Central Tibet has an OK public bus network, although the strict need for a
travel permit when taking a bus (the driver/conductor will want to see
it) limits the usefulness of buses.
Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the
tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer
you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.
Your driver will likely be an indiginous Tibetan who can speak Chinese.
He'll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he'll often be
treated like a king), and he'll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee
by certain vendors on the road. 4500 RMB will get a jeep that can seat 4
people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.
Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every
stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, etc should be written on the
itinerary. Payment should never be made in advance. Many foreigners,
especially pro-Tibetan ones, are so trusting of Tibetan drivers that
they hand over their money in advance but never get to see their drivers
again. These drivers operate in rings and will approach their targets in
hostels and speak against the Chinese government to gain support and
sympathy from tourists who then lower their guard, and have their trip
ruined. Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets,
will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the
same scam happens one more time.
Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around the country for someone who is
flexible and has a lot of time. It can, however, mean you end up getting
stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this probably
means hanging around truck stops, as the distances are far too long to
walk, and finding water would be a major problem. Trucks often break
down though and it can take a long time before the journey continues.
Hitchhiking in general is not free and a small fee is expected. In
central and eastern Tibet, there's more water and villages, and so
walking becomes a more reasonable option. In short, hitching may or may
not get you to your destination any quicker, but at least it offers a
change of scenery.
Hitchhiking from Lhasa to Mount Everest
A few travelers choose to ignore the travel permit requirement and
continue to travel south of Shigatse which is the limit for traveling
without a permit. This is very adventurous but can be done even the
traveler might risk in the worse case imprisonment. It is a good advise
to check with foreigners who live in Lhasa to point out the location of
road check points and get tips on safety. Take enough food (snacks) and
cigarettes (for truck drivers) and only go on this trip after you have
adjusted to the high altitude.
From Lhasa to Shigatse you can take a public bus. A travel permit is not
required for buying a bus ticket. Have an overnight in Shigatse. It is
impossible to buy a ticket at the ticket counter (in Shigatse) without a
travel permit, but sometimes it works fine to show up before the bus
leaves and buy the ticket in the bus. Keep a low profile while seated in
the bus. Before departure the conductor checks the ticket. Hand him over
the fare money plus a little tip. The bus might leave, only to stop
again a few minutes later around the corner. It might happen that the
official from the ticket counter who refused to sell tickets without
permit shows up with your ticket in hands and wishes you a happy
journey. Immediately outside Shigatse are the first check posts. Usually
a very young Chinese official enters the bus. Keep a low profile or
smile at him. If he asks something, just show him the tickets.
After this checkpost the journey continues on dirt roads with occasional
stops at small stone huts which serve Tibetan food or noodles. You find
a room with restaurant in small inns, usually there is one in every
bigger village, but don't expect any luxury. Many times the only shower
facility consists of a bucket of water.
Further south there are no public buses one can use, but truckdrivers can
be asked to get a ride. A fee is usually negotiated before the ride.
Truckdrivers won't take a traveler through checkpoints. It is wise to
walk or hitch to a checkpoint, then walk around it, out of sight of the
officials and try to get another ride from the other side. Sometimes a
ride on a local transport, e.g. tractor up to the checkpoint can be
Around Mount Everest is a huge Everest National Park. Park tickets have to
be bought before arriving at the National Park Checkpoint. Towards
Everest there are hardly any local transports and no trucks, but
numerous jeeps coming from Nepal all go to Mount Everest. Tourists
usually pay a high price for this tour and are very reluctant to take on
a free guest. The driver and tourist guide might refuse to take you in
without a travel permit. Some gift money to the Tibetan driver plus a
bold lie to the mostly Chinese tourguide might work. Once the jeep stops
at the National Park Checkpoint, all passengers have to leave the car
and pass through the checkpoint where car documents, park tickets and
passport with travel permits are checked. If you have already traveled
that far without a travel permit, the moment of surprise might add to
your luck and the young Chinese officials might let you pass. Again keep
a low profile, have a big smile and some money which changes hands might
work. If not, be prepared for a long walk around of the check post.
From there it is a direct way to Mount Everest over stunning 5500 m
passes. When you arrive at the tiny monastery which serves as a very
simple hotel and restaurant be prepared for a wonderful sight of Mount
Everest at sunrise - if you are lucky. Everest can be shrouded in clouds
for many weeks. Only continue to the base camp when you have adjusted to
the high altitude. If you want to continue from Base Camp 1 to Camp 2,
paying some fee is unavoidable.
Getting back from Mount Everest to Lhasa usually is less of a hassle. When
stopped tell that you are heading to Lhasa. Sometimes you might be lucky
and find a ride in a tourbus which returns empty to Lhasa having
unloaded the tourists at the Nepalese border.
If you decide to hitchhike to Mount Kailash be prepared for an even harder
journey. Villages are more remote and it is a long journey sometimes
taking up to 2 or 3 weeks to Kashkar.
There are a surprising number of tourists traveling Tibet by bicycle, both
foreigners and Chinese. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good
quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops
scattered around often enough so that you don't need to carry more than
a day's worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the
country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded
trucks. 26 inch wheels would be prefrable as 700c are almost unknown in
China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in
Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle (assuming you want it
to get you past the check point 30km outside of town). Cyclists have
reported that distances cited in the Lonely Planet guidebooks can be
quite inaccurate so be very well-prepared.