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Basic Info


Accurate and reliable population figures are extremely hard to come by and vary greatly depending on which government is issuing them. The Chinese claim that the T.A.R (the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as the Chinese like to call it) is home to 2.45 million people of which 96% are Tibetan. This does not take into account the number of temporary residence, armed forces, government officials and individuals with addresses elsewhere in China.

Anyone who’s visited Lhasa of late can see that the number of Han Chinese clearly outnumbers the number of Tibetans by at least 2 or even 3 to 1. The population of Ethnic Tibet is put at somewhere between 4.5 and 6 million.


The official language is that of Chinese Mandarin which is taught at schools and used to conduct anything remotely official. The original Tibetan language is spoken and written but given very low priority and very little focus in the curriculum. Many Tibetans are now growing up unable to speak their mother tongue. All shop fronts, signs and posters are written foremost in Mandarin Chinese and then again in very small letters in Tibetan.

Anyone travelling in the region will have noticed the often highly ridiculous and humorous Mandarin to English translations on menus, hotel notices and DVD subtitles. This lack of accuracy in translation is apparently not restricted to English, and the Chinese take equally little care in translating such items in to Tibetan.


Mainly Han Chinese (the dominant Chinese ethnic group) and Tibetan. Within the Tibetan plateau are a number of different smaller ethnic groups such as Khampa, Topa, and Golok.


Most Tibetans are Buddhists, practicing a variant of Mahayana Buddhism that came from India and Nepal in the 7th century AD and then again in the 10th. It’s often called ‘Big wheel’ Buddhism because it merged with local traditions and beliefs in a kind of snowball effect as it travelled across China, unlike the “pure” Buddhism which crossed the sea unchanged to Thailand and the rest of South East Asia.

What makes Tibetan Buddhism so unique and colourful is that it took on much of the Bon beliefs. The Bon were the original Shamans who held sway in Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhism, and from where Tibetan Buddhism takes many of its Gods, deities and rituals. The Bon still exist today in Tibet, and if you see someone walking anti-clockwise around a sacred site or temple (as opposed to clockwise which is mandatory to Buddhists) they’re probably followers of the Bon faith. Or just plain ignorant and sacrilegious.


The Chinese Communist Party based in Beijing lead by President Hu Jintao (since March 2003). There is no evidence to support China’s claim that Tibet is autonomous: all local legislation is subject to approval of the central government of Beijing, all local government is subject to the regional party. Any high ranking Tibetan figures are largely regarded as ‘puppets’ and tow the communist party line on all major issues.

Prior to the Chinese invasion the Dalia Lama was Tibet’s leader. In 1959, fearing for his life he fled for India where he now works the Tibetan cause along with the Tibetan Government In Exile.

When To Travel:

If you’re planning a trip to Tibet it’s best to avoid the winter months when temperatures are unbearably cold and snowfall can be problematic on the roads and passes. Summer is a good time, and coincides with the hosting of many horse racing fairs and festivals. A real treat if you’re fortunate enough to catch one. Spring is not too hot and good if you’re planning on trekking.

Visas, Permits and Immigration:

Immigration :

For an area that isn’t even officially a country of it’s own, Tibetan immigration can be unnecessarily daunting. In actual fact it’s quite straightforward. To enter Tibet from anywhere you’re required to have a valid Chinese visa, and a Tourist Permit (T.T.P).

Additional “Aliens” P.S.B permits are then required to travel to some of the other regions within Tibet. Details of how to obtain both visas and permits follow are listed below.

Currently, you can only enter Tibet from two countries, China, or Nepal :

By Air

Flights to/from Lhasa available from Kathmandu, Beijing, Zhongdian, Chengdu and some other cities in China.

By Road

You can travel into Tibet by road from Kathmandu, from the east of Tibet, and from the North East. You have to do this as part of an organised tour group, although these days that term can apply to a single vehicle. The point is it has to be arranged via an agency and private vehicles are not permitted. If you’re a solo traveller, both Lhasa and Kathmandu are full of individuals looking for travel companions.

By Rail

The new rail line that connects Lhasa to Beijing and to a number of towns and cities on route. See Train section for more details.

By Foot

It’s highly unusual (and illegal) for tourists to travel in/out of Tibet by foot, but the Tibetans themselves have been doing it for years. Normally to escape persecution from the Chinese or to join their spiritual leader in India they walk across the Himalayas to Nepal. Many actually return to Tibet in later years.

Either way it’s a highly illegal, secretive and dangerous affair trekking across the mountains in high altitude weather. Many do not survive.

Not recommended to anyone who doesn’t have a death wish and/or a desire to see the inside of Chinese prison cell.


A Chinese visa is required by all visitors to Tibet. There are various visa options available to you depending on how long you wish to stay and how many times you plan to enter or re-enter the country.

Travellers coming from Kathmandu can obtain a “group” visa in Kathmandu from a travel agency as part of a package when they book their flights or overland transport. This group visa can be changed in Lhasa (for a fee) into an individual visa which then allows you to head off and explore other parts of China.

People not entering from Kathmandu will need to get their visa in advance from a Chinese embassy in their home country or elsewhere. The easiest and fastest place to pickup a Chinese Visa, or travel to if your visa has expired, is Hong Kong.

Most Common Tourist (L) Visas are :

30days single entry – $50.00

6months Single Entry – $50.00

6months Double Entry – $75.00

6months Multiple Entry – $100.00

12months Multiple Entry – $150.00

    • Prices vary depending on how quickly you need your visa.


When applying for your Chinese visa anywhere in the world you will at some point be asked to state your destination in China. Under no circumstances offer “Tibet” as it will do nothing but hinder you application. Officially Tibet does not exist. You can however state Lhasa, or any other town in Tibet you plan on visiting, but it’s probably best not to bother. Once you’re in China, you’re in! The visa itself makes no mention of where you plan to travel to, so you’re as free to move around as anybody else.


Officially Tibet is part of China with no borders or visa stamp of it’s own. In fact when you travel overland from China into the T.A.R, there is no guard, passport control or immigration, and little more than a symbolic gateway to mark the spot.

However, in order to travel anywhere within the T.A.R, in addition to a Chinese Visa, you’ll need a Tibetan Tourist Permit. Some other areas/region/sites then require an additional “Aliens” permit too. Each permit needs to be applied for much like a visa, the government requiring passport details, photos, and of course a small fee so they can be sure exactly who is travelling where, and indeed when. Some permits are easier to acquire and cheaper than others, while permits for some areas are still as of yet, unobtainable.

It sounds more complicated than it is, but you won’t have to worry too much about organising your permits as this will be the responsibility of whichever travel agency you choose to organise your trip. When you book either by plane or land from Kathmandu, Beijing or by train from elsewhere in China, the necessary permit will be included and acquired for you by the travel agency.

Physically an A4 piece of paper with a few Chinese stamps on it, normally you’ll never see these permits. The only permit you’re likely to see is the T.T.P permit which you’ll need to show if you enter the T.A.R alone by plane. You’ll be asked to present it upon check in, and once again it can be arranged through the agency that booked your trip.

Becuase there a no regular ‘permit checks’, and with no actual, formal border between the T.A.R and the rest of China, it’s not impossible for those sneaky enough to enter the T.A.R without the appropriate permit. However, if you’re caught anywhere in Tibet without the right paperwork, you will face very heavy fines.

That’s providing the authorities don’t suspect you to be a spy, or you piss them off and they decide to treat you like one anyway.

Tariq El Kashef

Tariq El Kashef is the author and editor of – The Online Egypt Travel Guide