Travel in Tibet is different to travel in many other places, especially if you are used to independent travel. You have to travel with a tour guide, as independent travel in the region is not permitted. This means that even if you’re an excellent packer, you might need to rethink your packing list for Tibet.
What to pack will depend on whether you’re trekking in Tibet, or taking a sightseeing tour that mostly involves visiting cities. For a trek-specific packing list, this article on packing tips for trekking in the Himalayas covers what you need to know. The following list compiles what I took—and what I wish I’d taken—on a ten day sightseeing trip that started and ended in Lhasa.
If you find yourself short of any of these items, be aware that Lhasa is a very modern city when it comes to shopping, with a lot of Chinese and international brands available. You will be able to pick up almost anything you need in Lhasa. Plus, most tours start with a few days in Lhasa to begin the tour, to aid acclimatisation, so you will have plenty of time to get what you need. Once out of Lhasa, however, the selection isn’t as wide, and in some places you won’t be able to stock up on any supplies.
A small suitcase
Although I usually travel with a backpack, this wasn’t really necessary in Tibet. You won’t be carrying your own luggage on and off public transport like you might in other destinations, as travel in Tibet means you have a driver. I found my small wheeled suitcase more convenient in Tibet.
Extra tip: if you’re flying back to Kathmandu, hand-carry luggage only is always a good idea, to avoid long waits at the luggage carousel the other end.
Layers, layers, layers
Most travellers will visit Tibet during the spring, summer and autumn months, when temperatures in Lhasa are not extreme. But the whole of Tibet is at high altitude, and temperatures drop sharply the higher up you go. Lhasa itself is located at around 3700 metres, so outside of winter you can expect sunny and reasonably warm days, but significantly colder nights. The highest place I visited was Everest Base Camp, 5200 metres, and the nights there were sub-zero.
The best way to prepare for such variations in temperature is to take layers that can easily be taken on or off. I started most days wearing:
- a cotton t-shirt
- a thin polyester-blend sweater
- a thicker woolen sweater
- a down coat
After a few hours of touring and sitting in the car with the sun streaming in, most of these layers were shed. As soon as the sun went down, these layers went back on.
Even if this is not something you routinely use at home, skin moisturiser is a must in Tibet. The air is really dry. Combine this with cold temperatures, and the skin on the face, hands and body gets very dry, very quickly. This is a comfort issue, not just a cosmetic one.
Similarly, lip balm—such as Chapstick or Vaseline—is a must in Tibet. I foolishly only took one tube and misplaced it half-way through my trip, while we weren’t anywhere near a pharmacy. These were the most uncomfortable two days of my trip. The air is very dry, the sun is strong, and lips can be the first body part to suffer. Again, this is not just a cosmetic issue.
The sun in Tibet is very strong because of the high altitude and generally clear skies. Even if you’re not directly sunbathing (unlikely), sunscreen for the face and hands is a good idea.
Again, the sun is strong, and is likely to be out most of the day. Sunglasses are essential to protect from eye damage, as well as for general comfort.
Walking shoes and casual shoes
Unless you’re trekking you probably won’t need proper hiking boots like you would in Nepal. But some sturdy shoes for the two hour walk to Everest Base Camp are a good idea. At other times, comfortable casual shoes are best for sightseeing around the towns and cities. Closed shoes are more practical, as it’s not really warm enough for sandals.
Drink bottle and a purification system
It’s not a good idea to drink the tap water in Tibet, and continually buying bottled water is bad for the environment. I took a 1 litre refillable drink bottle and some sterilisation tablets purchased in Kathmandu, and simply drank the tap water this way. Other purification methods, such as a Steripen or chlorine drops (such as Piyush), are also a good idea. If you’re coming from Kathmandu, these things are available very easily and cheaply there.
Fortunately the hotel at Everest Base Camp had electric blankets on the beds, because nights dropped to well below zero. Elsewhere though, the nights were cold but hotel rooms didn’t have much heating. Extra blankets could usually be found, but it’s definitely wise to take some warm flannel or wool pyjamas, including woollen bedsocks.
Sightseeing tours of Tibet include quite a lot of car time. While the scenery is spectacular and will certainly keep you alert, there may be times when you want to take a nap. A good travel pillow will be well used.
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: