The business of getting a travel permit for Tibet
There are many stories floating around about restrictions on entering Tibet as a tourist. Here’s what I saw & heard:
One basic rule about travel permits to Tibet is that the regulations can change without notice whenever the Chinese government feels like it. Still, it seems there are ways to get to Tibet, whether you have a permit or not. If you’re considering going to Tibet, it is best to check first on travelers websites to see what the current status is. For example, after a demonstration in April, where some travelers unveiled a “Free Tibet” banner at the Mount Everest base camp, travel for tourist to Tibet was stopped for several weeks unless you had already obtained your permit before the event happened.
One certain aspect seems to be that if you want to purchase a ticket for a train or plane headed to Tibet, you will need to obtain a permit for travel to Tibet. You can get a travel agent and buy a package (which tends to get pricey) or try to obtain the permit by yourself in China and then try to get a ticket. However, you can get travel permits for Tibet only within China, not from abroad.
Either way, as a first step, get your tourist visa for China. The embassy at New York currently issues single entry visas for up to 6 months, Hong Kong apparently for 6 – 12 months, London, Laos and most European countries issue visas for 3 months but if you’re trying to get a tourist visa for China in Katmandu, you’ll only get 3 weeks. The length of your visa validity matters for the following reason: Usually, travel permits for Tibet are issued for a few days, but really, once you’re there you can stay in Tibet legally as long as you have a valid visa, no matter what your permit says.
Then, if you’re determined to do it yourself, there are a few ways I’ve heard that people obtained their permits: There is Hostel Leo in Beijing that helps out with getting permits. My compartment mates had tried to obtain a permit from the official office in Beijing that oversees travel to the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), but failed to get anywhere. But once they went to Hostel Leo, things seemed to have moved ahead quickly. Other travelers have told stories about being charged exorbitant amounts of money by officials (your permit shouldn’t cost more than 500 yuan, about 50 euros or $60). Others I’ve met have tried to get permits at Xiling or Golmud, and then there’s even the traveler I met who didn’t even have a permit and managed to make it to Lhasa undetected. He bought a train ticket on the black market and got on. I wasn’t checked for my permit when boarding the train. That check seems to happen only when you buy the ticket (I had an agent buy me my ticket and get the permit). Also, there were no permit checks in Lhasa after we got off the train. There are also busses running from Golmud to Lhasa where people have managed to enter Tibet without a permit.
One traveler told me that in some areas, if you’re get caught there are two scenarios: If you’re in the process of leaving Tibet when you get caught, the police usually leaves you alone. Otherwise, you get fined, but the fine also includes the fee for a permit, i.e. the police make you legal as long as you have a valid tourist visa.
For certain areas within Tibet, you’ll need yet another permit, as traffic there is restricted even further than getting to Lhasa. One area is the area around the Mount Everest base camp. Again, these regulations tend to change, so best to talk to fellow travelers you meet in Lhasa to see what the current situation is. Most of these special permits can only be obtained in Lhasa, most easily through a local travel agent.
If you want to deal with getting your permits or try to sneak in probably depends on your sense of adventure. In any case, keep in mind the most important rule about dealing with Chinese authorities: There is no rule that can’t be bent as long as you’re willing to pay for it.
This holds particularly true, if you book your travel through a state-owned travel agency: Usually, one can only travel to Tibet as part of a group. I had wanted to make sure I got a ticket on the train and thus, from abroad, engaged such a state travel agency to book my package to Tibet. I paid a lot of money, but not only did I get all the permits I needed, and ultimately a seat on the train in one of the nicer cabins, they conveniently declared me a group of one, and so I found myself traveling as an individual around Tibet, government minder in tow, fully licensed and all …