If you have followed any of my blog posts or posts on Lonely Planet's Thorntree Travel Forum you will know that I often recommend people to travel to Lhasa and other regions along the Friendship Highway during the winter. You might think I am crazy to recommend people to travel to Tibet during the winter, but in my opinion it is the BEST time to travel there. Here is why...
The top reason to travel to Tibet during the low season is because of the few tourists who are there during that time. In 2009, Tibet set a record with over 5.6 million tourists and tourists numbers for 2010 are expected to reach 6.5 million. Nearly all of these tourists spent their time along the popular route from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp. If you divide those 5.6 million tourists over the course of a year, that comes out to over 15,000 tourists per day in Tibet. During the high season, which runs from late May through early October, it is safe to estimate that around 25,000 tourists arrive daily in Tibet, with most of those spending their time along the popular route from Lhasa to Everest. Roughly 93% of tourists to Tibet are domestic Chinese, while the remaining 7% are foreign travelers. Since the start of the train to Lhasa in 2006, I have only visited Lhasa during high season 3 times, most recently in September 2010. Each time I have been there during high season, I am a bit overwhelmed by the massive amount of tourists. I feel like I am in Disneyland rather than the Roof of the World!
During the winter, the tourists numbers dramatically decrease. I have walked around Jokhang Temple during the winter and not seen a single other tourist. Only thousands of Tibetan pilgrims were there with me. It was awesome!
The second reason to travel to Tibet during the winter is because of all the Tibetan pilgrims who will be there. Losar ལོ་གསར་, or Tibetan New Year, is held each year either in late January or early February. Tibetans from all regions of Tibet arrive in Lhasa beginning in December for pilgrimage. Tibetans often will spend the winter months in Lhasa and the surrounding area visiting all of the major monasteries and temples. Literally tens of thousands of Tibetans are in the region during this time. Lhasa looks and feels far more "Tibetan" during this time than during the summer high season. There is nothing like being in Lhasa during the biggest holiday celebration in Tibet.
The third reason to visit Tibet during the low season is because of discounted prices. Most travel agencies and hotels offer at least 10% to 15% off of their high season prices. Travel agencies are far more likely to offer their lowest prices possible during the winter. Hotels also will offer their lowest possible prices. Since there are so few tourists during the winter, travel agencies and hotels are glad to have customers, even if it means charging a lower rate.
The fourth reason to travel to Tibet during the winter is for the weather....yes, the weather! The skies along the Friendship Highway, which links Lhasa to Kathmandu, are generally clear during the winter. The views of the Himalaya during the low season are great. For some reason Lhasa has a reputation for being extremely cold during the winter. I recently took the train to Lhasa and was talking to a Chinese tourist about this. Even in September, he was convinced that Lhasa was going to be well below freezing. I tried, in vain, to tell him that Lhasa was going to be quite pleasant, but he wouldn't believe a word I said. I am sure he was quite surprised when we arrived in Lhasa and the temperature was a balmy 23C / 74F! I have had this same conversation with plenty of other Chinese tourists who are convinced that Lhasa is one of the coldest regions on earth. Truth is, much of North America and Europe are actually colder than Lhasa during the winter!
Over the past 6 years, Lhasa has had an average winter high temperature of 9.5C or 49F. These are hardly arctic like temperatures. With plenty of sunshine, the day time temps can feel much warmer than this. In fact, most days in Lhasa I end up stripping off a layer of clothing because I am too hot. The average low temperature in Lhasa over the past 6 years is -4C or 24F. Most of the mid and high end hotels in Lhasa have heat so there is no concern about freezing to death at night.
Places outside of Lhasa will be colder of course, but still not cold enough to not visit. Shigatse has an average winter high temperature of 7.8C or 46F and an average low of -9C or 16F. Tingri, the closest main town to Everest Base Camp, has an average winter high temperature of 4.6C or 40F and an average low temperature of -13C or 9F. Again, when the sun comes out, its rays are quite strong at high elevation making the temperatures feel warmer than they are. Shigatse has a few hotels, like the Manasarovar Hotel, that offer heat during the winter, but none of the guesthouses or hotels near base camp will have heat. They will offer lots of blankets and possibly even electric blankets, but will not have heat.
Though a few of the touristy restaurants in Lhasa will close during the winter, most hotels and nearly all main tourist attractions remain open during the winter.
Regions of Tibet that are off the beaten path such as Nagchu prefecture north of Lhasa and Ngari prefecture (Kailash area) in far west Tibet are extremely cold in the winter and are probably best visited during the late spring and early fall. The Amdo and Kham regions found in Qinghai, western Sichuan and southwest Gansu can be visited during the winter, but are also extremely cold. The winter temperatures in these regions are some of the coldest in all of the Tibetan Plateau. Winter low temperatures of -20C to -30C are common in much of Amdo and the northern Kham region found in Yushu prefecture.
The past 9 years, I have spent 6 winters in the Lhasa area and have loved it. It is the only time of year I prefer going there. I have been all along the Friendship Highway many times during the winter and have never been delayed by heavy snow (in fact, I have seen very little snow at all). The train to Lhasa also has never been closed due to snow. Take my advice and visit Tibet this winter. With bright blue skies, few tourists, lots of pilgrims and discounted prices, I am sure you will have a great time.
For more information on Tibet or information about which travel agencies to use, please send me an email at email@example.com