After leaving Chitwan we went to Kathmandu to try to organize somehow getting into Tibet. All information we had found so far, from guidebooks, the internet and other travellers, had been contradictory. You can travel Tibet independently, or you can only go as part of a group tour, or you have to book something that’s officially a tour, but once you reach Lhasa the group splits and everyone can travel independently from there. And you should definitely have your Chinese visa before you get to Nepal, or you have to organize everything in Kathmandu, or the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu cannot issue any Chinese visas only a special Tibet travel permit. One person even told us that the Kathmandu embassy would cancel any Chinese visa you already have in your passport if you apply for a Tibet permit there!
A selection of all of these are true at any moment, and all have probably been true at some point. Rules get stricter any time there’s protests or around sensitive dates like anniversary of uprisings or the Dalai Lama’s birthday.. Any hope of independent travel is gone since the 2008 Olympics (..what a great idea that was). What is true at the moment seems to be that the Kathmandu embassy only issue 15 or 21 day special Tibet travel permits, and will indeed rip out any Chinese visa that you already have in your passport without giving you your money back. The Kathmandu travel agents we talked to confirmed this, but told us that you can travel on to China from Tibet on the permit, which seems to be true, and that you can get a new Chinese visa easily once there, which doesn’t seem to be true..searching on the internet it seems you get stranded without visa and need to quickly catch an expensive flight to Hong Kong and back to get one…
The other option would be to travel to China first, then get to Tibet from there – in this case we wouldn’t get the visa we spent 5 days in Delhi applying for destroyed (the visa we made sure not to mention Tibet on the “proposed itinerary” for; if you do you’re unlikely to get one). For going to Tibet from China as a foreigner you need a different Tibet travel permit, and also an “Alien travel permit”, and possibly a “Military permit” – the first one is valid for Lhasa only, the second for Everest Basecamp and the “Friendship Highway” to Nepal, and for visiting monasteries around Lhasa – the last is needed if going far west to Mount Kailash or other special areas – many areas are of course offlimit no matter the permit..and you need to have a fixed detailed itinerary outlined before applying for any of them..listing anywhere unusual means you’re less likely to get the permits. And you cannot apply for them yourself, it has to go through an official travel company that your booking the trip with, and once inside Tibet you need to have your guide with you always (apart from some areas inside Lhasa).
We calculated that even spending 800 euro on the flights from Kathmandu to Chengdu in China and then backtrack to Tibet would probably be better than organizing the trip from the Nepal side, loosing our visa and probably have to make a quick exit from China to Hong Kong to get a new one. Ironically the flight makes one technical stop – in Lhasa! We’re sitting on the tarmac for an hour in the place we’re trying to get to but aren’t allowed..before flying on to Chengdu and spending a week organizing permits to get back to where we just were!
Al least in the old days all you had to do to reach Tibet was several weeks of extremely hard trekking over the mountains…
Our other hobbies in Kathmandu included enjoying the western comforts; pizza, cappuccino and ice cream, though the city isn’t as nice in general as Pokhara. Big and polluted – the deep valley makes the fumes from the traffic hang around for long, and gasoline and diesel is illegally “cut” with cheaper kerosene by the tanker trucks and pumping stations making exhaust fumes many times worse..it’s a while since the mountains around the valley could be seen with the eye. One day we hopped on the bus to go to the Bhaktapur traditional village in the Kathmandu outskirts. It’s a Unesco world heritage site with all the houses built in traditional pink brick and carved wood decorations. There’s enough temples, courtyards and palaces to spend a nice day strolling around, although being so close to the capital it’s heavily touristed and some children on the street actually greeted us with our full tourist names: “Hello Money“!
The views from the flight to Chengdu a couple days later were fantastic – Tibet from the air and when crossing the border we managed to spot Mount Everest sticking up from the clouds.