Tibet without the permit

How to experience Tibet without the permit


Tibet: a region of the world that the Chinese Government would like to make very difficult for you to see. In order to do so, one needs to apply for a special permit, join a costly organized travel tour, and some parts require military clearance — quite the headache if you are traveling on a budget.

However, do not be disheartened. There is a way how you can experience the Tibetan way of life independently.

High in the mountains, 4000m above sea level on the Garzê Tibetan plateau, lies Litang, a small ancient town with a rich Buddhist history. The land historically formed part of the Kham Tibetan region, although over the last century the area has been invaded, conquered, and invaded once again. Litang fell under Chinese rule in 1912, was re-occupied by the Tibetan army in 1930, seized by a Chinese warlord two years later and handed over to Chairman Mao in 1950. Today, the town technically lies at the crossroads between three Chinese regions — Yunnan, Sichuan, and the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture — thus making it accessible for foreigners to visit freely without having to navigate your way through a maze of communist bureaucratic red tape.



Arguably, the remote town of Litang shines an authentic light onto the lives of the Tibetan people. Unlike Tibet, Litang receives very few foreign visitors. During my 3 days there I saw a grand total of…0 tourists. Type Litang into the Lonely Planet’s website and one small paragraph reveals that the backpacking gurus we all swear by know very little about this section of the Earth. A strange occurrence, considering the mountain town has been the birthplace of two Dalai Lamas and features one of the largest monasteries in Eastern Tibet.

The town has a majority 80% Tibetan population. On every street corner, Tibetan men dressed in the finest Yak-hyde leather jackets and cowboy hats greet you with a welcoming smile and a friendly ‘Tashi Delek‘ (The Tibetan Hello). Litang is the undocumented Wild West of Asia — not only are the locals known to be some of the greatest horse riders in the region owing to the annual racing festival, but the townsfolk are treated like outlaws by the Chinese authorities. Armoured vehicles patrol the streets and the local police station boasts a window arsenal of impressive weapons for all to see. The longstanding human rights violations experienced here are no secret to the outside world: extrajudicial killing, torturing of religious figures, sentencing without trial. The Chinese Communist Party has no right to interfere with the religious practices of the Tibetan people. To my surprise, the region is relatively peaceful and foreigners are welcomed by all.



Visit Litang Monastery.

Built in 1580 by the third Dalai Lama, this monastery is dedicated to the Buddha of the Future — Maitreya. Every morning at sunrise, the locals will do a lap of the holy ground spinning prayer wheels, rubbing holy beads and chanting as they go. The most dedicated of Buddhist followers will complete the circuit by bowing and laying on the ground after every step. I was invited by a friendly elderly woman to walk along the sacred trail. She lead me inside the great halls of the ancient monastery and up to a hill point for sunrise with a brilliant birds eye view over the town. It is an excellent opportunity to observe the monks going about their morning routines.



Take a walk up to the Sky Burial grounds on the Western edge of town.

Head West along the main road and on the outskirts of town you will find the hillside burial grounds. I happened to walk past the final stages of a Tibetan Sky Burial. The ancient practice involves hacking a corpse up using knives, axes, and sledgehammers into bite size chunks for wild vultures to eat. The vultures are considered holy birds and it is believed that the spirit is cleared of sin if the vultures feast on the body. Blood-stain splattered knives and axes are left lying around the burial grounds, angry plump vultures fight over scraps of human remains. Occasionally, an uninvited guest, the common yak, will turn up to crash the event. The Tibetan funeral directors are quick to ward off the roaming animals by shouting and waving axes in their direction. Strangers are allowed to attend the practice, but do not visit with the intention of photographing the ancient tradition, it is considered disrespectful and you will be fed to the birds. You have been warned.



Attend the horse racing festival in August.

This spectacular event attracts tens of thousands of participants from all over the Garzê Tibetan region. Litang’s horse festival takes place in August. A lightning paced style of Tibetan horse racing takes place over the plateau plains, partly fuelled by a large supply of the local barley brew.

The rules are slightly different to the races of Ascot. The rider swings off the saddle of his horse down towards the hoofs where he must grasp at a little bag attached to a coca-cola bottle. The winner is he who can collect the most sashes before crossing the finish line. Far more thrilling than the races in the Western World.

It is a celebration for dancing, eating, drinking and letting off steam. Riots have been known to take place so if you are thinking about attending — pack a handgun. A vital accessory to have if you find yourself caught between a mob of oppressed cowboys and the Republic’s posse.



Find a motorbike, pick a road, see where it leads.

Ride out in any direction and you will be greeted by the shadows of steep snow-capped mountains, free-falling waterfalls and silky-calm rivers where herds of yaks can be seen drinking from the banks. Turn off on a dirt road and follow it till the tracks disappear. It will be just you, your bike, and the freedom granted by the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau.



Try yak meat.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. It tastes like a cross between beef and tofu. Walk into one of Litang’s many roadside cafes and order yak noodles. If you don’t know the Tibetan translation, simply point to a Yak out in the streets, you’re never too far away from one of these roaming beasts. Compared to beef, yak meat is healthier for you. It contains 40% more protein, and is way lower in saturated fats.



How to get there:

The closest thing to a big city is Kangding… a 9-hour bus ride away. For those inclined to fly, Kanding has an airstrip with daily flights to and from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternatively you can follow the backpacker ‘backdoor trail’ from Kunming, the southern capital of Yunnan province, all the way to Shangri-La via the old traditional Chinese towns of Dali and Lijiang. From Shangri-La a daily bus leaves early in the morning for the northern town of Xiangcheng. It is a journey like no other. An old tin can bus will climb up between sky piercing mountain peaks along treacherous roads. The journey is not for the faint-hearted. Prepare for a dramatic change in altitude and bring plenty of food, water, and plastic bags. Passengers are likely to be sick from a combination of the altitude and the bus drivers rally performance. After 12 hours of hairpin bends and spectacular scenery I eventually reached Xiancheng. The town doesn’t really have much to offer so I decided to carry on for Litang rather than staying overnight and catching a bus the next morning. After haggling for the right price with a group of unofficial taxi drivers I was bundled into a smoky 4×4 with four Tibetan men. The Tibetans had an abundant supply of cigarettes and chicken feet snacks to keep us going on the five hour road trip to Litang.

There you have it, you are in yak Country now. No headaches, no permits, no group tours! The real Tibet.


Yangshuo travel guide

In China’s southern Guangxi province, Yangshuo sits between karst peaks near the confluence of the Li and Yulong Rivers. From top to bottom, West Street (西街) is lined with handicraft gift shops and laid back eateries and bars. Be sure to haggle with local vendors and don’t be too surprised if local Chinese, including seniors, have some command of English.

Yangshuo has become a go-to spot for backpackers, party-goers, sightseers, and climbers but only a short distance outside the township, Yangshuo County remains rural and idyllic. Here are five reasons why despite growing crowds Yangshuo remains China’s ultimate backpacker retreat.

1. Climbing

With its thousands of karst peaks, Guilin has world class crags and climbing routes. The first local peaks were pioneered by German climbers in the mid-1980s. Then routes were opened up by American and Chinese climbers in the early 1990s. Now there are over 800 sport climbing routes. Guilin’s popularity is based upon the many and varied routes, the quality of the rock, the accessibility of the peaks and its low cost.

Rent equipment at one of the many downtown climbing clubs. Popular local routes include the aptly named Swiss Cheese, a pockmarked karst cliff excellent for lower to intermediate climbers with its thirteen different routes varying from 10 to 35 meters in height, plus another eight routes on another face.

2. Cycling

With flat winding country paths along rivers and ancient villages, cycling is by far the best way to explore the region, especially Yangshuo and the Li and Yulong river valleys. Bicycle hire is near ubiquitous in Yangshuo.

Most Yangshuo guesthouses offer bike rental service of some description. At the low end expect to pay around RMB20 for a rusty roadster, whereas RMB120 at the other end of the scale will get you a serious mountain bike.

3. Hiking

With thousands of limestone peaks in Yangshuo, there are abundant hikes up the karst hills, as well as countryside trails that take in rural life of the Yulong Valley. There are many established parks with pagodas or pavilions adorning the peak, as well as some untouched summits to scale.

It is possible to engage a local guide to help navigate the fields and peaks of Yangshuo and price is negotiable. All trails are not necessarily clearly marked and the assistance of a local guide can assist in finding the right path.

4. Caving

Yangshuo’s karst topography not only extends to the spectacular pinnacles above ground, but also under the surface of the earth. Below ground Yangshuo also has a vast array of sinkholes, dolines (a depression, where the surface crust has collapsed), underground streams and rivers; as well as caves (the most in Guangxi). Yangshuo has an abundance of caves riddling the limestone mountains and the more thrill-seeking spelunkeans pursuing an adventure sports experience should seek the assistance of one of the rock climbing clubs.

Some caves are unregulated and you need to take responsibility for your own safety and avail yourself of an experienced guide. The most popular of these caves are the Buddha Cave and the Longmen Water Cave.

5. Boating

Whether you wish to go darting up and down the Li River in a faux bamboo plastic speedboat, or take a bamboo raft up and down the dykes of the Yulong, or perhaps go white-water rafting north of Xingping, options abound. It’s popular to rent real chauffeured bamboo raft-punts on the Yulong River. These either take you on a lap of a section of the Yulong or for the more intrepid, they can take you across one of the dykes for a splash.

Days out tubing on the river can be arranged at Monkey Jane’s guest house on West Beach, or tubes can be hired on the Secret Beach, 1km west of Yangshuo Wharf.

Getting there

Most visitors to Yangshuo will arrive first in the provincial capital of Guilin. The Guilin scenic area is served by Guilin Liangjiang International Airport, a two-hour drive from Yangshuo. More than 60 international airlines connect Guilin with 30 international cities, including Hong Kong and Singapore. High speed rail is also an excellent way to arrive in Guilin, with several daily services from Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Where to stay

Da Huwai 大户外
5-1,Mushanzha,Dongling Rd, Yangshuo County.

Courtyard hotel in the Yanshuo countryside on the road to Fuli, which under the tutelage of its idealistic owner Simon is far more than a guesthouse but a centre for international exchange where guests can learn about Chinese culture, language, and cooking.

Where to dine

Le Votre 乐得法式餐厅
79 West street, Yangshuo County
Prestigious French run hotel and restaurant in central West Street, offering French classics suchas Escargots a la Francaise (RMB50), while other specialties include stewed chicken (RMB45). The restaurant also hits the spot with its bacon and eggs breakfast.