatse: Gesar Hotel
Stay in Old Tingri: Amdo Hotel
Stay at EBC: Tents
Kathmandu Partner: Bird’s Eye View Adventure (Explore Tibet works with this team & will connect you to them if you decide to enter Tibet through Kathmandu)
(Inscribed on this stone is the chant that reverberates using the most dulcet melody across most of Tibet. OM MANI PADME HUM means through the practise of a path that is an indivisible union of method and wisdom you can transfer your impure speech, body & mind to the pure exalted speech, body & mind of the Buddha. This is the journey that awaits you when you go to Tibet)