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How to Travel Safely in Tibet

10 ways to avoid political sensitivity while traveling in Tibet

Being a Tibetan travel company, our travelers are concerned and frequently ask questions about political sensitivity.

Is Tibet politically safe for travel?

Are we allowed to go and see things freely?

Will we be watched?

Will our guide get in trouble because of us?

In the context of your visit to Tibet as a tourist, here are 10 ways to avoid political sensitivity while traveling in Tibet.

1. Tibet Map:

For the Chinese government, Tibet means Tibet Autonomous Region, not the three provinces of Tibet: Central Tibet, Kham, and Amdo, that most Tibetans call Tibet. Thus, you should not bring any old maps that have any reference to Tibet prior to 1950s. While it is hard to find a good map of Tibet, you can still use Google Maps outside of China to search for places or use Lonely Planet Tibet Guidebook, that has useful maps and references, while traveling in Tibet.

2. Dalai Lama’s Photo:

Although you will see many Tibetans display photos of the Dalai Lama in their homes, especially outside of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), you should not bring any photos of His Holiness to give away in Tibet. We know that handing out even a passport-size photo of the Dalai Lama to a Tibetan brings a bright smile on the face and builds an instantaneous connection with you. However, you could be interacting with a spy.

3. Social Media Posting:

We know that some travelers remove Tibet-related posts, that may seem to be politically sensitive, from social media, such as attending an anti-China rally or sharing articles from human rights organizations. Chinese Consulates may not check your social media posts unless they suspect something about you. However, if you clean up your social media posts prior to applying for a Chinese visa or refrain from posting things while you are traveling in Tibet, this will eliminate one possible source of trouble.

4. Things Not to Bring:

We often tell travellers what to bring to Tibet, such as a packing list, and a recommended reading list. It is equally important for you to know what not to bring with you in case you are searched at the Chinese Customs & Immigration checkpoint or even at your hotel. Beside obvious things that any airport prohibits, you should not bring things like a large journalist camera, books written by the Dalai Lama, video clips, or even a flyer from your last anti-Chinese political rally. If the Chinese government suspects something, they could ask you to open your phone, laptop, and social media accounts.

5. Political Affiliation:

You may be proud to say that you are an active member of a human rights organization, a journalist reporting political repression, or a supporter of a Free Tibet group, or that you have visited Tibetan exile communities. However, you should refrain from revealing your affiliations because you don’t know who the listener is and the authorities may perceive you to be a sympathizer. For example, a woman from Australia has kicked out of Lhasa a few years ago because she was an active member of a Free Tibet group.

6. Asking Political Questions:

Being from a free country in the West, people often like to exchange political views fiercely (especially about Trump). However, a source of trouble may be asking politically sensitive questions, such as (1) Have any of your family members been mistreated? (2) What do you think of the government policies in Tibet? and (3) What do you think of the human rights issue? With you being a foreigner, Tibetans may feel safe to share their political views with you and may even share some of their hardship experiences. However, you do not know who else might be listening. Instead, ask your guide about culture-related questions, such as what Tibetans believe about rebirth.

7. Photography Sensitivity:

Do not take photos of sensitive things such as police, military posts, and mining sites, as this will cause serious trouble for you and your guide. The Chinese government does not want to see photos and videos that showcase mistreatment of Tibetans on social media. If you take any photos that are perceived to be for that purpose, they will probably be confiscated. For example, the police deleted all travel photos of a traveler because he was caught taking a photo of a Chinese military truck.

8. Visiting Restricted Places:

When you are traveling in Tibet, you should have an itinerary that you and your travel company have agreed upon. When you arrive in Tibet, you should not visit places that are prohibited to visit, such as mining sites, military camps, and certain sky burial sites. There are restricted areas, such as in Ngari, Lhoka, and Chamdo in TAR and some places like the Dalai Lama’s birth place near Xining, that either require a special permit or do not allow visitors at all. Thus, you need to check with your Tibet travel agency or Tibetan guide ahead of time.

9. Police Registration:

When you travel to China, your guide will arrange for you to stay in hotels that are authorized to receive foreign visitors. When you check in at the front desk, the hotel will register you with the relevant Chinese authorities via the internet. However, when you are traveling in remote places, you may end up staying with a local guest house or a family. In this case, your guide will register you with the local police by providing them with a copy of your passport and Chinese visa. If you are traveling on your own, make sure to bring a copy of your passport and find a police station for the registration. Your local Tibetan hosts may not be familiar with some of the government travel guidelines, and they could be questioned after you leave.

10. Overstaying Visa:

Overstaying on your visa is a very obvious thing to avoid in any country. However, some travelers do forget to extend their visa or underestimate the effort required for this task. If you need a visa extension, do not wait until the last minute. In addition, we recommend that you exit China a few days prior to your visa expiration date, as some travelers have been questioned about why they waited to leave China until the last day.

In conclusion, the Chinese government wants you to visit China, as tourism is a big part of economic development, especially for Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama also encourages people to visit Tibet and have firsthand experience. As a part of being an informed traveler, you should learn about local rules and regulations and political and cultural sensitivities. After all, the Chinese government appreciates you for respecting their rules of laws, as any country would, regardless of your political views. Besides an occasional road washout during monsoon season or a car breakdown, Tibet is a safe place to visit. As a Tibet Travel Agency, we invest in local communities by supporting projects, employing local Tibetan guides, and staying with Tibetan families whenever possible. You are welcome to read more about how to apply for Chinese visa and Tibet Travel Permit.

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