Day 1 - Beijing
Nimen Hao! Welcome to China. The capital of the most populous country on earth, Beijing is quickly shedding its historical face in favour of modernity. However, there are still plenty of places that give an insight into the nation's ancient past. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm, where your insurance and next of kin details will be collected. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where the meeting will take place. Any free time today in Beijing is at your leisure, so you can start your explorations of this vast city.
Day 2 - Great Wall/Train to the Roof of the World
No trip to China would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Today you’ll take an early morning visit to one of the best-preserved areas, the Mutianyu section (approximately 2 hours), featuring guard towers dating back to the Ming dynasty. An incredible piece of engineering, the wall stretches 6,000 km westwards from the mountain ridges north of Beijing. It was originally constructed to protect Chinese empires from the 'barbarians' of the north and even though it failed in this purpose, it is still without a doubt one of the country's most remarkable achievements. It's a 30-minute climb up some steep steps to the wall itself, but it’s well worth the effort. You will need good walking shoes for this. There’s also the option of taking a chair lift or cable car to the top and back if you’re after a more leisurely experience. Head back into the city in the afternoon, then this evening transfer to the Beijing West railway station (one of the biggest and busiest in the world!) to board the train to Lhasa (approximately 45 hours). This first night you'll pass through provincial towns, through Xi'an, and then directly into the mountains, sometimes through tunnels that can last for minutes at a time!
Day 3 - Train to the Roof of the World
The train to Lhasa is one of China's greatest recent engineering feats. It’s the highest railway in the world, traversing some incredibly mountainous and remote terrain. The journey takes you through the major cities of Xi'an, Lanzhou and Xining, and across the Qinghai Plateau before arriving in Lhasa. Luxuriate in the feeling of accomplishment without having to do anything – go to bed and wake up 1,000 kilometres away. Stop briefly in Lanzhou, the crossroads of journeys along the Silk Road and the Tibet-Qinghai plateau, and head on past the immense city of Xining. On this second night you’ll climb in altitude and your breath with likely be taken away by the landscape outside the windows – snow-dappled black cliffs and mountain peaks illuminated by the moonlight.
Day 4 - Lhasa
The train will travel through a wide brown grassland complemented by terracotta foothills, with a speckling of grazing yaks, sheep and goats and the occasional punctuation of lakes and streams. This same landscape, only sparsely populated by clusters of brick village houses, treeless and vast, will accompany you nearly all the way to Lhasa, where you’ll arrive some time after lunch. The colourful and historic holy city of Lhasa is situated in a small valley, and for many years it was a mysterious place, virtually unknown to the outside world. Even the most adventurous and hardy of explorers rarely reached the city without being turned away, either by the treacherous terrain or the fierce warrior monks that protected Tibetan territory from intruders. While now welcoming tourists and much modernized, Lhasa remains an intriguing city with a deeply fascinating culture, sights and stories. Check in to your hotel and begin to get acclimatised with a free night tonight.
Day 5 - Lhasa
Today you will jump straight into sightseeing of the TAR capital with visits to both the incredible Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. Potala Palace is the former home of Dalai Lamas that’s perched 130 metres above the city. The palace is divided into two parts, the White Palace (secular and used as offices and the like) and the Red Palace (home to chapels, shrines, and tombs of Dalai Lamas). Although the palace is not freely explored, and a strict viewing schedule must be adhered to, this in no way lessens the impact of seeing what is truly a wonder of the architectural world. As you witness the gold and jewel-filled rooms and take in the views from the roof, you’ll rub shoulders with excited Tibetan pilgrims making offerings at the altars along with plenty of Chinese tourists. For the rest of the day you can deepen your perspective of Lhasa's holy sites with a trip to the Ganden or Drepung Monasteries. Alternatively, perhaps visit the Norbulingka, the Summer Palace of Dalai Lamas. Your leader will help arrange activities for your free time.
Day 6 - Lhasa
Travel the short distance by public bus out to the base of Pubuchok Mountain to visit one of the most important university monasteries in Tibet. The name Sera means wild rose in the Tibetan language, and the monastery is said to have taken the name because when it was built, the hill behind it was covered in wild roses in bloom. The monastery is best known for its dramatic daily debates between monks – as part of their training they come together in a central courtyard to contest the finer points of Buddhist learning. Junior monks sit on the floor while senior monks drill them on their knowledge, dramatically slapping their hand in a signal to respond, which makes the temple much livelier and noisier than many others. After Sera Monastery, you will learn how to make momos (steamed dumplings) in a cooking demonstration and class. Momos are one of the staples of Tibetan cuisine, and these delicious little parcels of meat are often served with a tomato-based chutney dipping sauce or a hot sauce called c-momo.
Today we will also visit one of our very own Intrepid Foundation Projects, 'Braille Without Borders'. Braille Without Borders deliver a preparatory school for blind children, a self-integration project, facilitating attendance at local mainstream schools and home life, and vocational training projects including a farm and a bakery, giving blind people the skills to generate their own income.
Day 7 - Lhasa
Climb to an altitude of 4,800 metres when you visit the majestic Drak Yerpa Monastery by private bus today. You’ll get away from the crowds when you travel to this lesser-visited monastery, 30 kilometres northeast of Lhasa (approximately 1 hour). Drak Yerpa, known variously as Brag Yer-pa, Yerpa, Dagyeba, Dayerpa or Trayerpa, is one of the holiest cave retreats in Tibet, the 'life tree' of Lhasa. As the saying goes, 'Lhasa is the shrine of Tibet, Drak Yerpa is the shrine of Lhasa. Not seeing Drak Yerpa in Lhasa is just like making a dress without the collar.' It’s located in the spectacular limestone cliffs of the Yerpa Valley, with stunning views of prayer flag-covered mountains. Noted Tibetan Buddhism practitioners have long visited and meditated in the caves of this peaceful place, including Atisha (a Buddhist leader who inspired the religion through the country) and the founder of the Tibetan Empire, Songsten Gampo. Here you can explore some of the caves, including ones where pilgrims sip holy water or slip through a small gap in the rock, and perhaps talk with the few remaining monks that live there. Return to Lhasa for the night.
Day 8 - Samye
Leave Lhasa behind and deeper into Tibet to Samye today (approximately 5 hours). The walled temple complex of Samye sits at over 3,600 metres on the north bank of Yarlung Tsangpo River, and is the oldest and one of the most enchanting monasteries in Tibet. It has withstood centuries of invasion and other threats to remain standing, imposing and immense beside the river. The building was constructed in line with Buddhist cosmology, with towers, walls and gates representing continents, oceans, mountains and the centre of the Tibetan Buddhist universe. Explore the magical structures that make up the Monastery, with your local guide explaining the complicated religious symbolism and rituals. Go through the statue-filled assembly hall and continue to the Jowo Khang inner chapel. Some of the murals here are amazingly vivid and detailed, although you'll need to purchase a permit to take photos. The entire Samye complex is huge, so you can take some time to make your own discoveries, or continue to walk with the guide if you’d prefer. In the afternoon, perhaps make the 30-minute climb to the top of one of Tibet’s four sacred hills, Hepo Ri, complete with prayer flags and a spectacular view of Samye. You’ll spend the night in Samye, in a hotel with private bathroom facilities. Please note that hot water may not be available, and even then only at certain times.
Day 9 - Gyantse
The drive to Gyantse (3,980 m) today is spectacular, with unforgettable views around every bend. You’ll cross over several stunning passes, twisting through the thrilling mountains as the peaks dramatically tower over the road. You’ll enjoy incredible views of Yamdrok Lake, a mystical perfect mirror of the sky above, climb Khamba La pass (4,794 metres) and see yaks plodding along the mountainside. Pass sheep herder villages scattered along the lakeside and be confronted by the soaring Noijin Kangsang, the peak of the Lhagoi Kangri mountain range. Stop at the town of Nangartse for lunch before climbing up to the Karo La pass (4,960 metres), and then descending down to the town of Gyantse. The drive should take around six hours. The small rural town of Gyantse is famed for its wool carpets. While there’s still a feel of tradition and life continuing much as it has for centuries, Gyantse is also a great place to see contemporary Tibetan life in the backstreets, where pilgrims, pop music, cows, 'cowboys' on motorbikes, kids and monks all mingle in a lively mix of cultures. There are a number of interesting buildings in the town, including the Pelkhor Chode Temple complex, a unique structure built in 1414 that brought together 15 monasteries and three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism.
Day 10 - Shigatse
This morning you’ll spend time in the unique Gyantse Kumbum, an impressive layered stupa designed as a kind of 3D mandala (symbol that represents the universe) as well as a model of the Buddhist universe, with each storey representing a step to enlightenment. If you have a head for heights you can wind your way up the pilgrim circuit, passing dozens of tiny painting-filled chapels, the passages steadily getting narrower as you get higher and the air becoming more and more intoxicating with incense and smoke from yak butter lamps.
Enjoy lunch with a visit to a local family home, a fantastic real life experience where you can help prepare the food and enjoy the company and hear stories from the local family.
You will then drive to Tibet's second-largest city, Shigatse (90 kilometres, at least 2 hours) (3,850 m). Encircled by mountains and whose name translates to ‘all fortune and happiness gathered here’, Shigatse is a busy, buzzing and dusty city that’s rapidly modernising. There are still strong reminders of Tibetan culture though, like the Tashilhunpo Monastery, which we will visit on Day 13. Perhaps ask your leader for directions to the tranquil Chapel of Jampa and meditate on the world’s largest gilded statue. The courtyard outside of the Kelsang Chapel meanwhile, is one of the best places to observe the pilgrims and monks preparing for ceremonies.
Day 11 - Sakya
Continue west to the town of Sakya, (approximately 3-4 hours, 4,280 m). Sakya's monastery and town buildings are quite unique. Originally, there were two monasteries in Sakya – the Northern and the Southern – but the former was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The Southern Monastery is built in a medieval 'Mongolian' style, and rather than being whitewashed, the secular buildings are painted in red and while stripes. With its high imposing walls, the monastery is sometimes nicknamed the ‘Great Wall of Tibet’. You’ll have time to explore inside the Sakya monastery. At first the halls may seem similar to other monasteries you’ve visited, but spend some time here and soak in the atmosphere, and you'll soon realise that Sakya has a subtle ancient beauty that is unlike any other. After the monastery tour, you can choose to climb the hill through the Tibetan Village to see what's left of the original Northern Monastery complex. Make sure you pick your way through the ruins and remaining buildings in a clockwise direction as this is a kora route (a circumambulation around a sacred site). You can also hike a little further to visit the friendly nuns at the Nunnery high on the hill overlooking the town. Tonight for dinner, why not try some spicy food at one of the little restaurants run by Sichuanese immigrants.
Day 12 - Everest National Park
With an early start today, travel to Everest National Park, (approximately 5-6 hours, 5,150 m). Cross the spectacular 5,050 metre Pangla Pass on the way to Rongphu Monastery. On a clear day, you’ll have giddy views of the Everest range. Rongphu Monastery is the highest in the world. On a clear day you may even get a photo of the monastery's chorten against the backdrop of mighty Everest, or Qomolangma as it is called in Tibetan. A relatively modern monastery by Tibetan standards, Rongphu was built in the early 1900s and originally housed more than 500 monks. Today around 50 monks and nuns remain. Unusually they share the same prayer hall, although they have separate residences. Enjoy a warm welcome from the monks and nuns here, where it's often possible to join them for their evening prayers. Stretch your legs and lungs on the gentle two hour return hike up to Everest Base Camp. Follow the prayer flags up the slope, and hope for a clear sunny sky for amazing photos (you could even post a picture to social media when you reach the camp. Yes, there's mobile reception even here!).
In the summer months, you stay near Rongphu in the Tent City that lies along the road to Everest Base Camp. Here nomad-style tents accommodate up to seven people with basic mattresses and bedding provided, but a sleep sheet and warm clothes for cool evenings are recommended. There are basic pit toilets nearby. A yak dung stove in the central open area of each tent provides heat. Being so close to the tallest mountains in the world more than makes up for the basic sleeping conditions. In colder months when the Tent City is not operational, you’ll stay in the monastery guesthouse or in a nearby town. Rooms here are quad-share with very simple, shared facilities.
Day 13 - Shigatse
Return to Shigatse (approximately 7-8 hours), which will feel like a bustling metropolis after the remoteness of the last few days. Today will be a long day of travelling, but the constantly incredible scenery will make the journey worthwhile. There will be plenty of stops along the way for photo opportunities and to stretch the legs. Once we arrive into Shigatse we will visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, one of the few in Tibet to have come out of the Cultural Revolution virtually unscathed. With its expansive territory inside thick stone walls, it’s almost like a town in itself; you’ll visit with your local guide. In the evening you could perhaps join the pilgrims on their kora (prayer circuit), spinning prayer wheels on a 1-hour walk around the perimeter of the monastery and taking in the great views and atmosphere..
Day 14 - Lhasa
Today you’ll make the return trip to Lhasa (approximately 6-7 hours). You’ll drive on the same jaw-dropping road that you took a few days ago, allowing you to experience the incredible scenery of Yamdrok Lake and the Khamaba La Pass from every angle. There’ll be stops along the way for lunch and to get those last photos of the mountains. When you return to Lhasa, the rest of the day is free. Perhaps follow the pilgrim path around the Potala Palace or take photos of the busy scene from the main square. Spend your last Tibetan night here in Lhasa.
Day 15 - Chengdu
Farewell Tibet and catch a flight from Lhasa to Chengdu (approx 2 hours). It might be one of China's biggest cities, but Chengdu has preserved plenty of its traditional flavour. The capital of Sichuan Province is most famous for two things – the pandas living in the mountains and the cuisine. Its hot, spicy dishes are considered by the Chinese to be the best cuisine in the whole country. In such a food-loving country, this is no mean feat. Maybe sample a spicy Sichuan hotpot together this evening.
Day 16 - Chengdu
This morning visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, where you're able to witness the conservation efforts being made to save this endearing endangered species. There are only around 1,000 pandas left in the world and 80% of them are found in the mountains in Sichuan. The facility was set up 30 years ago to help conserve this animal, and there are more than 80 giant and red pandas living at the base. The pandas have over 600 acres of parkland to live in, and you can get up close and learn more about these majestic creatures. Watch them play, eat bamboo and climb the trees. If you’re lucky enough you might even get to see newborns taking their first steps in the nursery (July–September). You’ll then return to Chengdu for a walking tour including the popular Renmin Park (People's Park) - a relaxing spot to spend a few hours, with interesting teahouses and areas full of locals exercising, singing, playing Mahjong or relaxing in their bamboo chairs drinking tea. Perhaps take in a performance of traditional Sichuan Opera, visit the Wenshu Temple, or take a cooking class if you have a few more days to spare here. There is certainly plenty to see and do! Enjoy an optional final night dinner with your group tonight.
Day 17 - Chengdu
Your adventure comes to an end today. There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart the accommodation at any time.
Accommodation, Food (as stated), Transport, Selected Activities
Flights, Travel Insurance, Visa, Vaccinations or Personal Spending Money