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How to Travel to Tibet WITHOUT A Tour

***This post may contain affiliate links.***

If I had a dollar for every person that’s ever wished that they could go to Tibet, but… “It’s too much of a hassle.” “It’s too expensive.” “I don’t have the permit.” “I don’t want to go with a tour guide.” Some of these excuses coming from people who are actually ALREADY IN TIBET, they just don’t know it!

I know what you’re thinking, “What?! How is that even possible?”

Because the (former) country of Tibet (or autonomous region as China calls it) is not actually defined by the land border we see on a map. China likes to make you think it is, labeling it as Tibet on the map and requiring all sorts of extra permits and a tour guide just to enter the region (cha-ching, your money, straight to the government in fees), but the truth is, they lied to you.

Here’s the straight skinny.

Tibet as a country, pre-China takeover, actually consumed one-quarter of what is today’s China. The country was broken up into 3 provinces: Central Tibet (which the Tibetans refer to as Lhasa), Kham, and Amdo. In fact, these provinces still exist today, just in “Autonomous Areas” rather than actual provinces.

The province that the Tibetans call Lhasa is what we see on the map as the entirety of Tibet. Kham is now a Tibet Autonomous Area encompassing parts of northern Yunnan Province and western Sichuan Province. Amdo is now another Tibet Autonomous Area encompassing parts of northwestern Sichuan Province, Qinghai Province, and Gansu Province. Whereas what was the province of Lhasa is now referred to as the Tibet Autonomous Region (not to be confused with the previously mentioned Tibet Autonomous Areas).


Are you confused yet?

I was too when I traveled to the Kham Tibet Autonomous Area earlier this summer. Thankfully, a local Tibetan man set the record straight for me without even knowing it. After a painstakingly long 9-hour bus ride from Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province) to Kangding, followed by another 2-hour van ride the next morning, I finally arrived in the tiny Tibetan town of Tagong.

Waiting in the town square for the ride to my guesthouse I was approached by a local man, sauntering over to say hello to the lonely foreign tourist that was myself. He asked me where I was from and if I was here traveling, and after exchanging some pleasantries back and forth (a limited conversation as he couldn’t speak much Chinese I knew nothing of Tibetan) he waves goodbye and says “Welcome to Tibet!”

At first, I thought he was nuts. I mean, I knew that this was culturally and historically a Tibetan area and that the locals were Tibetan and not Chinese, but surely this couldn’t actually be Tibet?! I hadn’t crossed any borders into the Tibet Autonomous Region, hadn’t acquired any special permits or booked any tours, so how could it be?

Horse racing in Tagong.

The border is a lie.

It makes sense once I talked to some more locals and my host, Angela (a long time resident of the region), at Khampa Nomad Ecolodge where I stayed during my visit.

Basically, the government broke up the Tibetan provinces into different areas and incorporated them into the existing Chinese provinces, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai. With the country being broken up and dissolved into multiple different provinces, the Chinese government now has more control over the people and can more easily prevent an uprising or protest should political tensions start rising. The Chinese named only the province of Lhasa “Tibet”, as the city of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, lies in this region.

So yes, the border of Tibet is a logical border, both geologically (the Yangtze River runs between Tibet and its neighboring provinces) and politically (as it was historically a provincial border within the country of Tibet) but it most definitely does NOT define the country as a whole.

When traveling to the Kham and Amdo Tibet Autonomous Areas you are still on the Tibetan Plateau, experiencing the same scenery, same architecture, and same culture as you would across the border in the Tibet Autonomous Region, but there are no permits or tour guides necessary.


Do you really need a tour guide and permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region?

YES!!! 100% yes, no ifs, ands, buts, or exceptions of any kind. The only people in the entire world who don’t need a tour guide and permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region are Chinese nationals and citizens of Hong Kong and Macau. You can check out Divergent Travelers’ guide for more info on the crazy process that us foreigners have to go through to travel to Tibet.

So why do foreigners have to jump through so many hoops to travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region, but can freely travel in and out of the Tibet Autonomous Areas using only their regular Chinese tourist visa?

Well, this answer is a bit convoluted and up in the air as to the actual reason. But the current train of thought is that historically the Lhasa region of Tibet has been more prone to uprisings and has higher political tensions than the Kham and Amdo regions. By restricting foreigners from freely traveling in and out of the region via required entry permits and tour groups, the Chinese government hopes to decrease the chances of any major protests or uprising occurring.

Whether this strategy has actually worked or has just caused lots of headaches for travelers is up for debate. These days there actually seems to be more unrest in Tibet Autonomous Areas, specifically Kham than in Lhasa. There was a major police presence in Tagong during the time I was visiting, with many groups of policemen spontaneously visiting the guesthouse I was staying at as it’s a popular spot for foreign tourists. The visits we did get were super friendly, just saying hi, some of them asked me where I was from, but that was about it. Super quick in-and-out routine check, but it is common.

These guys were getting ready to head out on a horse trek. The yaks were used to carry the supplies. There’s even a name for it: Yak Packing!

So, how can you travel to Tibet without a permit?

Visit the Kham or Amdo regions of Tibet! You’ll get to explore all the amazing goodness that makes Tibet the “Rooftop of the World” but without the restrictions, you’d be placed under if going to Lhasa. You can bike, hike, take a bus, hire a car, all on your own time, and go wherever, whenever you want.

If you’re looking for inspiration of some cool Kham and Amdo towns to visit be sure to check these out.



The gateway city into Kham, Tibet from China. The city of 100,000 is a vibrant split of Tibetan and Han Chinese cultures. A gushing river runs through the center of town with multiple bridges connecting the two halves. Running Horse Mountain towers over the town, a popular hiking destination with stunning views over the city from the summit. The city is also home to multiple monasteries open to tourists.

To get there, either fly directly into Kangding Airport (often a pricey option) or take a (much cheaper) 9-hour long bus ride from Chengdu. There are currently no trains to Kangding, unfortunately. The bus to Kangding leaves from Xin Nan Men Bus Station in Chengdu, with the last bus leaving at 2:00 pm.

Riding our bike through Kangding.


A long climb up from Kangding, Tagong is the first Tibetan town you’ll come to on the Tibetan Plateau. This picturesque town is located in the beautiful Tibetan grasslands at an elevation of 3600 meters. The town is populated by local Tibetan people and the surrounding countryside is dotted with nomadic tents, yaks, and horses.

The main attractions in town are the Lhagang Gompa, which is located right in the town square, the Lhagang Monastery (Lhagang is the Tibetan name of the town of Tagong), just ten minutes walk down the road from the town.

Outside of town, Tagong is a spectacular place to go hiking, horse trekking, and experience a Tibetan homestay. Mt. Yala, standing at over 5800 meters, overlooks the town making for spectacular views and some great hiking.

*If you’re interested in hiking, horseback riding, or a Tibetan homestay in Tagong, Angela at Khampa Nomad Ecolodge is your best option to arrange an absolutely amazing experience! I had the best time hiking and horse trekking in Tagong with Khampa Nomad Ecolodge and can 100% recommend them to anyone looking to explore the stunning Tagong grasslands.

To get there, take a van from Kangding. Vans can be found across the street from the bus station. The ride is 2 hours driving up the mountain onto the Tibetan Plateau to Tagong.

Up on the hill, looking down over Tagong.


Located in southern Qinghai Province, Yushu is a small Tibetan town filled with both Tibetan nomads and Chinese traders. The town is known mostly for the nearby Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve which contains the origins of 3 of China’s greatest rivers: Yangtze River, Yellow River, and Mekong River.

Admittedly, this place is a pain in the ass to get to. Your only budget-friendly option is to take a bus from Xining that takes 17 hours. If you’ve got the cash you can fly into Yushu Batang Airport from Xining for a hefty fare.



Advertised as the world’s first high city, Litang lies on the southwest edge of the Tibet Plateau in Sichuan Province at an elevation of around 4100 meters. This city of 60,000 people is made up of mostly Tibetans and is a trading hub for the Kham Tibet area. Litang fuses modern and traditional, we even saw monks driving tractors at the monastery!

Litang is known for its incredible week-long horse racing festival, usually taking place around the first week of August. At the festival, people and horses are dressed to the nines in their most luxurious outfits, and the games show an amazing display of horsemanship and athleticism.

The Litang monastery at the north end of town is another must-see attraction of the area. Built in 1580 to honor the third Dali Lama, the Litang Monastery is one of the biggest monasteries in the Kham region. All the buildings are adorned with gold set against the stunning backdrop of rolling grassland hills and rocky peaks.

To get there take a bus from Kangding. Buses leave once a day at 6:00 am and the ride will take approximately 8 hours.

Entrance to the Litang Monastery.


A small village on the eastern edge of the Tibet Plateau, Yading is primarily visited by travelers as a base for exploring the incredible Yading Nature Reserve. The nature reserve occupies an area of around 1300 square kilometers with an elevation of around 4000 meters. Within this area lies 3 of Tibet’s holy mountains, Chenrezig, Jampayang, and Chenadorje, all with peaks around 6000 meters tall. Inside the triangle of holy peaks lies pristine alpine rivers and lakes, snowcapped peaks, rolling green meadows, and an abundance of wildlife.

The Yading Nature Reserve offers some of the most incredible hiking opportunities in the area and is a must-see for nature lovers.

To get there, take a shared minivan from Daocheng. The ride will take about 3 hours.

Yading Nature Reserve. Photo credit goes to Land of Snows.


Formerly known as Zhongdian, this town won the battle to be renamed Shangri-La as a tourist attraction after the famous fictional town in James Hilton’s book, The Lost Horizon. Surprisingly, Shangri-La is actually not on the Tibet Plateau but lies at a much lower altitude of 3000 meters along the Tibet-China border in Yunnan Province. The town is home to a mix of Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Chinese minority groups.

The town itself is a typical “Old Town” in China. Most of the buildings in old town Shangri-La are new reconstructions of old buildings. When we were visiting the area in 2016, parts of the town were still being renovated due to a fire that had ravaged the town a couple years before.

While the actual town itself is nothing special compared to other “Old Towns” in China, the main attractions of Shangri-La are the stunning natural scenery surrounding the town, and the beautiful Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan Province.

The Songzanlin Monastery, built in the style of the Potala Palace in Lhasa by the 5th Dali Lama, is home to around 700 monks with temples dedicated to 3 different sects of Buddhism.

The crowning jewel of Shangri-La’s surrounding scenery is the Pudacuo National Park, located 20 kilometers east of the town center. Pudacuo is one of China’s first national parks ever created and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Three Parallel Rivers Scenic Area, named after the 3 major rivers, Nu River, Yangtze River, and Mekong River, which run parallel to each other between the mountains of Shangri-La.

The park is famous for its rich green hills and crystal clear lakes which are home to an incredible diversity of animal and plant life. Overlooking Shangri-La, in stark contrast to lush hills of the town, lies towering rocky peaks. This contrast, described in depth in the book Lost Horizon, is part of the reason why the town won the bid to change its name to Shangri-La.

To get there take a bus from the Keyun Bus Station in Lijiang. The bus to Shangri-La leaves every hour starting at 7:30 am and ending at 5:00 pm. The ride takes approximately 5 hours.

The main temple in Shangri-La.


Famous as the base for exploring nearby Yading Nature Reserve, an area famous for its breathtaking natural beauty. Yading Nature Reserve is home to 3 holy peaks: Chenresig, Jampelyang, and Chandorje, the highest of which, Mt. Chenresig is summited as a pilgrimage every year by the local Tibetans.

Nearby Haizi Mountain is also an incredible natural attraction and must see in the area. The character hai () in Chinese is the character for ocean, and while this mountain is nowhere near the ocean, its 1000 lakes earn it its nautical name. These alpine lakes are some of the most pristine in the world and are absolutely stunning to behold.

To get there you can either fly into Daocheng Yading Airport, located 50km north of town, or take a bus from Shangri-La (Zhongdian) or Kangding depending on which direction you’re coming from. From Shangri-La, you can buy tickets at the Zhongdian Bus Station. The bus leaves once a day, every morning at 7:00 am, and the ride will take around 11 hours. From Kangding, take a bus from the Kangding Bus Station. The bus leaves once a day at 6:00 am and takes around 12 hours.

Three of the many stunning lakes of Haizi Mountain.



With a history dating back to the 1300s, this town is known for its rich Tibetan culture. The most famous attraction in town is the Longwu Monastery, around which the town was originally built. Tongren’s Longwu Monastery is home to hundreds of monks and is made up of 3 different schools for teaching.

Nearby Wutong Monastery is also a major draw for tourists. This monastery is known for their exquisite artwork of Thangka paintings made by the resident monks. Some of this artwork is even for sale, making for an extremely unique, if not a little expensive, souvenir.

To get there take a bus from Xining. Buses leave approximately every 30 minutes from the bus terminal, located across the street from the train station in downtown Xining. The ride will take approximately 4 hours.

All credit for this image goes to Tibet Vista.


With a history dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Songpan is one of the oldest remaining Tibetan towns. At the time of establishment, Songpan was located at the border of the Tibetan and Chinese empires. Today it is home to over 68,000 residents, both Tibetan and Chinese.

Songpan is known to travelers mostly as a base for exploring the surrounding Tibetan grasslands. Horse trekking, hiking, and mountain biking tours are all popular options for adventuring into the Tibetan countryside.

From Songpan you can also take a day trip to the popular Huanglong National Park to see the stunning multicolored terraced pools that run down the mountainside. The park is small, and a little expensive, but absolutely stunning to behold!

To get there take a bus from Chengdu. Buses leave at 7:00 and 11:30 am from the Chadianzi Bus Station in Chengdu. The ride will take around 10 hours.

All image credit goes to Visit Our China.

Ready to visit Tibet and have an easy and hassle-free experience? Tibet is so much more than just Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Come explore the Kham and Amdo and we promise you won’t be disappointed or feel like you’ve missed out on any of your Tibetan experience. This is the REAL Tibet!


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  1. Hi Cara, Just reading your amazing story about Tibet tour. I have a plan to go there in the upcoming next year.
    I believe your story will help me on my next tour.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Cara Crawford

      Thanks so much Vagabond. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us and we can help you out.

  2. Hi Kara!
    Thank you soo much for your extensive article, it brings a lot of light to the “dark” side of Tibet. Me and my girlfrind are considering to backpack around eighter Amdo or Kham. Could you give us some more in sights about cost such transportation and accomodation. Your oppinion about your bus/vans rides would be also much appreciated (need to know if a 10 hours bus journey is crazy unconfortable ot just standard).
    Thanks a million for sharing, it’s a great post.

    1. Cara Crawford

      Hey Chris,
      You’re very welcome! You guys should definitely backpack around the Amdo or Kham regions of Tibet, or both :). My nine hour bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding cost 115 RMB (around 17 US dollars) and was on a standard long distance bus that was basically as comfortable as a long distance bus can get. The shorter rides, like 2-3 hours are done in vans, and are less comfortable, and less reliable, but totally fine to sit in for a short amount of time. For a private room in a hostel or standard Chinese hotel you can expect to pay around 100-120 RMB/night or 15 US dollars (that’s one room with a double bed and private bath for two people). Dorm rooms cost around 40 RMB/person. I’ve met a good number of fellow foreigners when I was in the Kham region that were backpacking through the area taking buses and vans from place to place so it’s certainly doable. Just don’t expect luxury. It’s pretty backwoods out there.

      1. Woooow! Thank you so much for your response ☺️ we will defenetly go, we have a week so we are checking the map and possible itineraries from Chengdu. As per the confortable transportation, we are not afraid, it is our 7th month on the road. Once again thank you sooooo much and best of luck with your blog and maybe see you around the world 🙂

      2. Woooow! Thank you so much for your response ☺️ we will defenetly go, we have a week so we are checking the map and possible itineraries from Chengdu. As per the confortable transportation, we are not afraid, it is our 7th month on the road. Once again thank you you soo much and best of luck with your blog and maybe see you around the world 🙂

        1. Cara Crawford

          Wow, 7th month on the road, you guys are seasoned pros! We’re jealous, but we hope to take to the road next year, so not too much longer now! Happy trip planning, hope you have a blast 🙂

  3. Hi Cara!
    Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information! This is exactly what my girlfriend and I were looking for in order to decide if we should follow the usual itinerary through the TAR or go a bit wilder and explore the unrestricted Tibet. We still have a couple of questions though…
    Is it a problem to go around without any knowledge of Chinese or Tibetan?
    What about accommodation? Is it easy to get something decent? Are there hotels or guesthouses where you can pre-book a room online?
    Looking forward to your from you!
    Thanks a lot!

    1. Cara Crawford

      It’s not a problem to travel without knowing Chinese or Tibetan, you just have to try a little harder to communicate is all. Almost all the foreign travelers I met in the Tibetan regions of China didn’t speak any Chinese or Tibetan and they had a great time! Your accommodations will be pretty basic. I would say it’s on par with an average Chinese style hotel. Expect hard beds, wet bathrooms, and the occasional squat toilet. You can pre-book online easily in larger towns and cities in the Tibetan region like Kangding and Litang, but in the really small towns you’ll have a hard time finding anything online. It’s best to just show up and find someplace once you’re there. That’s what we did on our two-week tour of the area and we never had any issues finding a place. Hope this helps! Enjoy your trip!

      1. Hey Cara! Thank you so much for the additional information! It helps a lot! 🙂

  4. Thank you Cara, very useful info as we are planning to go there in less than 3 weeks time.
    I was actually attracted from the beginning of your story, hoping to find a way to simplify all the ups and downs travellers need to do for the damn special permit, particularly because, having family living in Lhasa, we’ll fly straight there and will not book a tour nor a hotel.
    After a few paragraphs, the truth is revealed and once again the same, you need a permit, etc. etc. 🙁
    Wish us good luck!

    1. Cara Crawford

      Yeah, there’s no way to get around the special permit and need for a tour guide if you’re going to Lhasa. Sorry about that. That’s really cool you have family living in Lhasa though. Good luck! I hope you have a great visit.

  5. Hi Cara,

    I also want to thank you for your blog. Helped with my planning so far:). Having been in Lhasa-Tibet, and not wanting to go via the trouble of permits again (due to limited time) I also wondered how can I see beautiful Tibet again. I’ve heard about Kham but to be honest there is very little information on blogs, etc. about traveling there. So, my friend and I were planning to book via agency (too expensive, even more than what I paid for seeing Everest), hire a guide + maybe a car… But now after reading your story, I think we don’t really need any of those. Am I right? What would you say is a good itinerary where we want to do some trekking, monasteries visits over 7 days starting and returning to Chengdu? Going there last week of May. Any tips are highly appreciated. Thank you!!


    1. Cara Crawford

      Hey Lora,

      You definitely don’t need a guide or a car for sure! Starting in and returning to Chengdu you could do something like Chengdu-Kangding-Tagong-Danba-Chengdu and if you wanted you could stop in Ya’an at the Bifengxia Panda Base on your way back to Chengdu. If you want to do a multiple day trek though you might just want to stay in Tagong. Angela at Khampa Nomad Ecolodge organizes amazing treks in the area, both on foot and on horseback. It takes 9 hours by bus to get from Chengdu to Kangding, 2 hours from Kangding to Tagong, 2.5 hours from Tagong to Danba, and then probably another 8 hours from Danba back to Chengdu just to give you an idea of timing. Also, you’ll want to give yourself a day once you get to Tagong to adjust to the altitude before you go trekking as the town is at 3600 meters. There are buses or minivans you can take to and from all those places so there’s no need to book a tour or hire a personal driver. Hope this helps with your trip planning!

      1. Thanks a lot Cara! Basically, you just gave us the plan! We are going for it:). One question: would you say that the 9 hours trip from Chengdu to Kangding is worth seeing, because we will be at the airport and may even fly (prices are OK right now). This way we will have more time to explore, rather than sit in a bus (for which we would have to go from the airport to the city to catch). But if the views are worth it, then it is different… Cheers, Lora

        1. Cara Crawford

          If the prices are reasonable I would absolutely fly. The bus ride is not that scenic and there’s always a ton of traffic which is why it takes so long.

  6. Hello Cara,
    Me and my husband wanted to go to Tibet for our honeymoon but would much rather do the kind of route you have done then the Lhasa tour.
    But I am completely lost how to plan the trip. I am interested in seeing the beautiful nature, connecting with locals, and horse trekking.
    But I’m not sure how to plan the trip once I set foot on Chengdu and where to go from there. Would you please share how I could start to put this trip together once I arrive in Chengdu?
    I hope to hear back from you, thank you!

    1. Cara Crawford

      Hey Pia,
      One of the best spots for horse trekking is in the town of Tagong. Angela from Khampa Nomad Ecolodge organizes amazing horse treks and nomad homestays. Her website is if you want to check her out. From Chengdu you can take a bus from Xinnanmen Bus Station to Kangding which takes around 9 hours. Kangding is a cool city in itself so you could spend a day or two there and then move on to Tagong, a 2 hour van ride from Kangding. You can get a shared van from across the street from the Kangding Bus Station. I’m not sure how much time you would have after Tagong, but you could head north to Danba or west to Litang and Yading Nature Reserve. There are public buses or vans to and from all these places, but you won’t find any schedule or information online, mostly because they don’t have a schedule. It’s a “leave when the van is full” type deal. Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions 🙂 Happy trip planning!

  7. Hazel Tongco

    Hi Cara,
    Thank you for writing this blog, this is by far the most informative article ever written. I have been wanting to visit so many places in Tibetan Plateau starting from Chengdu but the route and attractions are so overwhelming to choose and plan the route.
    Someone will go in Kham region with the ff route (which I’m tempted to follow);
    Chengdu – Kangding – Litang – Yading – Xinduqiao – Danba – Chengdu
    May I ask a few questions then, is Yading worth a visit for hiking? I really want to visit Yading but after reading some reviews about how expensive the administration fee and the cost to get thete, I was having a second thought plus there are several hiking trails in other areas. How does the scenery in Yading compare to Tagong, Siguniang, Xinduqiao, etc.?
    I was also considering visiting Siguniang and Xinduqiao but I don’t wanna do multiple or redundant treks which brings me to my next question, is Siguniang a good (and cheaper) alternative to Yading? I’m of course choosing the more scenic trails.
    They said, Xinduqiao is a paradise for photographers, yet you left out this town in your article, how was so? Would you reconsider recommending it?
    Lastly, what would be the best route for me starting from Chengdu and ends in Chengdu? I have plenty of time but my consideration is the cost of the transportation between places whilst, I choose a route that is cost efficient yet get to see the most stunning scenery in Tibetan Plateau without missing anything.

    Thank you for reading my questions and I look forward to hearing from you.


    1. Cara Crawford

      Hi Hazel,

      I’m afraid I won’t be of too much help in answering your questions. We haven’t actually been inside of Yading Nature Reserve, only ridden by it, but we’ve had it recommended to us by many people, who I trust their recommendations, so that’s why I included it. Naturally, I can’t speak to how it compares to Tagong or Xinduqiao. I’ve never even never heard of Siguniang…We had a really bad experience in Xinduqiao. It was insanely crowded and the hotel prices were super expensive so we only stayed one night and then left and never did any trekking. I’ve been told it was only like that because we were there over the National Day holiday, so I think it should be nice at other times of the year. I think the route you have mapped out sounds awesome! I would definitely recommend adding Tagong to your list if you have time, you can fit it in after Kangding. It’s incredible, and there’s tons of great trekking (and horse trekking) where you can just hire a local guide and go. Plus there are options to hike to see the nomads on the high plateau and spend a night with a nomad family in their tent. A beautiful hike and great cultural experience. Hope this helps!

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