Tibet Stories and Tips

Surviving Tibet

Guardians of Jokhang Temple Photo, Tibet, China

Due to its unique geographical position and vastness, the weather in Tibet is variable. For example, while travelling from Drigung to Nyingchi, we experienced rain, snow, and sun all in a day. We were ill prepared for that day and were scrambling to put on layers upon layers as we travel, only to start "stripping" again in the afternoon when we reached our final destination. In short, be prepared for extreme weather conditions.

Travel Insurance
Healthcare services are negligent at best, so purchasing good travel insurance that provides 100% coverage, particularly for evacuation (which easily costs >US$25,000) is of utmost importance. In our case, our departure plane was delayed for 24 hours, resulting in 1 lost day in Chengdu (we had planned to visit the panda-breeding reserve). Needless to say, we filed for compensation with our travel insurance company as soon as we returned home.

What to pack:

1.Sunglasses- the glare from the sun can be blinding, particularly if it is sunny on a snowy landscape.

2. Sunblock, preferably with UV, UAB, and PAB protection (SPF of 40 or above).

3. Lightweight jacket for temperatures below 10°C, thermal wear, gloves, and scarves, regardless of the season you are visiting (we had a snowball fight in the middle of summer).

4. Umbrella or raincoat. The months of July to August are peak rainy season, so do bring along a strong umbrella or raincoat. We encountered rain almost every day during our trip, and contrary to what we were told, it can rain quite heavily. The upside of it was that we managed to observe beautiful rainbows streaking across the sky on several occasions.

4. Toilet paper (if you are a heavy user) or lots of packets of tissue paper and wet wipes.
Public toilets (if you can find it) have no flushing or tap water for washing hands and most charge a small fee of $0.10 to $0.20 RMB ( about US$0.05).
Public toilets, especially those in the rural areas, are basically holes dug over or near a ravine or river. Be prepared for the stench of accumulated waste and wriggling maggots. You might want to try dabbing a few drops of perfume on a handkerchief of tissue and covering it over the nose and mouth to mask some of the stench. We basically hold our breath and pee as fast as we can. Hygiene seemed to be of low priority, and all of Tibet seemed to be an open toilet with locals peeing in the open fields and toilet training their toddlers on the pavements outside shops.

6. Extra battery packs and film. You can recharge your batteries in most hotels in major towns. Films, if sold, are of the usual variety, ISO200-400, at exorbitant prices.

7. Extra bags. Tibet has a strict policy against shops issuing plastic bags to shoppers in the name of protecting the environment. If you intend to do a little shopping, it is best to carry your own shopping bag.

8. First aid kit. It would be handy to bring your own first-aid kit consisting of bandages, disinfectant, antiseptic cream, and medication. Basic kits are available at most pharmacies and major department stores in your country. Medical assistance may be difficult, particularly in remote areas, so don't leave home without a basic first-aid kit.

8. Food. There are basically two types of food available throughout Tibet. Tsampa or millet mixed with yak milk and sugar into a paste (tastes like uncooked cookie dough), accompanied with yoghurt, is the main staple of Tibetan diet. Although filling, this can be somewhat monotonous. Tibetans do not consume fish due to the practice of water burial. However, there are a variety of vegetables and fruits (thanks to the Chinese agricultural efforts).

Chinese, namely Sichuan-styled (i.e., tongue-numbing, spicy-hot, oil-layered, and salty) is the other available food. The latter offers more variety, but standards differ according to the chef’s skills. We ate mostly the latter, but gave specified instructions upon placing our orders to reduce the salt, spiciness, and oil content. It soon became a sing-song catchphrase for our guide before ordering each meal.

Western-style food is available only in major towns like Lhasa, Gyantse, and Zedang. It’s best to bring your own instant foods if you are fussy about it (you can always donate to the locals at the end of the trip). Most hotels provide hot water on request or have water kettles, so preparing instant foods should not be a problem. High-energy bars and snacks are handy, especially during long journeys.

What to buy

Tankas: These are wall hangings or scrolls depicting Buddhism and Buddhist scriptures either sewn or painted onto cloth or silk. They were originally used by monks for teaching purposes.

Buddhist artefacts: Found commonly outside monasteries and temples, these include incense, water-offering bowls, prayer wheels, and prayer beads.

Tian-chu (Heaven’s pearl/Tibetan pearl): There are many imitations widely available in Tibet, so choose wisely and buy from reputable stores (unless you have the intention to buy imitations, in which case, bargain hard). Tibetans prize them for their healing and protective properties. Tian-chu, or Tibetan pearl, is smooth to touch and normally comes in shades of brown and white. The darker the color, the more valuable it is. Many shops would scratch the pearl against glass as a test against fakes. However, we learnt that good quality imitations will pass this test. The only way to differentiate is to place it under a scan, or cut the pearl into half. The core should reveal concentric circles. Each pearl is unique and has significant meaning, so be sure to ask the shop assistant to write it down.

Prayer flags: Tibetan prayer flags come in five colors: white, red, yellow, green, and blue, signifying clouds, fire, earth, lake, and sky. This should not be confused with the Chinese flags hang from buildings.

Offering scarves or Kataks. We received these from our guide as soon as we arrived in Tibet, a Tibetan welcome. These scarves are usually made of cotton or silk and can be easily purchased at the local markets for pilgrims as offerings in temples and monasteries. They are available in a variety of colours, white, signifying sincerity, being the most common.

Saffron: A highly prized spice, Tibetan saffron are available at herbal shops or at the Tibetan pharmaceutical factory in Lhasa.

For in-depth information:
"Tibet" by Michael Buckley, published under the Bradt Travel Guide, offers a Western perspective which offers some useful if not somewhat bias information, while "Tibet" by Gyurme Dorje, published under Footprint, offers a more moderate perspective. The latter can be confusing at times, as places follow the Tibetan names rather than the current Chinese names. For an amusing read, Michael Palin’s Himalayas offer some interesting insights on Tibet.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip