Tibet Tour Review: 8 Days Lhasa to Everest Base Camp Tour
Tibet was one of those destinations that Nick and I had been dreaming about for years.
While we prefer to travel independently, we knew that it would not be possible in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is the main reason why we had postponed our Tibet trip for so long.
Chinese government restrictions make it impossible for foreigners to travel to Tibet without a permit. And the only way to get a Tibet permit is by joining a Tibet tour.
These restrictions have been in place for more than 10 years, and there's no indication that they're likely to change. After years of waiting, we finally decided it was time to bite the bullet and book a Tibet tour.
Since private Tibet tours were well beyond our budget, I started searching for a reputable company that offered small group tours.
The name "Tibet Vista” kept popping up. A veteran in Tibet travel, the company has been around since 1984 and has garnered an impressive stack of reviews over the years.
Tibet Tour Options from 4 to 15 Days
Tibet Vista offers various Tibet overland tour options, including tours starting in Lhasa and finishing in Kathmandu.
Since we'd already been to Nepal, we didn't consider that one. We did, however, consider the 10-day trip that included Namtso Lake, one of four holy lakes in Tibet.
I also briefly entertained the idea of joining the 15-day tour that involved trekking around Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in Tibet.
While I’m sure that it would have been an amazing experience, in the end, our limited travel budget was the deciding factor.
Even though Tibet Vista's tours are priced very competitively compared with other companies, Tibet group tours were always going to cost much more than what we usually spend when traveling independently.
So, we chose the 8 days Tibet tour that included Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse and Everest Base Camp.
Our reasoning behind our choice was that Lhasa and Mount Everest were the two unique destinations that we knew we could only experience on a tour. Other Tibetan cultural experiences, such as monastery visits, we could arrange on our own in the Tibetan areas of neighboring Chinese provinces.
In fact, we had already done just that at the Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province, and it was one of the best things we’ve done in the five times we’ve traveled around China together.
Our Tibet tour would be fairly short, then, but hopefully still very memorable.
The price was actually quite reasonable, especially considering everything that was included. Namely, the various permits required, the expensive entrance fees (up to 200 yuan for the Potala Palace alone), and accommodation in much nicer hotels than what we normally stay in.
Food in Tibet
Breakfast was also included on most days, but lunch and dinner were not. As vegan travelers, this actually worked out well for us. It meant that we could order whatever we wanted, and in some cases even choose where we wanted to eat.
Finding vegan food during our Tibet tour was never a problem. At most meals, we ate vegan Chinese dishes, which were widely available in Tibet.
Traditional Tibetan cuisine, on the other hand, is unfortunately not that vegan-friendly. This is no surprise in a country with a harsh climate that’s more suitable for herding yaks than raising crops.
Nevertheless, just as we had enjoyed plenty of vegan traditional dishes in Mongolia, we also managed to uncover some vegan dishes in Tibetan cuisine. I’ll be sharing more about that in a separate post, but for now I want to tell you all about what we did and saw on our 8-day tour of Tibet.
Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa via the Qinghai Tibet Railway
We arrived in Lhasa by train, and a Tibet Vista representative picked us up at the train station and took us to our hotel.
We were pretty exhausted, because the only train tickets we’d managed to get were for hard seats. These are fine for short journeys, but pretty rough on a 21-hour, overnight train ride. Moral of the story: book your China Tibet train tickets well in advance! They sell out quickly.
While as foreign tourists we had to be with a guide to visit the Potala Palace and other sights with ticketed entrance fees, we were allowed to wander around the city of Lhasa on our own.
Day 1 of our tour itinerary was left free, which meant we could use it to explore and tour Lhasa by ourselves. Unfortunately, I was too tired to do much after our train ride, but Nick went out on his own and got some great photos of the Potala Palace from a viewpoint up on a hill.
Day 2: Lhasa
In the morning, we met our tour guide Tashi and the other members of our group. I was surprised to find that the majority of the 12 tour participants were overseas Chinese.
Some were ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia and Indonesia, while others were former citizens of mainland China who had immigrated to other countries.
Rounding out the group was a Romanian, an Australian a Canadian and the two of us. Together we made up an interesting and diverse group, and everyone got along well.
The first major sight we visited in Lhasa was the Drepung Monastery. It’s one of the six largest monasteries of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as the Yellow Hat Sect.
Nick and I had visited other Tibetan Buddhist monasteries before, including the Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province, which is one of the other big six. However, this was the first time we’d had a guide to explain what we were seeing, and it made a world of difference!
We learned all about the symbolism used throughout the monastery, such as the meaning behind the three main colors that Tibetan monasteries are always painted in: red, white and yellow.
These represent compassion, wisdom and energy, and it’s believed that if you have these three things you can accomplish anything.
The statues in the temples also seemed to come to life as we learned about the people they represented. For example, there was Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.
And Tsongkhapa, who founded the Yellow Hat sect in 1409. Tsongkhapa, we learned, is considered to be the greatest philosopher of Tibetan Buddhism.
We kept seeing images of these same people throughout our time in Tibet, and it was great to have a bit of background info to help make sense of it all.
In addition to the usual temple buildings, inside the grounds of the Drepung Monastery there is also a palace. The Gaden Podrang Palace served as the Dalai Lama's residence until the Potala Palace was built, and it was a small taster of what we would see the next day.
Drepung Monastery Restaurant
Our group ate lunch at the Drepung Monastery restaurant, which serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals in a cafeteria-style setup. The food is simple, and very cheap at just 15 yuan for a plate of three veggie dishes.
Our fellow diners were mostly monks and Tibetan lay people, and the people-watching was just as interesting as the fantastic views of the monastery from the outside patio.
The other main sight we visited on day 2 was the Sera Monastery. While the temples and other buildings were similar to what we had seen at Drepung, there were three features of this monastery visit that made it special.
One was the display of sand mandalas, which I had never seen in real life before. The detail was extraordinary!
Second, we got to see monks debating with each other as part of their training, and third, we visited a printing house where the books of sutras (scriptures) are printed.
Both of these aspects of Tibetan monasteries I was already familiar with. And while the printing house was not as interesting as the one I had visited at Labrang, the debating was actually much livelier and more photogenic than any I had seen before. It was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
Day 3: Lhasa
The Jokhang Temple is the most important holy site in all of Tibet, and witnessing the religious fervor there was fascinating and inspiring.
Our group happened to visit on a Sunday, which is the one day of the week when the temple is closed to local worshippers and is open only for tourists.
This meant that it was much less crowded, and we were able to take our time exploring the inside of the temple. Only the other hand, we did miss out on some of the religious atmosphere, but we still saw plenty of faithful outside the temple praying, doing full-body prostrations, and worshipping in other ways.
One of my favorite experiences in Lhasa was walking along Barkhor Street, which is a circular street where Tibetans perform the kora (circumambulation) around the Jokhang Temple. This area is always pulsating with life, and here you’ll see plenty of pilgrims who have come from all over Tibet to worship at the temple.
Our group stopped for lunch at Tibetan Family Kitchen, a popular place on Barkhor Street just in front of the Jokhang Temple. Nick and I happened to see a vegetarian restaurant right next to it called Phodrang, so we popped in there instead and enjoyed some traditional Tibetan noodle soup (thukpa).
We joined the group afterward on the rooftop terrace at Tibetan Family Kitchen and enjoyed the views. The menu there also looked like it had plenty of options, with a whole vegetarian section.
Seeing the Potala Palace for the first time is a moment I’ll never forget. I had seen photos of it before, but it’s hard to comprehend how massive it is until it’s looming over you.
Based on what I’d heard from other travelers, I had low expectations for the inside of the palace. I thought that it would be mostly empty rooms, but that was not the case at all.
While the sections that are painted white on the outside are the secular rooms of the palace and are mostly closed to tourists, the religious sections, which are painted red, are quite spectacular on the inside.
In amongst the lavishly decorated rooms, we saw the tombs of several of the previous Dalai Lamas, and also the cave where the king, Songtsen Gampo, is said to have created the Tibetan language in the 7th century AD.
There are tight restrictions on the number of people allowed into the Potala Palace each day, which meant that it didn’t feel too crowded.
Day 4: Lhasa Gyantse Shigatse
It was a long day of driving to get from Lhasa to Shigatse via Gyantse, but we made several interesting stops along the way. We left Lhasa at 8 am in the rain.
The weather soon cleared, though, and we enjoyed some beautiful views during our overland tour, stopping at several lookout points.
However, I was sad and upset to see yaks, baby goats and Tibetan mastiff dogs being exploited for entertainment at several of these lookouts. They were dressed up in ridiculous costumes and forced to pose with tourists for photos.
If you visit Tibet, please do not give money to people who exploit animals in this way. Once tourists stop paying for it, the cruelty will end.
At 4,790 meters above sea level, the Gampala Pass offered the most spectacular scenery we had seen thus far, with gorgeous views looking down on the turquoise Yamdrok Lake.
This is one of four holy lakes in Tibet. So, even though we didn’t choose the 10-day tour that included Namtso Lake, we still got to see another one of Tibet’s holy lakes.
We ate lunch at a restaurant in Nakartse that had several Chinese veggie dishes on the menu. Nick chose chow mein, while I had tofu and vegetable soup.
The impressive views at the Kanbala Pass were soon trumped by the Karolha Glacier. It was here where we saw the most jaw-dropping mountain scenery of the whole trip.
And yes, sadly, that includes the time we spent at “Everest Base Camp”, but I’ll get to that later. There are a couple of platforms you can walk out on for closer views of the glacier, allowing you to get pretty close to the mountain.
This stop at a cottage industry barley mill was an unexpected highlight. Highland barley (tsampa) is the main crop grown in Tibet and the region’s staple food, along with yak butter and yak meat.
At this small, artisanal mill, we got to see how they grind the barley to make a coarse flour. The most common meal in Tibet is this barley flour mixed with tea. If just a little tea is added, it becomes a paste, or if more tea is added it can be drunk like a soup.
The miller also sold bags of puffed, roasted barley, which several of us bought. It was a little bit like popcorn and made a nice snack.
We arrived in Shigatse that evening and stayed at a very nice hotel. It was quite a step up from the hostel rooms we’re used to!
Everyone did their own thing for dinner, and Nick and I found a restaurant nearby with very friendly staff who made us some braised potatoes and spicy tofu.
Day 5: Shigatse to “Everest Base Camp”
This was another day with quite a bit of driving, although again there were a couple of mountain passes with views that broke up the journey. The highest was Gyatsola Pass, at 5248 meters.
There were lots of colorful prayer flags here waving in the breeze. At this point, it started to get a bit chilly, and I was glad I’d brought an extra layer or two of clothing.
Lunch was in Tingri at a Sichuan restaurant called The Taste of Love (爱的味道). Prices were a bit higher than usual, but the food was excellent!
Nick and I ordered stir-fried eggplant (干煸茄子), hot and sour cucumber (酸辣黄瓜), and a tofu casserole dish (砂锅豆腐). The latter normally comes with meat, so ask for it without if you’re veggie.
For the last 20 kilometers of the journey to Everest, all tourists have to switch to an eco-friendly bus. This bus took us to the Rongbu Monastery guesthouse, where we would spend the night.
“Everest Base Camp”
At the start of the trip, Tashi had informed us that, as from 2019, tourists are no longer allowed to visit the actual Everest Base Camp where climbers begin their ascent of the mountain. Apparently this is because tourists and climbers were leaving too much trash on the mountain.
The furthest tourists can go is now to a viewpoint near the Rongbu Monastery, some 8 kilometers away from base camp.
This was disappointing news, but we were still hopeful that we would have good views of Mount Everest. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Even though the weather had been sunny on our drive up, the area around Mount Everest was completely clouded over when we arrived, and we couldn’t even tell that there was a mountain there at all.
A local Tibetan later told us that such weather is quite common in the autumn (our trip was in September) and that the best chance for good views is in May.
But honestly, even if the weather had been perfectly clear, I think we still would have been disappointed with the views. Mount Everest was so far away, and everything around us was just barren rocky mountains. It certainly wasn’t the snowy wonderland we’d imagined.
The domestic Chinese tourists didn’t seem to mind, though. They still posed for selfies in front of the large stone carved with the words “base camp” to prove that they’d been there. I’m guessing the government must have relocated the stone from the real base camp for just this purpose.
It seems that everyone, including all the tour companies and even the national park officials, has started referring to this lookout point as “Everest Base Camp”, even though that’s clearly not what it is.
Keep this in mind when booking any tour of Tibet that includes “Everest Base Camp”. If you really want close-up views of Everest, you won’t get them from the Tibet side, so maybe consider trekking to Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side instead.
Rongbu Monastery Guesthouse
The guesthouse has an attached teahouse that does a roaring trade in hot lemon tea and also serves basic meals. Prices are about double what you’d pay in Lhasa, but the stir-fried vegetable dish we ordered was pretty good.
Most other tour groups slept in tents that night, but Tashi managed to secure rooms for our group inside the Rongbu Monastery Guesthouse. Sex-segregated dorm rooms are the only option, so Nick and I were separated for the night.
The accommodations here are definitely basic, so be prepared for smelly long-drop toilets. We all stayed very warm, though, as each bed had an electric mattress cover and plenty of blankets. I was actually too warm and had to turn off my electric cover in the middle of the night!
Most of us had a fitful night’s sleep, due to the altitude. Tashi brought along plenty of oxygen cans, but even so, one member of our group fell quite ill in the night and had to go down the mountain early. We rejoined her a few hours later, and she was feeling much better.
If possible, try to spend some time acclimatizing before your arrival in Tibet. Since Nick and I had already been at altitude the previous week in Gansu Province, luckily we didn’t feel the effects very much during our Tibet trip.
Day 6: “Everest Base Camp” to Shigatse
We woke up for sunrise in the hopes that the weather had improved, but visibility was even worse than the day before. It actually snowed a bit, which at least gave a nice white dusting to the otherwise barren mountains around us. We never got to see Mount Everest, though.
The highlight of day 6 was definitely the visit to the Rongbu Monastery. It’s the highest monastery in the world, and, unusually, both monks and nuns live here and pray and worship together.
Another unusual thing about this monastery is that visitors are allowed to take photos everywhere. All the other monasteries we visited in Tibet either outright prohibited photos inside the temples or charged very hefty photography fees.
Tashi said the reason this monastery allowed photography was that not many tourists go there. If it becomes more popular, they will probably rethink their policy.
In any case, we were the only tourists there that morning, which made it a very peaceful experience. I really appreciated the fact that Tashi brought us there when all the other groups seemed to skip it.
The rest of the day was spent in the van on an uneventful ride back to Shigatse. There, we stayed at the same hotel where we had been two nights before. Nick and I returned to the same restaurant for dinner, where our friendly waiter was very happy to see us.
Day 7: Shigatse to Lhasa
In the morning, we visited one last monastery in Shigatse. Like Drepung and Sera in Lhasa, the Tashilunpo Monastery is also one of the six main monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect.
What makes it really special is that it’s the home monastery of the Panchen Lama, the second most important Tibetan religious figure after the Dalai Lama. Here, we saw reliquary chapels with the remains of previous Panchen Lamas, as well as the world’s largest gilded bronze Maitreya Buddha statue.
The best part for me, though, was watching monks practice their dancing skills! Tashilunpo Monastery is known for its performances of a traditional tantric dance called Cham.
We stumbled onto the monks’ practice session in a side courtyard, and it was quite a sight to see them turning pirouettes in their flowing red robes.
Tibetan Family Visit
Shortly before Lhasa, we stopped in a village where a local couple generously invited us into their home. Not only did they serve us drinks and snacks, but the woman even sang to us while we drank!
It was fascinating to get a glimpse inside their home, which was beautifully decorated, almost like a temple. Many of the snacks they served us were vegan, so I was really excited to be able to try some local dishes!
We had tsampa mixed with tea, roasted barley, potatoes that they had grown in their own garden, and a crunchy fried bread called kapse.
The woman was happy to answer our questions, and this peek into her daily life was a very special experience.
Day 8: Lhasa
Nick and I purposely booked a late afternoon train on the last day of the tour, so that we would have some more time to explore Lhasa on our own. And by this time, I had recovered from our 21-hour hard seat train ride and actually had the energy for exploration.
We mostly just walked around the old city and soaked up the atmosphere. After a couple of laps around Barkhor Street, we tried our best to get lost in some of the narrow alleyways of Lhasa’s Old Town.
Inevitably, though, we always ended up back on Barkhor. Not that that’s a bad thing! Barkhor is one of the most fascinating streets I’ve ever walked down, and I tried as hard as I could to savor the experience, knowing that this would probably be my only chance to visit Tibet.
How to Choose the Right Tibet Tour for You
Here are a few things to consider when choosing a tour of Tibet:
How large is the group size?
Is the guide a local Tibetan?
How well does the guide speak English?
Will you have time to explore Lhasa on your own?
Are there any hidden costs? Some companies charge extra for the various permits, which can add up quickly.
Overall, I was very happy with the tour we chose with Tibet Vista. The group was a manageable size, our guide was passionate and well-spoken and had plenty of local knowledge to share, and it was clear which costs were included, namely everything except for meals.
Even though we spent more than we normally do when traveling independently, the tour represented good value for what we got in return and was definitely worth it.
Our one disappointment was that the tour did not go all the way to Everest Base Camp, but this is the case for all tours now under the new regulations.
This may change in the future; I found one source that said the government is planning to build a new tourist camp about a mile from the old one. It’s worth seeking out the latest info if good views of Everest are important to you.
The photos on the Tibet Vista website should give you a good idea of the kind of views you can expect from Rongbu Monastery on a clear day.
Many thanks to Tibet Vista for their sponsorship in the form of a discount on our Tibet tour. As always, this is an honest review, and all opinions are my own.