Tibet is a region within China, which has a fascinating history and culture. It is the centre of considerable political debate, typically focused on the topics of Tibetan sovereignty and Chinese rule, while the Tibetan Plateau is recognised as the most elevated region in the world, with Mount Everest attracting particular interest.
Many people dream of driving through Tibet in their own car, but soon find that this is less practical than almost anywhere else on the planet. Not only does China have some of the strictest laws in the world with regards to foreign vehicles, but tourism within Tibet is also heavily restricted, especially with regards to independent travel.
Nevertheless, with some careful planning, it is possible to drive to Tibet in your own vehicle.
The first and perhaps main obstacle for anyone looking to drive to Tibet is the need to acquire a Chinese driving licence. This is a requirement because China, unlike many other countries, does not allow foreign travellers to simply drive into the country if they possess an international driving licence.
As tourist travel within the Tibet Autonomous Region requires assistance from a tour guide, the best option here is to simply work with a professional tour company that specialises in driving through Tibet. These companies will be able to help you with the paperwork and can arrange any of the testing that is needed. For example, while you will be able to bypass a practical test as long as you have a valid driving licence, you may need to complete a theory test.
It is also possible you may be required to complete a basic health screening, which will include eyesight testing. The process for acquiring a Chinese licence is not easy, but can be simplified through a tour company. Nevertheless, it could still take several months in total, so you should get the ball rolling as soon as you can.
If you Google terms like “Tibet travel with own car” you are likely to find various web pages warning you off the idea. This is because, aside from the challenges involved with obtaining a Chinese driving licence, independent travel faces further restrictions within Tibet itself, especially when it comes to operating a vehicle.
Put simply, unless you are a permanent resident of either China or Hong Kong, you will require a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit to drive a vehicle of any kind in the Tibet Autonomous Region. In order to obtain one of these permits, you will need a Chinese visa and your travel will need to be part of an organised tour. This means you will need a guide to accompany you and you will need to complete a large amount of additional paperwork.
Again, the process can take months, so you need to plan way in advance. Unlike with other parts of China, attempting to arrange this independently is a non-starter, so you will need to contact a professional tour company, or similar. Most of these companies will be happy to assist you with the logistics, practicalities and paperwork.
Unfortunately, the presence of a tour guide is non-negotiable and there are no realistic exceptions. This is why almost any tour company that operates in China will charge extra for trips that extend into the Tibet Autonomous Region.
When taking your own vehicle into any part of China, there are a number of additional requirements. It is likely that your car will need to be fitted with temporary Chinese number plates and you will also need to supply an up-to-date MOT certificate, an official translation of the certificate, and photographs of all four sides of your car.
Of course, aside from all of these specific requirements for travel within Tibet, you will also need a valid passport and insurance which covers China. You may need several passport-style photographs of yourself too and you will need to plan your itinerary in advance, as you will be questioned on precisely where you are going.
While your guide will need to meet with you every day, and their presence may be necessary for access to some specific attractions, they do not necessarily need to be with you at all times and you will potentially have opportunities to explore parts of Tibet on your own. Moreover, certain parts of Tibet, such as those parts that fall outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, may be exempt from the need to have a TTB permit and a tour guide present.
The most common option for people looking to drive into Tibet is to go through Nepal. Many travellers base themselves in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, sort out any last-minute paperwork or logistical aspects of their trip, and then enter Tibet through the border town of Zhangmu. However, in addition, there are also options to enter Tibet from within China – specifically from the surrounding provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Sichuan.
In terms of places to visit, Lhasa is the region’s capital city and also the city that is best-equipped to deal with foreign visitors. It includes some of the region’s most famous attractions, landmarks and buildings, including Potala Palace, Jokhang Market, Jokhang Temple, Norbulingka, and the sacred hill of Chokpori.
Shigatse is the second-largest city in the region, and another popular place to visit, while Mount Everest is situated on the border with Nepal. Some of the other mountains in Tibet include Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu.
The spring and summer months, spanning roughly from April to October, are usually considered to represent the best time to visit, as this will maximise the parts of Tibet that are actually accessible. Nevertheless, Tibet is suitable for year-round travel, so you do not need to stick rigidly to this time of the year by any means.
Cars in Tibet drive on the right side of the road, which is in contrast to Nepal, so you will need to be aware of that. Additionally, certain roads may be closed at different times of the year, often due to harsh weather conditions.