Travel From Nepal To Tibet: Things to Know
Tibet doesn’t allow independent traveling. That means you have to buy a packaged tour with a travel company who will take care of necessary Chinese visa and Tibet permit application for you. If you are planning to travel from Nepal to Tibet, it’s advisable that you choose a tour operator abroad or a company based in Kathmandu or a local one. If you choose a company based in Tibet or China, they will have to entrust someone in Kathmandu for Chinese visa works while your land arrangement will be taken care of by your local operator.
Always plan ahead in order to secure cheaper flights, good guide and preferred hotels. There are limited flights between Kathmandu and Lhasa and the airfares are dynamic. The longer you wait, the more expensive the tickets are likely to be.
Passport, Visa & Permits
Make sure your passport is still valid 6 months beyond the last date of the trip and that you have minimum 2 blank pages for visa sticker for Nepal, entry and exit seals by both Nepali and Chinese immigrations.
When you book your travel, your tour operator will ask you a color scan of the photo page of your passport and apply for Chinese visa invitation document for you. When I am writing this article, Tibetan tourism authorities accept visa invitation (commonly called Tibet permit) only 15 days prior to the intended travel date. Usually visa invitation document is cleared in 7 to 10 days. Your tour operator’s representative in Kathmandu will be faxed the visa invitation document which needs to be submitted with visa application. Once you arrive in Kathmandu, you are met by the representative and collect your passport, have you complete the remaining forms and submit the documents to Chinese embassy for you while you are enjoying sightseeing. You also need to provide one passport picture. Regular processing takes a week but by paying rush fee, you can collect the passport and visa the same day evening or the following day. The visa and permit comes in a letter-size document with list of travelers of your group. This document is commonly called Group visa. If you are planning to travel to China after Tibet, we need to mention that in the application and we can get extra visa for mainland China extension.
Do you have already Chinese visa on your passport?
In this case, you may want to think twice if you want to travel from Nepal to Tibet. They don’t allow you to travel from Nepal to Tibet with individual visa on your passport. The Tibetan tourism authority allows you to travel from Nepal to Tibet on a group visa only and when your tour operator applies group visa for you, the Chinese embassy cancels the individual visa that you have on your passport! If you have already Chinese visa on your passport and you want to travel to Tibet and you want to save your individual visa, then you should choose mainland Chinese city as the gateway for travel to Tibet. Traveling from Chinese side, individual visa is good but your tour operator still needs to obtain a separate entry permit for you.
Road travel versus flight:
Flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa is about 1 hr 15 minutes and you fly right across the Himalaya! You are able to view Mount Everest and other majestic peaks. Lhasa is about 12,000 ft from the sea level and almost everyone experiences some mild symptoms of altitude sickness that may last 2-3 days. You need to plan 3-4 days stay in Lhasa for proper acclimatization before you want to travel outside Lhasa. Lhasa is the heart and soul of Tibet and has a number of attractions worth visiting.
Traveling overland from Kathmandu takes good 5 days to get to Lhasa and each day you will be driving 5-6 hrs and chances of acclimatization is poor. The road condition from Kathmandu to the Tibetan border town of Zhangmu is very poor, prone to landslide and under-paved. But once you enter Tibet, roads are well paved. 4WD vehicles are no longer required in the Tibetan side of the road, except in the snowy winter. On the first day of your travel, you are likely to spend the night in Nyalam which is 3700m (12,136 ft.) and the next day, you will cross a couple of high passes ( 16,000 ft and higher) and descend to lower altitudes of Tingri or Xegar or Lhatse for overnight which are also at higher elevations (more than 14,000 ft). You don’t have much chance of acclimatization and you are likely to be in the state of dizziness, nausea, headache, disorientation, loss of appetite and can’t enjoy much the sightseeing. While many travelers still opt to take road travel from Kathmandu to save the airfare, for acclimatization point of view, travel by flight is much better. Definitely, the overland journey is scenic and rewarding with the views of snow capped mountains.
If you plan to return to Nepal after Tibet, then consider taking flight into Lhasa and overland journey to Kathmandu. Beware of landslide prone roads between the border and Kathmandu! If you plan to travel to mainland China after Tibet and you want to save the expensive airfare, then you can think about taking overland trip to Lhasa but you need to be sound in health and good preparation for the possible altitude sickness.