Lying at the roof of the world, Lhasa is the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, and is one of the most spiritual and mystical cities in the world. As the home of the famous Potala Palace, the city is the center of tourism in Tibet, and is the terminus for the Qinghai Tibet Railway, which brings thousands of tourists to the region every week, as well as the only international airport in Tibet. Almost all travelers to the region start their Tibet tours in Lhasa, visiting the famous sites of Jokhang and Potala, as well as the Norbulingka and Sera and Drepung Monasteries while they acclimatize to the increased altitude.
Getting to Lhasa can be done in several ways, and which way you choose depends on your own personal preference as well as on your budget. Flying is the fastest option, especially if you are short of time, though it is far from the least costly, while the train is cheaper, but takes ten times as long. Or, if you are the adventurous type, with plenty of time on your hands, you could try the road trips that run to the Tibetan capital along some of the world’s longest highways.
Get to Lhasa by Air from Mainland China and Nepal
Flying to Tibet is fast becoming the favored option for tourists to the region, due to the lesser time it takes to get there from anywhere in China and from Nepal. Flights may be more costly than traveling by train from mainland China, but they have the advantage of getting you there much faster, and the cost of flights is much less now than it used to be, with more flights landing at Lhasa Gonggar International Airport than ever before.
Taking flight to Tibet from Chengdu Shuangliu Airport
What’s more, with five airports to choose from, although four have only limited numbers of flights from limited departure locations in China, it is now easier to get to the more outlying areas of Tibet, such as Shigatse, Ngari, and Nyingchi, which previously required many hours of travel to get to them. Lhasa Gonggar International Airport is the most popular for flights to Tibet, with connections to a large number of cities across mainland China, and it has connecting flights to all the other airports across the region.
Currently, there are more than 18 locations in China that operate flights to Tibet’s Gonggar airport, with the most popular being Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Xining, and Shangri-La. Chengdu is the single most popular departure location, and has several discounts that are available for travelers to Tibet, as well as being one of the shortest flight durations. On average, an economy flight to Lhasa from Chengdu costs from around 300 US dollars, while a flight from Beijing costs from around US$ 500 per person. From Chengdu, the flights take around 2-3 hours, while a Beijing flight can take as long as 5-6 hours, although that is still faster than any train from China.
There is also the option of getting the flight to Tibet from Kathmandu in Nepal, the only international departure locations that has direct flights to Lhasa. The shorter distance and faster flights make it a popular choice for getting to Tibet, as does the simple visa procedure to get into Nepal for the flight. On average, flights to Lhasa take around ninety minutes, and fly direct across the Himalayas, low enough that you can clearly see the peak of the world’s highest mountain as you fly past. However, the cost is not as low as that of China, with an economy flight costing from around 695 US dollars.
Get to Lhasa by Train from Mainland China
Several trains also serve Lhasa for tourists, and run from seven gateway cities in China, which are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Xining. The times taken from each departure city vary from 22 hours to 53 hours, and the journeys are unique experiences that make your tour in Tibet even more spectacular.
Tibet trains all run through Xining, the starting point for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which opened for service in 2006, and which now transports millions of passengers to and from Tibet every year. The Qinghai Tibet Railway is the world’s highest railway, and holds a number of other world records, including having the highest railway station in the world, the highest railway tunnel, and the longest railway tunnel through permafrost.
Enjoying the picturesque scenery along Qinghai-Tibet Railway
With three classes of tickets to choose from, the train journey from mainland China to Tibet is one that will leave you in awe and breathless with the stunning scenery that you pass by. The train staff announces all the major points of interest along the route beforehand, in Tibetan, Chinese, and English, so you will not miss anything important.
The first-class option is the soft sleeper berth, a four-berth cabin with a lockable door, which costs from between 781 CNY for the shortest route to around 1,468 CNY for the longest route. The second-class option, the hard sleeper berth, is not actually hard, and the main difference is that there are six berths and it is open to the train. Hard sleeper berths cost from 495 CNY to 865 CNY, depending on your departure city.
The hard seat is the third-class option, and much cheaper than the other two classes, although it is not recommended as the journey durations are extremely long for the seats to be comfortable for long.
Overland to Lhasa through the Tibet Highways
The third option for traveling to Tibet is by using the highways that run from five locations in China and Nepal, all of which terminate in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. While there are five options for traveling to Lhasa by road, the most popular are the Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway, the Sichuan Tibet Highway, and the Qinghai Tibet Highway. Each of the highways has its own unique characteristics, but all of them are filled with stunning views, spectacular lakes, and high snow-capped mountains.
Roads to Lhasa from Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang
The Sichuan Tibet Highway runs through the Hengduan Mountains from Chengdu to Lhasa, and covers a distance of around 2,115 kilometers. Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau shortly after leaving Chengdu, the route takes you through Nyingchi Prefecture, which is one of the most scenic areas of Tibet, and is often known as the Switzerland of Tibet.
The Qinghai Tibet Highway runs along the same rough route as the Qinghai Tibet Railway, and starts in Xining in Qinghai Province. Climbing up over the Kunlun Mountains onto the plateau, and the Tanggula Mountains, the route stretches for 1,947 kilometers, over 1,200 kilometers of which is at an average elevation above 4,000 meters. Passing through the vast Qiangtang grasslands and down past the holy Lake Namtso, the route is one of the most stunning in the world.
The Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway, which is the western end of the G318 National Highway that runs from Shanghai in eastern China to Zhangmu in western Tibet, is one of the most popular road routes to Tibet, and travelers along the route start in Kathmandu in Nepal. Crossing the border into Tibet at the Resuo Bridge at Gyirong Port, the Friendship Highway runs for around 943 kilometers, and is famous for the stunning landscapes and spectacular scenery along its entire length. It is also one of the major routes for pilgrims traveling to Lhasa to pray at the Jokhang temple, and the pilgrims can often be seen along the side of the road heading for the Tibetan capital.
How to Make Your Choice
To start your Lhasa tour, how to choose the best way to go is always a big problem for you to decide. If you are not concerned by time or restricted by cost, then the choice can be simply based on your own personal preference. If cost is the main concern, then the Qinghai Tibet Railway is the obvious choice, with costs of even the first-class tickets being much lower than the cost of a flight anywhere in China. The trains to Tibet are also a good choice if you love to see the stunning landscapes, and in a way are an addition to your booked tour, similar to a small tour of the landscape in itself. But during the peak season, usually during the summer holiday, the train tickets may be much expensive than the flight tickets due to the short supplement and huge demand. So it is suggested to book your Tibet train ticket as early as possible.
Flights are faster than anything else, and if time is of the essence, then taking the flight to Tibet from any of the airports that offer flights to Lhasa is the optimum choice. Flights can mean you can be in Tibet in as little as 2 hours or less, and give you more time to relax and get used to the altitude before touring around Lhasa and the rest of Tibet. There are also more flights to Tibet than there are trains, so there is a much better chance of getting a flight in the height of summer, the peak season, when trains are often booked up long in advance.
The road routes to Tibet are a great option if you wish to see the landscapes and scenery up close, and give you the option to stop almost anywhere to take photos and view the scenery. However, traveling by road along the Sichuan Tibet Highway or the Qinghai Tibet Highway can be rather expensive, and you will still need to book a tour with a registered tour operator such as Tibet Vista, as independent travel in Tibet is not permitted.
However, the overland tour from Nepal to Lhasa is merely a reversed route to that which is normally taken from Lhasa to Kathmandu, and can be the route for your tour, starting when you cross the border, and ending in Lhasa, from where you can get the flight or train to your desired destination.