How to Travel from Xinjiang to Tibet

Xinjiang, located in the northwestern region of China, is the homeland of the Muslim Uyghurs. It is a region well-mixed with tradition and modernization. You will see a concrete forest of skyscrapers in Urumqi, which is the capital city of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, you’ll find yourself indulged in the oasis of Kashgar or Hotan on the ancient silk road, surrounded by old mosques and bazaars. Adjacent to Xinjiang, Tibet offers mesmerizing monasteries, extraordinary trek routes, astonishingly high mountains and unique cultural experiences. It is a journey combined with both Xinjiang and Tibet that will exceed your expectations.

It is applicable to travel from Xijiang to Tibet by flight, train or 4WD van. Although the most famous way is traveling overland by van from Kashgar to Lhasa, taking a flight or train will be less expensive and more comfortable.

Travel to Tibet from Xinjiang via Flight

Even if Xinjiang and Tibet are neighboring each other, flying from Urumchi, which is the capital city of Xinjiang, to Lhasa takes about 6 hours. Sichuan Airlines runs flights between Urumchi and Lhasa, with a stop in Xining, on each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. They fly over the Tianshan Mountain Ranges, which is one of the largest mountain ranges in the world, and they fly over Dunhuang Mogao Grottes, Qilianshan Range, Hexi Corridor, Qaidam Basin, and Tongtian River. On the days which have no direct flights, tourists can fly from Urumchi to Xi’an or Chengdu and then transfer to Lhasa.

Urumchi to Lhasa: 3U8901 8:00/14:05 (each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday)
Lhasa to Urumchi: 3U8902 15:15/21:00 (each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday)

Except on the flights from Urumchi to Lhasa, tourists can also take flight from Kashgar to Ngari, the most western area of Tibet, or the other way around. However, flying from Kashgar to Ngari is not recommended. The altitude in Kashgar is just 1289 meters, while it is 4260 meters in Ngari Kunsha Airport. The sudden change in altitude might cause severe symptoms in travelers, such as altitude sickness. For people who start the tour in Lhasa, travel all the way to Mt. Kailash, and wish to go forward to Xinjiang, it is a very good option to fly from Ngari Kunsha Airport to Kashgar because it can save you about 3 days’ time driving back to Lhasa. Although, the flights only fly on each Tuesday and Friday.

Kashgar to Ngari: MU2131 9:00/10:35 (each Tuesday and Friday)
Ngari to Kashgar: MU2132 11:20/13:10 (each Tuesday and Friday)

Map of Xinjiang to Tibet by Flight
Map of Xinjiang to Tibet by Flight

Travel to Tibet from Xinjiang via Train

There is no direct train from Xinjiang to Tibet but railfans should not feel sad about it. It only takes 10 hours by a bullet train to travel from Urumqi to Xining, which is the start of the Qinghai Tibetan Railway. Here you can transfer from the train to Lhasa, which takes another 21 hours to get there. The Railway from Xining to Lhasa is famed as the “sky road”. It is indeed a marvel of engineering when you consider all the difficulties of tackling the frail ecosystem, the lack of oxygen, and permafrost.

Be prepared for a visual feast during the 21 hours on the train and get your cameras ready. About one hour after departure from the Xining Railway Station, the train passes the north shore of the blue Qinghai Lake. When the rape flowers blossom around the lakeside, the scenery around the lake is like a great painting composed of yellow and blue colors. Another 3 hours later, it comes to Delingha. Outside of the train window, there are hectares of fertile land and verdurous woods. The train runs alongside the sparkling white Qarhan Salt Bridge, which has constructed crossings over the Qarhan Salt Lake. After that, the lofty Kunlun Mountain Ranges come into view. Here you will see Yuzhu Feng which is the highest peak of the eastern Kun Lun Mountains. The train then enters the Hoh Xil no-man’s land, which is the world’s third largest no-man’s land with snow-capped mountains, vast grasslands, limpid lakes, and rare wild animals. You might want to record the moment as the train skirts the edges of the legendary Namtso Lake. Finally, we arrive in Lhasa, the city of wandering.

Overland Tour from Xinjiang to Tibet in a 4WD Van

The Xinjiang Tibet Highway, also called National Road 219, is an important road to Tibet from Xinjiang. It starts from Yecheng county, the Kashgar area and ends in the Lhatse, Shigatse district. It is renowned as the most difficult route to enter Tibet and only very experienced drivers can drive through because of the poor road conditions, quickly increasing altitude and harsh weather conditions. This is not an ideal route for normal tourists but it is a paradise for adventurers and those who like to visit the least traveled areas. While taking this overland tour, you will see the greatest Muslim Mosques in Xinjiang, isolated deserts, bleak no-man’s area, dotted lakes, snowy mountains, precious wild animals, the sacred Mt. Kailash, and Tibetan Monasteries.

Xinjiang-Tibet Highway
Xinjiang-Tibet Highway

This route is very famous for self-drive tourists who enter China from Kyrgyzstan, drive through Xinjiang to Tibet and then go forward to Nepal or other cities in China. Although most sections of the road from Kashgar to Tibet are paved with asphalt now, it is still very challenging to drive because of the numerous sharp turns, steep slopes and the ascending altitude. It is better to drive with a sophisticated driver or guide.

The overland tour includes some driving through remote areas where only simple food and basic accommodations are available. It will be helpful if you pack some snacks, instant food products, and sleeping bags. Besides, let’s do a sustainable tour and respect the local culture, environment, and people.

Highlights while Traveling Overland from Xinjiang to Tibet

Guge Kingdom Ruins
Guge is located in Zanda County, the westernmost part of Tibet, by the Xiangquan River. From the 10th to the 17th century, the Guge Kingdom had dominated the western part of Tibet, promoted Buddhism, resisted foreign aggression and played an important role in the late Tubo Kingdom. After a splendid 700-year civilization, it vanished mysteriously but left a large number of cultural relics and historical murals. Among them, there were a number of large Buddhist statues, but the Buddha biographical painting was the largest. This style of painting is rough and the color is heavy. The murals that recorded the lineage of the Guge Kings and reflect the political, economic, and cultural customs of the Guge region are very unique in Tibet. The architectural scenes of Guge Castle, the royal family, the ritual Buddha pictures, farming, grazing, hunting, riding, the milkmen, the vivid picture of singing and dancing and their actions and costumes; all of which are the miniature of that era.

Guge Kingdom Ruins
Guge Kingdom Ruins

Mt. Kailash
The pyramid-shaped Mt. Kailash is regarded as a venerated holy site of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The historical myths of these religions see Kailash as the spiritual center of the entire world. Hindus speak of Mt.Kailash as the abode of Lord Shiva and they make pilgrimage to Kailash to achieve peace and power. The Jains believe that Kailash is the place where the first of the twenty-four Tirthankaras gain liberation. Buddhists think Mt. Kailash hosts the greatest tantric meditation god, Demchong, who represents supreme bliss. Before Buddhism even took root in Tibet, the native Bon religion saw Mount Kailash as being a sacred place. In Bon mythology, Mount Kailash is the place where their founder, Shenrab, came down from heaven.

Pilgrims travel a long way to come to Mt. Kailash and circumambulate the hallowed peak. Some of them even travel hundreds of kilometers on foot to conduct a full body-length prostration at the site. Hindus and Buddhists circuit clockwise while Bons adherently walk counterclockwise. It is called Kailash Kora, or Parikrama which normally takes 3 days to fulfill on foot and up to one month if body prostration is performed along the way. Some of them ride a horse and rent a Yak to carry their luggage. Tibetans believe one trip around the mountain can wipe away their sins within their current lifetime, and 108 circles insure instant nirvana. It is said that one circuit during the full noon or in the Tibetan Horse Year can make more merits. 

Mt. Kailash
Mt. Kailash

Mt. Kailash is also a popular trek destination for normal tourists. Instead of carrying tents, food and other supplies, tourists can trek lightly with only their necessities. There are tea stalls which provide water, butter tea, instant food, and more. Dorm room guesthouses are also available but do not expect anything delicate in them. The blankets and quilts are not washed regularly, so you might want to bring your own sleeping bags and private sheets. Because of the high altitude, the weather changes greatly as well. There might be snow even during the hot summer time. Make sure you pack some waterproof clothes and shoes.

Everest & Everest Base Camp
Mt. Everest, with an altitude of 8,848 meters, is the highest mountain on the earth. At the crest of the Himalaya Range, it lies on the border of Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Tibetans call it “Chomolungma” which means the “Goddess Mother of the World,” while the Nepalese name it “Sagarmatha” which means Peak of Heaven. People dream of visiting this magnificent peak, but it is not possible to climb it unless they are experienced climbers. For normal tourists, visiting the Base Camps, which are the camp sites for the mountain climbers during their ascent and descent, will be an alternative way to view the close-up of Mt. Everest. The North Base Camp is in Tibet while the South Base Camp is in Nepal. Tourists can drive via the pitch highway to get to the North Base Camp while it takes a one-week trek to get to the South Base Camp.

The accommodations of the Base Camp are very basic but the view of the starry night and stunning mountains make all the other difficulties worthwhile. It is chilly at the Base Camp even in the hot summer. The guesthouses at the Base Camp have a yak dung oven for keeping warm. It is suggested for you to take your own sleeping bags since the blankets and sheets in the guesthouses have not been washed frequently.

Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp

As more and more tourists come to Mt. Everest, it is now becoming a great rubbish dump. Many mountaineers leave their tents, equipment, rubbish and poo on the slopes. The rubbish is hard to clean since it might be covered by heavy snow. This not only pollutes the environment but also spreads disease to the other climbers on the mountain. In order to protect the environment and clean all the garbage, the Base Camp of the Tibet side is now moved closer to the Rongbuk Monastery. It is about 6 km from the previous Base Camp but there still is a good location to see Mt. Everest.

Yamdrok Lake
Yamdrok Lake is located in Nagarze, Shannan District, Tibet. It is an important site to visit while driving from Lhasa to Gyantse or the other way around. As the largest freshwater lake at the south foot of the Himalayas, it is about 638 square kilometers wide. It is also very deep with an average depth of about 20 to 40 meters, so it will not be frozen in harsh winter or any other time. The color of the lake varies with the change of the sunlight, from the deep azure blue to a fantastic turquoise. Beside the lake is a lush oasis of pasture land that is dotted with sheep and yaks.

According to legend, the Yamdrok Lake is made by a fairy from the Heavens. It was originally a series of nice small lakes. The fairy worried the water in the lakes might dry up and the creatures would die, so she threw some gold into the air, chanted the mantras and finally merged the lakes to the Yamdrok Lake that we see today.

Yamdrok Lake
Yamdrok Lake

Yamdrok Lake is one of the four holy lakes in Tibet. The other three are Lhamo Latso, Namtso Lake and Manasarovar Lake. It might because Yamdrok Lake plays an important role for discovering the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after the present one passes away. After the death of the Dalai Lama, the chosen group made up of Buddhist monks and laymen will turn to the living Buddha first and wizard for the location of the new born baby who is the reincarnated Dalai Lama. After that, they will head to Yamdrok Lake and throw hada, a wish-granting bottle, and medicine material into the lake and chant prayers. Then the lake will reflect the location of the baby. If it is the same with what the living Buddha and wizard find, people will be sent out to look for the new Dalai Lama. 

Faithful Buddhists walk around the lake one time each year, which takes about one month. It is kind of like a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash Kora or circumnavigating around Potala Palace. One circle around the Lake ensures that Buddha will bless the pilgrims with good luck and happiness in the coming year and also wash off their sins of the past year.

Suggested Overland Tour from Xinjiang to Tibet
17 Days Overland Tour from Xinjiang to Tibet via Mt. Kailash
22 Days Self-drive from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal via Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet

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