Southern China and Tibet – Day 5: From Chengdu to Tibet

It’s day 5 of our grand tour of Southern China and Tibet (Read about Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4) Today, we travel from Chengdu to Tibet. Tibet has long been a bucket list destination for me and this trip has been 18 months in the planning. Finally, we are on our way!

0700: It’s another early start from the hotel as our driver picks us up. We were heading to Chengdu Airport to catch a flight to Lhasa, our first stop in Tibet.

Chengdu is one of the most popular gateways to Tibet. From Chengdu there are three options to get to Lhasa: road, rail or air. Before embarking on the trip, we investigated all three options.

By road, there are two routes from Chengdu to Lhasa; the North route and South route – both about 2200 km long and takes about 3 to 4 days of driving. It is known for being one of the toughest road trips in the World, and not a popular options for tourists. This is not a well travelled route, so not many places to eat or drink or stay overnight. On the plus side, you can see some great scenery and its a great way to acclimatise to the altitude as you climb slowly and let your body adjust.

By train: From Chengdu, a train to Lhasa leaves every other day. It leaves Chengdu around 2130 and arrives in Lhasa 36 hours later. You will spend two nights on the train.  Sleeper cabins hold 4 people per compartment, with shared toilet and washing facilities.  There is also a restaurant on board. The train is a popular option and tickets tend to sell out fast. Again, it is great for scenery. However, you will not acclimatise to the altitude as you would travelling by road. This is because, as the train climbs to higher altitudes, Oxygen is pumped throughout the train.

By plane: This is the quickest option by far. From Chengdu to Lhasa it only takes 2 hours 20 minutes. A number of airlines fly this route, several times a day. Downside is no scenery (well not from the ground anyway) and it doesn’t give you the option to acclimatise. However, we went with this option as it was the quickest, and we were not sure if we could handle 2 days on the train.

0745: Check-in at Chengdu airport. Just like check-in anywhere else in the World, but they ask to see our Tibet Travel permit. Without this, as a foreigner you cannot go to Tibet.  The permit was arranged by our travel agency as part of the tour.

I was impressed by the efficiency and security at Chengdu airport. Everything (luggage + people) is scanned upon entry into the terminal building. After check-in, you are asked to wait 3 to 5 minutes at a nearby display screen until all your checked luggage undergoes screening. If your name shows up on the screen, that means something flagged up on the scanner, and you are asked to step into the luggage room where they manually search the bag. (The only reason I know this is because our name did flash on the screen! Turns out that we had a mobile phone power bank in the checked-in luggage, which had to be moved to the hand luggage. The officials were efficient and pleasant at all times).

Sign at Chengdu airport advising you to wait until your luggage is screened

Following this, you go through to departures, where there is an ID and Tibet permit check. Security is just like any other airport. Coats, belts and shoes off, and no liquids allowed.

0930: On board our flight to Lhasa. We were flying with China Eastern airlines.

The flight was as good as other plane journey I have taken, and better than many. All the announcements were in Chinese and English both and the crew were great. The level of service was better that what you get for short haul journeys in Europe or US. In-flight meal, checked bagged are all included in the ticket. There was an in-flight movie too, in Chinese, but with English subtitles. The in-flight magazine even had an article about the city of York.

A little bit of home – In-flight magazine article about York

After take off from Chengdu, we were soon flying over the Daxue Mountains. Daxue translates to “Great Snow Mountains”.  And these definitely lived up to their name. The mountain peaks were so high that they broke through the cloud cover. I have never seen mountains so close from a plane.

Daxue Mountains

Daxue range is home to Mount Gonggar, which is 7,000 metres (23,000 ft)  high. It’s the third highest peak outside the Himalaya/Karakoram range.  By contrast, Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc is only 5600 meters high.  The scenery all the way was amazing; with snow covered mountains, ice-fields and glacier fed lakes.

More mountains and icefields
Glacier fed lakes

The 2 hour flight went by very quickly, and soon we were flying over the Tibetan plateau. The snow peaks were replaced by flat land surrounded by jagged mountains, somewhat dry and brown, but most of it covered by a large river and its delta. As we would later find out, this was the Brahmaputra river, flowing from India to Tibet, then on to Bangladesh.

Bhramaputra River flowing over the Tibetan plateau
Bhramaputra River flowing over the Tibetan plateau

Just as I was beginning to wonder where we were going to land, the plane took a sharp turn and Lhasa airport came to view in the distance. In no time at all, we had landed, and taxied to the terminal.  We disembarked and collected our luggage.

1230: After a final check of our Tibet permit, we were allowed outside the terminal, where we were welcomed warmly by our driver and guide, with white scarfs or a “khata”. The khata symbolises purity and compassion and is worn or presented with incense at many ceremonial occasions, including births, weddings, funerals, graduations and the arrival or departure of guests. Over the next few days, we would see so many of these.

A warm Tibetan welcome”

The drive from Lhasa airport to the centre of Lhasa is about 1 hour 15 minutes. The drive gave us the chance to absorb the scenery and form our first impressions of Tibet. My first thought was that the land is dry. This was early spring, but all the mountains and the land around us was dry and brown. In many ways it reminded of us our trip to West coast of the US. Our guide told us that Tibet is indeed dry and you only get rain in July and August.

On the way to Lhasa

The pace of development in Lhasa was hard to miss. We were travelling on the new road, which had halved the time between the airport and the centre of Lhasa. It cut through many mountains and we went through some very long tunnels. Influence of the Chinese central government was very clear to see.

Development along the road to Lhasa

First impressions of Lhasa city – It was busy, given it was a Sunday. The city was small in scale, and was more akin to Yangshuo than Chengdu or Shanghai.

Centre of Lhasa on a Sunday afternoon

1400: After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we set out to lunch and explore.

We had lunch at the Lhasa kitchen. The menu was interesting – Chinese, Tibetan and Nepali food. I tried the traditional Tsampa which was delicious.


After lunch, we headed to Bhakor square, which is the location of the Johkang temple, the most scared temple in Tibet.

Bhakor Square – Jokhang Temple

We walked around the Temple in clockwise circle, or a “Kora”; with many other tourists and locals. There are many shops along the Kora route, selling everything from Tibetan rugs to prayer wheels. We didn’t go inside the Jokhang temple as we had a guided tour planned for this the next day.

Shops along Bhakor Square

1600: By late afternoon, we were starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness, as expected; a mild headache and a few aches and pains.

Altitude sickness occurs when you travel to high altitudes (over 3000 meters) too quickly. Air is thinner at higher altitudes and breathing becomes difficult because you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen. On top of this, as Tibet has very low humidity (only 7%) , you start to feel the effects of dehydration as well. There is not a lot you can do, other than rest up and drink a lot of fluids, and wait for the body to acclimatise; which is exactly what we did.

1900: Early dinner at the hotel restaurant. We were staying at Kyichu Hotel in the centre of Lhasa. Food was good, if a bit overpriced.

When we got back to the hotel, and recharged our phones, there was bad news waiting for us. It was Easter Sunday, and six deadly bombings had ripped apart Sri Lanka. When the news reached us in Tibet, left us all shaken to the core. It had been 10 years since the end of the civil war, when suicide bombings occurred with alarming regularity. But everyone (including us) had thought that this had been firmly consigned to the history books since the war ended. Easter Sunday events showed that this was not to be the case. We spent the rest of the evening calling relatives in Sri Lanka, and glued to our phones, trying to find out information as it came out in dribs and drabs, trying to separate the real news from fake. Finally, we decided to call it a night, as we had a full programme planned for tomorrow.

In my next post: Getting used to Lhasa, we visit Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery.


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