Overland tour to Tibet Travel Guide

The Friendship Highway, a 800 km scenic route connecting the capital of Tibet Lhasa with the Chinese/Nepalese border.

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The journey takes a minimum of 6 days to achieve the 800 km from Lhasa, the Capital of Tibet to the Nepalese border. I had a guide and a driver for myself, although English is not their best advantage, I found them very interesting and learned al lot from the Tibetan culture. It is a 800 km scenic route connecting the capital of Tibet Lhasa with the Chinese/Nepalese border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge between Zhangmu and Kodari. It includes the western most part of China National Highway 318 and crosses three passes over 5,000m before dropping to 1,750m at the border. 

From Shigatse, the Friendship Highway west to Zhangmu on the Nepalese border is now surfaced all the way to the border. The road gradually climbs to the pass of Tsuo La (4500m) before the steep descent to the Sakya Bridge and the turn-off to Sakya village. Further south, the side-trip to Mount Everest Base Camp is a once-in-a-lifetime experience…

There are four overland routes to Lhasa from the four cardinal directions.

Two will not be discussed here:

  • from the South, from India, via Nepal
  • from the north-west, from Kashgar in Xinjiang

What we will describe here are routes from central China:

  • by rail, using the new Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world’s highest railway line, with oxygen pump into the cabin
  • by road from the north, starting at Golmud, Qinghai
  • by road from the east, from Kunming, Yunnan or from Chengdu, Sichuan (The Tibet Tea Road) — see more out-of-the-way places
  • overland to Zhongdian, then fly to Lhasa — see a lot without blowing the budget
  • by land or air from Kathmandu (Nepal)

For any route, you need travel permits for each area you visit. The Chinese government restricts access to Tibet; in theory, you can only get a permit as part of an organized tour group. In practice, some tour operators will take your money, get you the permit, and be happy if you go off on your own. Also, some local police stations will happily issue permits for their area, sometimes cheaper than the tour operators. For details, see the Tibet article. Some travelers have gone without the permits, some have gotten away with it, but this no longer possible or advised. If you are caught you will be detained, fined and sent back at your own expense. Still you can go there as a single traveller, but only “organized”.

For any route, you need to consider the risks of altitude sickness. Lhasa is at 3660 meters (12,000 feet). Most of the passes and some inhabited plateau areas are over 5000 meters (16,500 feet).

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By rail

The Qinghai-Tibet railway connects Golmud and Lhasa. Golmud is in Qinghai, a Chinese province north of Tibet, also located on the Tibetan plateau, with a large part of the population ethnically Tibetan and with historical links to the region.

This is the highest railway on earth, running at over 5000 meters above sea level in many places. The carriages are specially designed to help passengers avoid altitude sickness. Contrary to popular belief, the carriages are not pressurized. It is possible to open the train windows en-route and the train stops at many high altitude stations with no pressurization/de-pressurization before the train doors open. The air is oxygen-enriched by outlets in the carriages. If that is not enough, you can plug a nasal catheter into an outlet for a more concentrated dose. Few passengers require these, but they are available if you do.

The train has different classes of travel — soft sleeper (4 berths in one compartment), hard sleeper (6 berths in one compartment) and hard seat (standard railway seating). In each carriage information about the journey is displayed on scrolling LED displays. This contains much information in Chinese and in English. It is possible to find out the current speed, time and date, altitude and next station information.

Each carriage has an attendant who is responsible for the boarding of that carriage and the passengers within it. There is also a restaurant car serving food and drink and frequent trolley services for food and other essentials throughout the train. Every train also carries a doctor and nurse.

One noticeable problem with the sleeper carriages is that there are only two toilets (one Western and one Chinese) in each carriage. These are not only very busy but also get very dirty as the journey progresses. You are advised also to take your own toilet paper. In addition to this there is barely enough room for luggage. Passengers often have to sleep with their suitcases on their beds if they are too large to fit under the beds or in the over-corridor area linked to each compartment.

The railway connects via Golmud to the main Chinese rail system. You can get tickets all the way to Lhasa from major Chinese cities — at least Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou, perhaps others. It’s worth noting that on the Chongquing route, at least 24 hours of the 48 hour journey are spent traveling north to join the main Beijing to Golmud line.

Line speeds average around 100 to 120 km/h, certainly from Golmud to Lhasa, making the journey interesting but also laborious.

On arrival at Lhasa you should have your tickets ready for inspection at the barriers. Also watch out for the taxi drivers who insist on charging a fixed rate per vehicle (despite number of occupants) of Y100 for the journey into Lhasa center. They can also become quite irate if you do not use their car! Its best to try and get 4 people together to split the cost (Y25 each) – but its still a rip off as standard fares in Lhasa start at Y5 and then Y1.8 per km. The journey to a central Lhasa hotel should cost no more than Y20. You could also reach Golmud via routes described in Silk Road and Along the Yellow river.


By road from Xining

It is also possible to reach Lhasa by road from Golmud, either by bus or hitchhiking. Combined with a train to Golmud, this is probably the cheapest route from central China into Tibet, and the one with the fewest hassles about permits. The journey takes about 30 hours.

You could also reach Golmud via routes described in Silk Road and Along the Yellow river.

  • Qinghai-Tibet Road II: Xining, Qinghai – Yushu – Nangqen – Riwoq, Tibet – Dengqen – Baqen – Nagqu – – Lhasa
  • The so-called “Tang-Bo Ancient Road” is an alternative of Qinghai-Tibet Road from Golmud to Lhasa. During China’s Tang Dynasty, Princess Wencheng took this road to marry Songtsän Gampo, the thirty-third king of the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibet.

    By road from Kunming or Chengdu

    Here we describe the route via Western Sichuan, Northwestern Yunnan and Eastern Tibet, starting from either Chengdu or Kunming.

    • Sichuan-Tibet Hwy North: Chengdu – Dujiangyan – Danba – Bamei – Daofu – Luhuo – Ganzi – Dege – Chamdo – Dengqen – Baqen – Nagqu – Lhasa
    • Sichuan-Tibet Hwy South: Chengdu – Kangding – Litang – Batang – Mangkam – Zogang- Pomda – Basu – Ranwu – Pome – Bayi – Lhasa

    From Chengdu, another option is to head north and west to see some of the Silk Road areas, then to Golmud and into Tibet that way. See route above.

    • Yunnan-Tibet Road: Kunming, Yunnan – Dali – Lijiang – Zhongdian (Shangrila) – Deqin – Yanjing, Tibet – Mangkam – Pomda – Ranwu – Pome – Bayi – Lhasa
      Zhongdian to Lhasa

    The overland route is by road from Zhongdian in northern Yunnan. The Chinese government is promoting tourism by calling the area around Zhondian Shangrila. The road condition has greatly improved over the years but you still need a four wheel drive vehicle. This southen road is extremely scenic with snowcapped mountains, alpine lakes and gorgeous scenery. Several companies offer tours on this route. The route is quite difficult on your own, but there are busses; see the Shangrila article for information.

    Chengdu to Zhongdian

    The easy route from Chengdu to Zhongdian is to take a train to Kunming, then follow the Yunnan tourist trail up to Zhongdian. There is an alternate route taking a series of buses through Southern Sichuan, via Xiangcheng to Zhongdian. This is several days rather off the beaten track, not for the fainthearted. However, you don’t need permits for this. If you book the Zhongdian-Lhasa trip in Chengdu, it may include (at a cost, of course) a trip along this route in a more comfortable bus with a guide.

    Kunming to Zhongdian

    This route is described in Yunnan tourist trail.

    Central China to Kunming or Chengdu

    See Overland Kunming to Hong Kong for one route to Kunming, and Along the Yangtze river for one to Chengdu. Of course there are many other ways to get there. Both cities have good road, rail and air connections to the rest of China, and both have some international flights.

    Overland to Zhongdian, then fly to Lhasa

    An alternative route is to travel overland to Zhongdian via routes given in Yunnan tourist trail and Overland Kunming to Hong Kong, then fly to Lhasa. One advantage is that this will probably be cheaper than the guided four wheel drive overland journey.

    This also gives your body time to acclimatise and avoid altitude sickness. A flight from sea level to Lhasa at 3650 meters (over 12,000 feet) is very likely to cause illness. However, if you go via Kunming and Dali (both near 2000 meters) to Lijiang (2400) and Zhongdian (3200), spending a little time in each place, then you can fly to Lhasa (3650) with very little risk.

    Of course, you could also fly to Lhasa from Chengdu, Kunming or more distant Chinese cities. However, you would miss the very beautiful areas on the Yunnan tourist trail and might run higher risk of altitude sickness.

    By road from Kathmandu

    The overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa or from Lhasa to Kathmandu is probably the best known overland itinerary. The road distance of roughly 1000 km is full of stunning views from the subtropical climate of the southside of the Himalayas to passing Everest and other 8000 m peaks. Altitude sickness is a real issue , since you sleep higher than Lhasa from the very first night until arriving in Lhasa. En route are many important cultural and religious sites and monasteries.

    Tour companies include:
    • Nepal Footprint Holiday. They offer tours and many non-commercial information on Tibet on their website. They handle individual and organized tours.
    • Tibet Travel CITS.They organize small group tours from Nepal to Tibet and Tibet to Nepal by road, including pay a visit to north Everest Base Camp.
    • Explore Tibet.There are a great local Tibetan tour operator and offers reliable tours, their prices are not the cheapest but their services and experiences are worthwhile.
    • Navyo Nepal Discover Asia. Long experience in handling Tibet tours.

    By air from Kathmandu

    Many fly in from the “low lands” of Kathmandu (1340 m), so acclimatisation is a must when arriving in Tibet. Air China flies during summer nearly daily, while in winter only once or twice (tuesday and saturday).

    They are few things that you should concern if you plan to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa.

    • Flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa is the only international flight to Tibet, so the permit and visa process is little different than if you enter Tibet through mainland China, so to enter Tibet from Nepal you don’t need to obtain the Chinese Individual visa, instead of that you need to obtain the Tibet Group Visa which you can get from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, but you should have the related invitation letter and application assistance through local agency, therefore you can’t apply it by yourself.
    • The direct flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa is only operated by Air China, so it is not available on everyday, so you need to check with flight availability before you confirm your travel schedule.
    • You need to book the flight tickets in far advance to get a cheaper price, sometimes if you are late booking, tickets may not available.

    As an optional, there are also some connection flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa which overnight at Kunming or Chengdu, sometimes China Eastern Airline offer very cheap prices for these connection flights, but with these connection flights, you need the Chinese Individual visa.

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Discover the Friendship Highway also known as the China-Nepal Highway, a 800 kilometres scenic route connecting the capital of Tibet Lhasa with the Chinese/Nepalese border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge between Zhangmu and Kodari. It includes the western most part of China National Highway 318 and crosses three passes over 5,000m before dropping to 1,750m at the border.

Travel and tourism in Tibet. How to get in, maps, activities & where to eat and sleep. Download the Free Overland tour to Tibet Travel Guide.

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Michel Piccaya


As a freelance travel photographer, Michel Piccaya has been on the road worldwide for more than 20 years, exploring the most incredible itineraries. He’s currently based in Brussels however never stays at home for a long time !

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