To go to Tibet as a non Chinese citizen you need to go on an organised tour. When we were looking at going we struggled to find much info online comparing or evaluating the different tour options so we thought we'd put our own experiences into the ether.
We plumped for Budget Tibet Tour (www.budgettibettour.com) for a few reasons:
1. We're happy to travel without all home comforts.
2. The itinerary looked good for what we wanted (some culture, some mountains and ending up at the border of Nepal). See below for outline.
3. It was cheaper than some of the others we found.
4. It saw recommended by the Lonely Planet and we managed to find a couple of favourable reviews.
We started with the train from Chengdu which the company organised the ticket for. Others came from Beijing or on a flight direct into Lhasa. Our train was good, although we heard some of the other trains were somewhat dirty/grotty. The view from the train was superb.
We actually met everyone on our tour on the morning of 'day 2' as we piled into the minibus to go to the first monastery.
We got lucky with our tour group I think, you never really know whether you'll get on with everyone, but our group of 12 was full of great personalities. We had people from Thailand, US, India, Holland, Columbia and UK.
We also got lucky with our tour guide Sonam who was ace. This company probably uses lots of different guides, but ours was spectacular: a local Tibetan who was hugely knowledgable, spoke near-perfect English, appreciated our sense of humours and rolled with our whims (which included beer at 5200m base camp and a night in the Sherpa disco at the border!).
The accommodation was largely good and we particularly enjoyed the night in the yak hair tent at Everest Base Camp.
Food was also pretty good. We enjoyed the cheap local lunch options and the food seemed largely well priced, with the only upset in the cost:quality ratio being at base camp where you're 4 hours drive along a bumpy road from the nearest town so I guess you expect to pay more for less.
The days in Lhasa are worth it to acclimatise and we particularly enjoyed the trip to the Jokhang temple as it was a special day, so it was heaving with Tibetans whose devotion to their religion literally seeps from every pore. In addition there were many doing the Kora around old Lhasa, the constant genuflecting testament to their devotion.
Other highlights were watching the monks debating philosophy (to be fair they could have been debating their favourite flavour of ice cream, we'd never know), but it was fascinating watching the bead and clapping rituals.
The itinerary meant we had three chances to see Everest (which is sometimes needed due to its propensity to be covered in cloud) and arriving at sunset on day 5 was our first glimpse.
The next day was a long bumpy drive to base camp. As the weather was good we pottered up to the Rong Pu monastery which was a fab place to spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation before heading up to see the big man himself (Everest that is).
The weather was on our side as we had another good glimpse at the top of the world from a mound covered in prayer flags (and after a half hour of peace, a plethora of Chinese tourists).
That's more than can be said for the next morning when a splinter group got up early and did the hour walk to the mound in the dark to try and catch the sunrise. All we got was cloud, but we still had fun and as Murphy's law would have it, shortly after returning to our yak tent for breakfast the cloud lifted and Everest smiled at us one last time before we had to leave.
You should know that there is a lot of driving in this tour, but that is true for all tours as Tibet is huge. Also the conditions (sleeping, toilets, eating) become increasingly basic as you go through, so you need to bring some resilience and wet wipes, but everyone on our tour coped from age 22 to 64.
So we'd thoroughly recommend a trip to Tibet for some awe inspiring scenery and to experience a devotion to Religion rarely seen in the western world. And from our experience, Budget Tibet Tour provided just what we were looking for.
[For a more detailed account with a few of our favourite photos, please see our previous two posts]