How to get to Tibet from Mainland China
Situated high on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibet is not easily accessible. Due to historical and geographic challenges, Tibet had no highways until 1951. With the economic support of the Chinese government and the efforts of Tibetans in the past years, Tibet now owns five airports and several highways that link it with other parts of China. On July 1, 2006, the entire Qinghai-Tibet railway was put into service, which brings Tibet closer to the world and provides much convenience for tourists.
Below is the table of contents for the top ways to get to Tibet from mainland China, each with its own advantages.
- By airplane: It is the fastest way to arrive in Tibet, and the tickets are easy to book. However, the cost will be higher compared to train tickets. In addition, when the altitude rises to Lhasa suddenly, it is easy to have altitude sickness.
- By railway: It’s one of the best experiences to go to Tibet by taking the Qinghai Tibet railway, to enjoy the stunning and unique landscape along the way, which includes the famous Kekexili Nature Reserve with wild animals, snow-capped mountains Kunlun, Tanggula and Nyainqêntanglha mountains. Please be aware of the long train journey and an overnight stay on the train.
- Overland by driving: It’s the best way to slowly travel gradually on the altitude and enjoy the marvelous views along the way. The most famous route is along the Sichuan-Tibet highway from Chengdu or Yunnan-Tibet highway from Kunming. However, this is also the slowest way to get to Tibet as it requires at least 10 days due to the long distance.
- Other options: like hiking or cycling along the highways, which requires strong perseverance and physical strength, and generally not recommended for regular travelers.
There are 5 airports in Tibet: Lhasa Gonggar Airport, Nyingchi Mainling Airport, Shigatse Peace Airport, Ngari Gunsa Airport, Chamdo Bamda Airport.
Lhasa Gonggar Airport is located 100 km south of Lhasa city and equipped with first-class facilities. Tourists can get the necessary luggage service and passenger service at any time. From the airport, tourists can take either a bus or taxi to Lhasa City. The 1-hour-long bus trip costs about CNY 30, while a taxi costs more than CNY 200.
Presently, it serves 12 routes, only one international between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Airplanes shuttle along the domestic routes between Lhasa and Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, Xian, Xining, Kunming, Chamdo, and Shangri-La. Tourists can start from any of these cities to travel to Tibet, and flights between Lhasa and Chengdu are the most frequent. During the peak season from June to October, the air tickets rarely have discounts, especially around the Shoton Festival (July or August).
Nyingchi Mainling Airport, the third run airport in Tibet, began operation on September 1st, 2006. In 2007, another three aircraft will be increased and the flights will be raised to five shifts from late March. Currently, there are daily direct flights between Chengdu/Chongqing/Xi’an and Nyingchi, the flights between Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou and Nyingchi will have a layover in these three cities. Now Nyingchi Airport has become many travelers’ first stop in Tibet as it is less than 3,000 meters high, allowing people to prepare themselves gradually for higher altitudes. Meanwhile, the flight makes it possible to enjoy firstly the fantastic scenery of southeastern Tibet prior to the Lhasa tour.
Shigatse Peace Airport, Tibet's second-built airport in 1968, however, the military-civilian combination reform and expansion project began until 2009. It is a 4C-class military-civilian shared airport and officially opened its civil aviation business on July 8, 2011. The airport is 41.5 kilometers away from downtown Shigatse and 3,800 meters above sea level. There are daily morning flights between Chengdu/Chongqing and Shigatse.
Ngari Gunsa Airport started construction in May 2007 and was officially opened on July 1, 2010. It is located in Ngari Prefecture, belongs to the plateau airport with an altitude of 4,274 meters. The airport has a special oxygen room in the terminal building to provide convenience for passengers with altitude sickness. There are 1-2 direct flights between Ngari and Lhasa every day, both in the morning. Besides, there is a direct flight between Kashgar (Xinjiang's westernmost city) and Ngari, which runs every Tuesday and Friday.
Chamdo Bamda Airport, a civil airport that has one of the longest runways (5km) in the world as well as being the highest airport (altitude 4,300m). There are ten flights every week between Bamda Airport and Lhasa/Chengdu. However, this airport is located far from cities and is not easy to get to. Due to the bad weather conditions, flights are frequently delayed, which is very inconvenient.
There are currently only two railways built in Tibet: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway runs daily trains between Lhasa and Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou/Lanzhou/Xining, and every other day trains between Lhasa and Chengdu/Chongqing. The passenger flow is highly concentrated between June and September. Basically the trains ride from these cities to Lhasa can be split into two parts, the first part train ride is the one between the departure city and Xining, which takes roughly 10-20 hours and the train will be the regular A/C train. Once upon arrival at Xining, all passengers will be required to change to a specially equipped train which only runs on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, this train ride takes about 21 hours to cover 1,956 km (1,215 mi) to get to Lhasa.
This is a very popular way to reach Tibet. The trains from Xining to Lhasa are specially built for high altitude travel. Each passenger carriages are equipped with an oxygen supply system to maintain the air pressure at a suitable level. Each seat is equipped with an oxygen mask that can be used by individual passengers as necessary. The windows of the train are glazed with a UV coating to protect against the powerful high altitude rays. The staff on the trains can speak some simple English.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is also known as Paradise Road, the highest altitude railway in the world, and the longest distance on the frozen soil. The total length is 1,956 kilometers, with a total of 45 stations along the line. It starts in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and runs west along the northern edge of Qinghai Lake. The trains climb Kunlun Mountain, cross Kekexili Nature Reserve; after passing the Tanggula and Nyainqêntanglha Mountains, they finally reach Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Lhasa-Shigatse Railway is linking Lhasa and Shigatse in Tibet Autonomous Region. It started construction in September 2010 and was completed and operated in August 2014. It is located deep in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the elevation of the whole line is 3,600 meters to 3,920 meters. The railway has 14 stations covering a total length of 253 kilometers. There are three daily trains between Lhasa and Shigatse: the train leaves Lhasa at 08:30/14:00/15:20, and the return train leaves Shigatse at 12:05/17:28/18:40, about 3 hours ride.
Overland by driving
Overland by driving
To get to Tibet by driving from mainland China, there are four main highways: Sichuan-Tibet Highway, Qinghai-Tibet Highway, Yunnan-Tibet Highway, Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.
Sichuan-Tibet Highway runs between Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, and Lhasa. It is probably the most dangerous highway in the world. Branching into the North Route of about 2,400 km long and the South Route of about 2,100 km, it runs across a variety of rivers and mountains with the highest point over 5,000 meters above sea level. Landslides are frequent, trapping tourists for days. However, it is meanwhile the most attractive route to Tibet. Surging rivers, snow-capped peaks, deep valleys, and vast grassland are common along the road. It crosses as well as the southeast Tibet, which is famous for its unique scenery. This route is a good choice for adventurers and devoted photographers.
Qinghai-Tibet Highway is Tibet's longest asphalt-paved road. People call it 'The Suez Canal on the Roof of the World'. It stretches from Xining, the capital city of Qinghai, to Lhasa, with a total length of 1,956 kilometers. Though it is high, it has few steep slopes and most of the road is of high quality, so generally speaking, it is the safest road to Tibet. It runs across grassland, deserts, the Gobi desert, mountains, and saline plains. The scenery along the road is rather appealing.
Yunnan-Tibet Highway, this line starts from Kunming, Yunnan province in the south, and ends at Lhasa, with a total length of 2,300 kilometers, it joins the south route of Sichuan Tibet Highway at Markham County. As the lowest altitude access road to Tibet, the altitude climbs slowly. The travelers will have more time to adapt to the plateau climate and altitude. Travelers will also have the chance to appreciate the culture of ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, visit Erhai Lake, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and Shangri-La. The best time to travel along this road is from August to October.
Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, for this 1,400-kilometer-long road into Tibet, five large mountains over 5,000 meters will be crossed along the way, as well as 16 icebergs and 44 ice rivers. It is the highest altitude and the most difficult road in the world, but the sacred mountain Kailash/holy Lake Manasarovar/relic Guge Kingdom as well as other attractions draw countless people to set a journey on this road. Besides, most sections of this road run across boundless deserts and lofty and precipitous peaks. Travelers would have the chance to see the groups of Tibetan wild donkeys and yellow sheep, it's a paradise for many self-driving adventurers to explore. May to October is the best time to travel along this road.
No matter which road you choose, remember that the condition of most of these roads is bad. It is advisable to make careful preparation before departure. Take enough clothes, medicines for high-altitude sickness, enough food as food is often bland and sometimes unavailable along with those roads. It is highly recommended to travel from late April to the end of June or in September, and avoid the rainy season from July to August.
Cycling/hiking along the highways
Every year, there are some strong and experienced outdoor travelers who choose to ride motorcycles, bicycles, or even hike to Tibet, along the famous G318 highway starting either from Chengdu or Kunming. Please kindly note that only fitness, experience, and professional outdoor travelers are competent to make this kind of traveling, which requires not only good physical health but also a strong faith. These ways may take several months to complete this great trip. Foreign travelers need to apply for some special documents to get permission to ride the motorbikes.
Useful travel tips
- Taking a flight to Tibet will cause drastic altitude changes, hence, the probability of having some symptoms of high altitude is also the highest. It’s better to take some high altitude sickness medicines prior to departure.
- Upon your arrival in Tibet, it is better to stay leisure and relax and not be too active to well acclimate the high-altitude. Besides, it is recommended not to take the shower on the first night.
- Foreign travelers are required to apply for Tibet Permits when visiting Tibet, and the original permits are required to show before boarding the flight to Tibet.
- For the train journeys, foreign travelers only need to present the color-printed permits to board the train, however, travel from Lanzhou, Chongqing and Xi'an are exceptional and require the original permits.
- There are no shower facilities and Wi-Fi on the trains, but the power plugs, oxygen supply, and dining room are available.
- Train tickets are open to purchasing 30 days prior to the departure date. The 1st class soft sleeper train tickets are difficult to obtain in the peak season, especially from the end of June to September.
- The driving roads along the way to Tibet are not in good condition and facilities, it’s wise to bring some dry food (bread, cookies, chocolate, etc.) in case there are no restaurants along the way.
- The overland driving takes a long time to reach Tibet, and the weather is changeable due to the special geographical environment, please make sure to prepare enough clothes as you may encounter four seasons in one day.