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Permit Purgatory

As well as the problem of actually getting a train ticket to Lhasa, there has always been the inconvenience of getting the relevant permits to visit the TAR. Permit restrictions, a subject long shrouded in mystery, appeared to be relaxing and, in recent years, independent foreign travelers found themselves able to visit the TAR as individuals rather than part of a mandatory group (which most visitors then abandoned as soon as they reached Lhasa). But restrictions have always been subject to change at short notice, and following the 2008 demonstrations, controls are tighter than ever. For a while foreign visitors were banned completely from the TAR, and currently travelers are required to visit as part of an organized tour through a licensed agent. Agencies in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Xining, and Golmud can arrange tours and permits. To buy a plane, train, or bus ticket to Lhasa and then to visit the surrounding monasteries and the secondary city of Shigatse, a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) is required. In the past individual travelers could obtain these permits from Tibet Tourism Bureaus in major cities around China, but currently all permits are issued in Lhasa and must be arranged through the licensed agent through which you book your tour. Permits take a week to process so either forward your passport and visa details to your agency in advance, or be prepared to spend a few days in your start point. The cost of the permit is included in the tour price. You may receive the actual permit, but more likely you will get a photocopy; either way the guide who meets you in Lhasa will have an original. It's worth making a few copies of your permit as it is likely to be checked frequently (and sometimes taken) on your journey to the TAR. In Lhasa itself you are nominally required to visit sights with your guide; however, this is easily avoided. Once outside of Lhasa though, you will certainly need to be accompanied by a guide and driver.

For travel beyond Lhasa and Shigatse an Alien Travel Permit (ATP) and a guide, vehicle, and driver are all required. Foreigners aren't allowed to travel on public transport anywhere outside of Lhasa, and to this end, most bus details have been omitted from this edition. These tours and permits can be arranged in advance or once in Lhasa. The situation becomes yet more complex if you wish to travel to sensitive regions such as Kailash, for which a Military Permit (¥100) is required.

As always there are stories of those who slip through the net, but the exceptions are far fewer than those who get turned back (and fined). There is hope that the regulations will relax again, but this seems unlikely in the near future.

Getting There

Aside from the problems of securing a travel permit getting to Lhasa is now far more straightforward since the opening of the railway, and there are flights from various major cities throughout China. Those arriving overland or by air from Katmandu can obtain a standard 1-month tourist (L) visa and a TTP permit only by joining a group tour through a travel agency. Two good choices are Royal Mt. Trekking, P.O. Box 10798, Durbar Marg, Katmandu (tel. 977-1/421-5364; fax 977-1/421-5372; www.royal-mt-trek.com); and Green Hill Tours & Treks, P.O. Box 5072, Katmandu (tel. 977-1/442-2467; fax 977-1/441-9985; www.greenhill-tours.com).

Gongkar Airport is 97km (60 miles) southeast of Lhasa. Buses (1 hr.; ¥25) connect the airport with the CAAC ticket office in Lhasa at Niangre Lu 1 (tel. 0891/683-3446; 9am-12:30pm & 3-6pm). The buses depart from the courtyard behind the office every half-hour. Alternatively, a taxi to the airport should cost ¥150. For tickets, fill out a form obtained from the information desk to the left, join a line to book your flight, swap your passport for an invoice (which you pay at the counter to the right), and finally pick up the ticket from the front of the original line. There are daily flights to Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Xi'an. Flights from Chengdu connect to most destinations in China. There are flights to Zhongdian and international flights to Katmandu on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

The brand-new rail station is 10km (6 miles) southwest of town, reached by an equally new stretch of road. Taxis charge ¥25 and there are also public buses for ¥2 that connect with Tibet University on Jiangsu Lu. At the station you'll find ticket offices, left luggage, and shopping opportunities aplenty, if you like paying over the odds for tack. All trains leave in the morning. There are direct trains for Beijing (T28; 8:30am; 47 hr.), Chengdu (T24; 11:15am; 45 hr.), Chongqing (T224; 11:15am; 46 hr.), Shanghai (T166; 10am; 49 hr.), Guangzhou (T266; 10am; 56 hr.), and Xi'an (T28, T166, T224, T266; 35 hr.), all of which pass through Golmud (14 hr.), Xining (24 hr.), and Lanzhou (27 hr.). There's also a specific train for Golmud, Xining, and Lanzhou (K918; noon).

Railway on the Roof of the World -- China's (and the world's) highest and most ambitious railway link opened to great fanfare on July 1, 2006. The rail line took 6 years to build and passes through some of the harshest, most inhospitable, and beautiful landscapes on the planet. Most of the 1,142km (709-mile) track lies at an altitude above 4,000m (13,123 ft.), and the highest pass is a staggering 5,072m (16,636 ft.). The line also claims another record: the highest rail tunnel in the world at 4,905m (16,088 ft.). Oxygen is pumped into all carriages and additional supplies are available for those who are really suffering. Aside from these special features, the trains are much like any other you'll travel on in China, albeit more modern (all soft sleeper berths have TVs). The proposed Tangula Train, a five-star rail experience managed by the Kempinski group, is yet to commence operation, but is expected to open services some time in 2010.

While such altitude may seem like a scary prospect, taking the train actually offers the opportunity to acclimatize more easily than flying directly to Lhasa at 3,600m (11,808 ft.). Critics are quick to point out the environmental and social impact of the rail line, which passes through pristine habitats and is currently bringing at least 3,000 visitors to Lhasa every day (during the summer). Indeed, Tibetan culture in Lhasa is being further diluted day by day, and the TAR's minerals are efficiently being converted into cash, all of which makes visiting the Tibetan world outside of the TAR a more appealing proposition. However, most Han visitors limit themselves to taking the train up to Lhasa and flying out a few days later, leaving the rest of the TAR relatively unaffected (although the rail line is due to reach Shigatse by 2012 and ultimately is planned to stretch all the way to Nepal). However, if you ask most Tibetans how they feel about the rail line, the answers also include something about the increased wealth brought by tourists, and the ease of travel that it affords, meaning students can return home for the holidays and businessmen can bolster profits by saving on airfares. Also, in spite of all the hoo-ha about the environment, the railway is infinitely preferable to the emissions caused by aircraft. Whatever you think of the rail line, it's here to stay and the trip is one of the most incredible journeys China has to offer.

The bus station (tel. 0891/682-4469) is at the south end of town, although it has become somewhat obsolete to foreign travelers with the opening of the train and the current restrictions on independent travel in the TAR. Drivers might offer to sneak you onto a Shigatse-bound bus (5 hr.; ¥54; every half-hour from 8:30am), but getting onto other buses is currently out of the question.

Getting Around -- Taxis within town are ¥10 for the first 3km (1.8 miles). Minibuses charging ¥2 and buses (with conductors) charging ¥1 are plentiful. Cycle rickshaws are a fun way to get around and charge ¥5 for a ten-minute journey.

Tours & Guides

Most visitors arrive in Lhasa with a tour pre-arranged, but if you have just booked a Lhasa tour and want to extend your trip out into other parts of the TAR beyond Shigatse, you'll probably have to organize the tour through your original agent. To travel to other parts of the TAR (beyond Lhasa, Sera, Drepung, and Shigatse) you require an Alien Travel Permit (ATP), a tour guide, vehicle, and driver. Restrictions are very tight at the moment, but even if they relax, they tend to increase around certain dates, particularly the Monlam Festival (sometime mid-Jan to mid-Feb), the Saka Dawa Festival (sometime mid-May to mid-June), and the Dalai Lama's birthday on July 6. If you're planning an extensive trip and have limited time you should organize your tour well before you arrive.

Experienced and recommended operators include: Shigatse Travels, located inside the Yak Hotel (tel. 0891/633-0489; fax 0891/633-0482; www.shigatsetravels.com), although they focus on larger groups rather than individual travelers; Foreign Individual Traveler (FIT) are more used to dealing with individual travelers and offer cheaper prices -- they have branches in the Snowland Hotel at Zang Yiyuan Lu 4 (tel. 0891/655-1448; fitsamdup@yahoo.com) and in the Banak Shol Hotel at Beijing Zhong Lu 8 (tel./fax 0891/634-4397; lhasafit1993@yahoo.com). For off-the-beaten-track trips Tibet Wind Horse Adventure (tel. 0891/683-3009; www.windhorsetibet.com) offers a range of options, but specializes in white-water rafting tours. Longer tours are best arranged a few months in advance but they also operate half-day and day tours, which can be put together at shorter notice. Their main office is at B32 Shenzheng Huayuan, Sera Lu, but they have a branch on Zang Yiyuan Lu.

The most popular trip in the TAR is the 5- to 6-day tour from Lhasa to Zhangmu on the Nepali border. This trip should cost around ¥6,500, A more arduous, but incredibly beautiful trip is to Kailash, and costs for this 15 to 21 day trip start at ¥15,000. Prices for both tours include a Land Cruiser that will comfortably seat three passengers, four at a push (plus the driver and guide), a guide, and Alien Travel Permits (ATP, plus a Military Permit for Kailash) for all passengers; meals and accommodations are extra. If you're looking to share a ride with other passengers, check out the bulletin-board postings at Snowlands, and the Kerry Hotel. Be sure to clearly establish the itinerary stating where you will visit and how long the trip will last; make a deposit and try to negotiate withholding the balance (ideally 25%) until your tour is completed -- some travelers have been left stranded. Also be sure to check out the vehicle before you embark on your trip -- you may even want to take the car and driver on a test drive on the streets of Lhasa to see how the car performs before agreeing to embark into the wilderness. Once you do arrive at your destination, and if you're happy with the service, tip your guide and driver at least ¥100 per person. Gifts of music cassettes and un-needed winter gear are also highly appreciated.

Those planning mountaineering expeditions must obtain permits from the Tibetan Mountaineering Association (tel. 0891/633-3720; yang_735@yahoo.com; Mon-Fri 9am-12:30pm & 3:30-5:30pm), housed in a building immediately north of the Himalaya Hotel. Whatever difficulties you face, you won't be the first traveler in Tibet to have his or her way blocked by the authorities.

Fast Facts

Banks, Foreign Exchange & ATMs -- The main branch of the Bank of China, west of the Potala Palace at Linkuo Xi Lu 28, accepts traveler's checks and credit cards at counters 7 and 9. There are two international ATMs here. Hours are weekdays from 9am to 1pm and 3:30 to 6pm; weekends 10:30am to 4:30pm. There are several other branches of the bank throughout town, including one on the northeast side of town, at Najin Lu 188 and another just west of the Banak Shol Hotel on Beijing Dong Lu. Hours are the same for all branches.

Consulates -- North of the Norbulingka Palace, the Nepalese Consulate-General at Luobulinka Bei Lu 13 (tel. 0891/682-2881; fax 0891/683-6890) is open weekdays 10am to 12:30pm for visas. You'll need a passport photo and US$30 for a 30-day visa processed in 2 days. Non-Chinese nationals can also arrange visas at the border (Zhangmu) for the same fee. You can get a transit visa for $5 if you're staying in Nepal for less than 48 hours.

Internet Access -- The Summit Cafe has branches in the courtyard of the Shangbala Hotel on Zang Yiyuan Lu and another opposite Niuwei on Linkuo Bei Lu and offers comfortable broadband access for ¥16 per hour, or free Wi-Fi if you have your own laptop. Many hotels and guesthouses also offer Internet access, but if you want a genuine internet cafe, the 24-hr Yingdayuan Wangba, next to the Bank of China on Beijing Dong Lu, charges ¥3 per hour, but requires a deposit of ¥10 and they will need to see your passport.

Post Office -- The main post office is at Beijing Dong Lu 33. Summer hours are from 9am to 8pm; winter hours are from 9:30am to 6:30pm. A counter towards the far left designated INTERNATIONAL POST BUSINESS is efficient; it's open from 9am to noon and 3:30 to 5:30pm.

Visa Extensions -- You can't miss the imposing PSB on Linkuo Bei Lu (tel. 0891/632-4528). In spite of a recent change of address, attitudes remain the same and visa officers spit out the term "individual traveler" as through it's a disfiguring and contagious affliction. They might offer extensions of up to a week, but any longer and they'll refer you to a travel agent. Hours are weekdays from 9am to 12:30pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.