Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Arranging a Tibet Tour In Kathmandu - The good, the bad and the ugly

So, with the benefit on hindsight, I can reflect on the experience of organising an overland tour from Nepal through Tibet and into China. Hopefully this post will help those trying to do this trip themselves. Two main problems have to be overcome, firstly, the whims of the Chinese regarding border closures and regulations and secondly, the aggressive sales tactics and misinformation given out by the Kathmandu travel agencies. I will tackle these one at a time.

It is important to understand that the border between Nepal and Tibet is often closed. This is a regular occurrence in March but can happen at any time without warning. It is only possible to travel in Tibet as part of a group tour. Group tours come in several forms. The private tour which involves a group of up to four people travelling in a jeep or a budget tour which is a group of 20-30 (22 people in our group) travelling in a coach. The Chinese border can be closed to a certain type of tour – especially budget tours, whilst not to others, so to be more certain of getting into Tibet take a private tour. We had to wait an extra week in Kathmandu for the border to open to budget travellers; it was open during this time to private tours.

The next thing to understand is that to travel in Tibet from Nepal a group Tibetan permit has to be obtained. This is a piece of paper with the names and passport details of the group. Nothing is stamped in your actual passport. All those people on the group permit must enter Tibet together, travel in Tibet together and then exit Tibet together. It is, however, possible to travel in a group but on different group visas and it is also possible to be a group of one. For example out of the 22 people on our tour the majority of people were flying back to Kathmandu on the same flight and hence were all on the same group permit, but there were also at least 5 different other ways people were travelling on from Tibet; flying to Chengdu, getting the train to Beijing and, for us, getting the train to Chengdu, and therefore we were all on different group permits. If travelling onto China the Tibetan permit allows you to travel in China without the need for a Chinese visa, but you will have to travel with everyone else on the group permit and exit China with them. No matter what the agencies in Kathmandu say it is impossible to extend a Tibetan permit or change it for a Chinese visa in China. You have to make sure you leave China by the time the visa expires. If you want to spend more time in China the easiest thing to do is to go to Hong Kong where it is easy to get a Chinese visa. There is no point getting a Chinese visa before a Tibetan tour as all Chinese visas get cancelled when a Tibetan permit is obtained. The normal length of time for a Tibetan permit is 14 days; this time includes the time on the tour (usually 8 days) and therefore only gives 6 days to travel in China. It is possible to get 21 or even 30 day Tibetan permits in Kathmandu for an additional fee but we were told that it wasn’t possible on this occasion. The fine for overstaying your Tibetan permit is 500 Yuan a day (the same as for overstaying a Chinese visa). So to summarise, make sure your travel agency puts you on a group Tibetan Permit with the people you will be entering and exiting China/Tibet with and if you want to travel in China ask for the longer permit. And don’t listen to what they say about it being easy to extend a permit - it is not possible!!

So, next to the travel agencies in Kathmandu. Nearly all travel agencies are middle men who take your money, get you to fill out a form and hand over your passport and then pass it onto an agency which organises the permits and tour. The initial agency then tend to lose interest in you. The prices for a budget tour did not seem to vary much between agencies but I think the service you get does. A budget tour including B&B and permits costs around $360 there will be an additional cost for onward transport out of Tibet. I can only speak regarding the train tickets but the mark up on these is huge – over double. The agencies will tell you that having one is a requirement for obtaining the Tibetan permit. However, we now know that our tickets were only bought by the Lhasa agency once we got to Lhasa. I’d recommend buying the train ticket yourself online to save some money. For example using http://www.chinatravel.com/. Again, the Kathmandu agencies will tell you that you can’t do this – but other people had. The travel agencies will also try to charge more for an express Tibetan Permit. The cheapest permit is when the paperwork and passport is submitted 10 days in advance. In reality all Tibetan Permits are obtained the day beforehand. Knowing this may mean that you can negotiate the price of the ‘express’ service. 

Despite the struggles beforehand in Kathmandu and then afterwards in China, when we had to make a dash for the border, the tour itself was very enjoyable. We began the tour in a typical Nepalese bus with a Nepali guide provided by Tibet International. At the border we left this bus behind (thankfully) and carried our luggage through Nepalese immigration, over the Friendship Bridge to Chinese immigration and our next bus. In total the distance from bus to bus is about 1 km and it took us about 4 hours to get through all the checks. It is possible to hire a porter for about 250 rupees to carry bags from one bus to the other (they should carry ID to get across the border themselves). There are also plenty of money changers about to change money. The Chinese searched our bags fairly well (although if you are not first in line and bury things deep enough they won’t find them). They took particular interest in all books. The guide warned us not to bring any books about Tibet across the border, especially the Lonely Planet. However, the Chinese also took a disliking to the Nepal Lonely Planet. This was sent back to Kathmandu with the Nepali guide for the owner to pick up on their return. We met our Tibetan guide at the border and transferred onto a much nicer and very comfortable coach-style bus provided by Tibet Tashi Delek.

Once in Tibet we saw all the usual sights – spectacular views and beautiful monasteries. Our guide was very good and the bus driver was only a maniac on a couple of occasions. We had an additional guide in Lhasa who was very enthusiastic and even took us out to a local nightclub one night. The accommodation we stayed in varied from truly awful improving throughout the tour to bordering on luxurious on the last couple of nights (The Trichang Labrang Hotel). Breakfasts were basic but OK. Another point to note is that the tour gains height very quickly, on the second day you are at 5200m! It is therefore important to know how to act at altitude in order not to get sick and to be prepared. Our guide gave us no advice on this but did have oxygen at hand - and this was needed!

It is much easier to travel from China into Tibet and on to Nepal rather than this way around but if you are in Nepal and don’t have the choice this is still an opportunity not to be missed. I hope that these tips have been helpful and please feel free to write any comments of your own experiences below.

This information was correct on 14th May 2011, 9.11am and 47 seconds!!!!

The Budget Bus


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