Winter in Tibet – the best time to visit?

Mention Tibet and most people will picture snowy ranges, icy-bearded mountaineers and hardy locals wrapped in yak hides.  That’s with good reason; generally the higher you go, the colder it gets, and Tibet is high.

 

Tibet isn’t called the Roof of the World for nothing.  The Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world with an average altitude of 4,500 metres (14,800 feet).  Just 36 countries have a mountain that reaches that height. Yet at that altitude, even in January, much of Tibet is surprisingly pleasant.

 

Winter sun in Tibet
Winter sun in Tibet

 

Unfortunately I haven’t visited Tibet in every season, but many who have will tell you that winter is a really good time to visit Tibet.

 

Don’t get your hopes up about scaling Mount Everest at Christmas time (go paddle the Nile that season ), but you can comfortably visit many of Tibet’s must-see sites that time of the year.  We were in Tibet in mid-late January and I would highly recommend it.  Here’s why:

 

The weather in Tibet isn’t that cold in the winter

You won’t be parading around in bikinis or shorts in the Tibetan winter, but there’s no need for dry suits or undie-warmers.   We didn’t even wear all the woollies we took.  Tibet’s capital Lhasa, where many big-hitting sites are in or close to, averages a balmy high of 9ºC/48ºF in January.  It got as warm as 14ºC/57ºF when we were there, and the sun was shining (it’s sunny 275 days each year in Lhasa).  But be wary that when the sun goes down (around 8:30pm as it is on Beijing Time) the temperature often sinks below freezing.

 

Tibetans on a motorbike, basking in the winter sun
Tibetans on a motorbike, basking in the winter sun

Tibet is at its most authentic in winter

The best places to visit are the authentic ones, and Tibet in the winter is certainly that.  As winter is a quiet time for farming, many Tibetans from the surrounding plateau use the down-time to make their pilgrimage.  Monasteries, temples and streets are teeming with traditionally dressed Tibetans prostrating.    It’s some of the most genuine displays of devotion that I’ve seen anywhere.

 

Tibetan lady on her pilgrim
Tibetan lady on her pilgrim

Tibetan Pilgrims outnumber tourists by a lot in the winter

What makes the influx of pilgrims even more special is that it’s unspoilt by hordes of annoying tourists with big cameras (like us) that take over at other times of the year.  Tibet’s 2.6 million people were overrun with 8.4 million tourists in 2011, 93% of them Chinese.  By 2015, Tibet expects 15 million tourists a year.  Fortunately in the winter time, tourists are seriously outnumbered by Tibetan pilgrims

 

Monks debating in Sera Monastery in Lhasa
Monks debating in Sera Monastery in Lhasa

Stunning light for photos

Tibet’s people, villages and natural scenery offer plenty of opportunities for the snap-happy among us.  As the sun is lower in the winter and the sky is clear, it casts beautiful shadows and illuminates almost everything you want to take photos of.  Even if photography isn’t your bag, just enjoying the scenery is great in winter

 

The Kumbum at Gyantse
The Kumbum at Gyantse

Tibetan travelling is cheaper

Basic supply and demand rules apply with Tibetan tourism like most places.  You can usually get a good discount on the half-empty hotels; we got as much as an 85% discount off the rack rate at some of the hotels we stayed at.  There’s also never much of a wait for restaurants or tourist sites.

 

Potala Palace
Us at Lhasa’s Potala Palace

 Just watch out for the thin air up there

Most people experience some discomfort from the thin air up in Tibet, and it’s said to be about 50% thinner in the winter.  Even Lhasa’s 3,600 metres (11,800 feet) can bring on the pretty annoying affects of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).  Couple that with restaurants cloudy from yak poop heaters and you’ll probably have at least one head ache.

 

There are many theories about what works best for dealing with AMS from a costly fungus that grows at altitude (and is also an aphrodisiac) to Chinese herbal called Hong Jing Tian that the locals swear by.  There’s western pills, black magic and lots of brussel sprouts.  Whatever you do, make sure you drink a lot of water if you do go!

 

Mt. Everest's North Face
Mt. Everest’s North Face

 

If you’re like us and live in China, it’s a great destination for us during the Chinese New Year festival holidays.

 

 

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One thought on “Winter in Tibet – the best time to visit?”

  1. It’s a great time to visit, although you’re right to point out about the AMS, its worse in winter if you;re not used to the altitude as the oxygen content drops to just 50% of that at sea level at that time. (summer its 75%). Also a lot of the hotels / guest houses in Lhasa are closed at that time. But if you’re fit and a non-smoker, good to go!
    Great photos btw. – Chris

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