ALTITUDE IN TIBET

Tibet is often called The Roof of The World due to its high elevation. The average altitude on the Tibetan Plateau is 4,500 meters/ 14,750 ft. In this article, we will cover the elevation of the main high-altitude areas in Tibet, how elevation affects the oxygen level, tips on gaining elevation safely to avoid altitude sickness, and answer all frequently asked questions.

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TOPOGRAPHY MAP OF TIBET

Tibet Topography map

The lowest elevation is in the Eastern part of Tibet, in the Nyingchi province. The area is famous for its stunning landscapes and is often compared to Switzerland.

Nyingchi Sousong village scenery
Nyingchi Sousong village scenery

You can see dense forests, alpine lakes and vast rivers there. Nyingchi becomes very popular in Spring, as the Peach Blossom festival is celebrated there in March and you can see the blooming trees throughout April.

The highest altitude area is in Ngari, the Western part of  Tibet. This area is famous for its rigid climate and distinct landscape: muddy mountains with lots of caves that Tibetans used for meditation

One of the main attractions of Ngari is the sacred Mount Kailash 6,638m/ 21,778 ft high. Every year thousands of pilgrims challenge themselves walking the kora or circumlocution route around Kailash, with the highest point of the trek reaching 5,640 meters/ 18,000 ft.

Some of the most important sites in Western Tibet are the sacred Manasarovar Lake and the ruins of the ancient Guge Kingdom with Tholing and Tsaparang monasteries.

HOW HIGH ALTITUDE AFFECTS TRAVELERS

altitude vs oxygen level in Tibet chart

With an altitude gain, the air becomes thinner and the level of oxygen in the air decreases. At the elevation above 3,000 meters, most of the people will need some time to acclimatize to it. The level of oxygen at sea level is 20.9%, at 3,000 meters it is 14.3% and at 5,000 meters it lowers to 11.2%. If you are spending a night at the Everest Base Camp (5,050 m), the oxygen level there is only 11%.

The good news is that usually visitors fully acclimatize in a couple of days and are ready to ascend higher. The higher you are planning to go, the more time it will take for your body to adjust and the slower you should move higher.

The main destinations in Tibet with altitude

See how different areas in Tibet compare to the sea level 20.9% oxygen count:

Nyingchi: 3000 meters / 9843 feet: 16.1% oxygen
Lhasa: 3658 meters / 12001 feet: 15.0% oxygen
Shigatse: 3836 meters / 12585 feet: 14.8% oxygen
Guge kingdom: 4280 meters / 14042 feet: 14.1% oxygen
Mount Kailash area: 4575 meters / 15010 feet: 13.6% oxygen
Namtso Lake: 4718 meters / 15479 feet: 13.4% oxygen
Everest Base Camp (Tibet side): 5050 meters / 16568 feet: 12.6% oxygen
Mount Kailash – the highest point on the trek: 5640 meters / 18504 feet: 11.9% oxygen
Mount Everest height: 8848 meters / 29029 feet: 6.7% oxygen

Deep blue sky because of the lower oxygen levels

Nine storey Kumbum Stupa, the largest s
Kumbum stupa in Gyantse, Tibet

There is one beautiful outcome of the lower oxygen levels in the air – the sky color appears deeper blue. When you are traveling during the months with mostly clear skies, especially in winter when the sky is almost always clear, you will notice the intense blue color of the sky in Tibet. And the higher you go, the deeper blue color you will see.
Together with the strong sunshine, it makes all colors appear brighter. That’s why many landscape photographers prefer visiting Tibet between late fall and early spring to capture the stunning natural beauty of Tibet.

How Your Body Adapts to High Altitude

Tibetan nomads herding yaks near Namtso lake

High-altitude areas (defined as 2,500 meters and above sea level) have lower oxygen levels in the air, higher UV radiation, and lower humidity.

How does your body adapt to the areas with less oxygen and what this adaptation means for you?

Predicting who will have a higher risk of altitude sickness is difficult because it largely depends on genetics. However, gradual acclimatization can significantly mitigate the risk.

When you travel to a high-altitude area, your body needs time to adapt to it. Studies and research uncovered that to adapt to areas with low oxygen levels, physiological, biochemical, and molecular changes occur (BioMed Central)​.

When you arrive at high altitudes, the body undergoes various short-term adaptations to cope with the decreased oxygen levels, including increased production of red blood cells to improve oxygen delivery throughout the body. Additionally, there’s an increase in breathing rate and heart rate, enabling more oxygen to be taken in and transported to where it’s needed most​ (UF Medical Physiology Online)​.

Interestingly, Tibetans have over 30 genetic adaptations, allowing their blood to absorb oxygen better and release oxygen to the tissue more efficiently.

SUN PROTECTION TIPS FOR HIGH ALTITUDES

Crossing mountain pass Drolma La pass on Mount Kailash trek

As we mentioned, the sun’s radiation is stronger in high-altitude areas. That’s why it is essential to protect yourself from the sun all year round. We always suggest packing:

  • High-SPF sunscreen
  • Lip balm, ideally with SPF
  • Sunglasses with UV protection
  • Wide-brimmed hat or baseball hat
  • Long sleeve shirts (can be light for summer)
Monks in Sera Monastery,Lhasa, Tibet

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LHASA ALTITUDE

Lhasa city panorama from Sera monastery area

The Lhasa altitude is 3,650 meters/ 11,995 ft. When visitors arrive in Lhasa it is not uncommon to experience some light effects of the high altitude sickness: shortness of breath, light headache, insomnia.

However, it only takes a few days to acclimatize to Lhasa altitude. After that visitors are prepared to go to the higher areas of Tibet. That is one of the reasons why most of the tours in Tibet begin in Lhasa.

If you are planning to visit some areas above 5,000 meters or trek in some high-altitude areas of Tibet, you can spend more time in Lhasa. You can go on a day trip or a short hike to areas near Lhasa above 4,000 meters to prepare for high-elevation treks.

Everest Base Camp Altitude

Tourists visit Mount Everest with a group tour in Tibet

Everest Base Camp in Tibet altitude is 5,050 meters / 16,568 feet

It is essential to acclimatize properly before traveling to this altitude. That’s why most tours to Everest start in Lhasa, where you will spend a few days exploring the capital of Tibet while also acclimatizing to high altitude. On group tours, we spend the first three days in Lhasa. It is enough time for most visitors to acclimatize and continue the journey to higher areas. Along the way, we will be traveling through various high passes. 

Altitude on Lhasa to Everest tour

On the way from Lhasa to Everest, we will cross two high passes: Gyatso-la Pass (5248 m) and Gyawu-la Pass (5191 m). We will also spend a night by Everest at an elevation of 5,050 meters.

When we travel with a group tour, we spend a night in the Base Camp to have enough time to enjoy the magnificent view of Everest and watch the sunset that adds colors to the North side of the mountain.

If you have concerns about high altitude, instead of staying in the Base Camp, it is possible to arrange a private tour to only visit the Camp to enjoy the view. After your visit, we will drive back to lower altitude areas of nearby settlements Tasho Dzom or Basum. These small towns are significantly lower than the Base Camp at about 4,200 meters and have several good hotels.

These small towns are only about 40km away from the Everest Base Camp, making it possible to leave the EBC area quickly if high-altitude sickness symptoms worsen.

Mount Kailash area altitude

Mount Kailash Panorama

The average altitude in the region: 4575 meters / 15010 feet
The highest point on the trekking route: 5640 meters / 18504 feet

On a classic Mount Kailash tour, we begin in Lhasa at an elevation of 3,650 meters. At this altitude, some travelers can experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness. We spend the first two days in Lhasa to acclimatize and continue the journey to higher areas. Along the way, we will be traveling through various high passes.

Altitude on Lhasa to Mount Kailash tour
Altitude on Lhasa to Mount Kailash tour

Traveling through high areas during the day, and spending nights at lower elevations, helps prepare for higher-altitude areas. We also stop at the Everest Base Camp (5,050m) and it also helps prepare for the journey.

By the time we reach Mount Kailash, most travelers will acclimatize to trek around it. The highest point of the trek is 5,640 meters. We reach this high pass on the second day of trekking. If you want additional help while trekking, you can hire porters, horses, or yaks in Darchen before the departure.

There are alternative options for private tours, where you can start the journey in Nepal and cross the overland border to travel to Western Tibet. Because you gain altitude a lot quicker on this route, you need to add acclimatizing days to your itinerary.

SAFE ELEVATION GAIN

High Altitude areas in Tibet
Elevation of 5200 meters near the Everest Camp for climbers in Tibet

High altitude has a different effect on people. There is no way to tell in advance how you will feel in Tibet unless you’ve already traveled in high-altitude areas.

Luckily, there are some ways to speed up acclimatization and prevent altitude sickness. The general rule is to start at approximately 3,000 meters and acclimatize before going further. Below are some tips to help you acclimatize to high altitude:

Tips for safe elevation gain

  • Once you arrive at the altitude of 3,000 meters or above, spend 1-3 days at that altitude to acclimatize
  • When you are above 3,000 meters increase your altitude by 300 meters per day and take a rest day after a 1 km gain
  • To speed up the acclimatization process, walk to higher altitudes during the daytime and spend a night at a lower altitude
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid drinking alcohol: dehydration increases the chances of altitude sickness
  • Take plenty of rest, and try to get enough sleep. Your body is already working harder at high altitude, don’t add any unnecessary stress to your heart.
  • If you have any of the symptoms of altitude sickness, don’t go any higher. Wait till the symptoms get milder, otherwise descent
  • Eat more carbohydrates: grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.

USING DIAMOX/ ACETAZOLAMIDE TO PREVENT ALTITUDE SICKNESS

Diamox is a brand name of the tablet where the active ingredient is Acetazolamide. It is currently the most widely used medicine, and scientifically proven to work for altitude sickness. It can prevent altitude sickness or reduce its symptoms.  

You generally need a prescription for Diamox, but rules can vary in different countries. It is essential to discuss the dosage with your doctor. The common side effects (especially with higher dosages) are dizziness and lightheadedness. In addition, you have to drink plenty of water when taking Diamox. It often causes dehydration and dehydration can worsen symptoms of high altitude sickness. 

For some groups of people, especially with certain pre-existing conditions (such as asthma, hypertension, and certain heart conditions) taking Diamox can be beneficial

FLYING DIRECTLY TO HIGH-ALTITUDE AREA

The front view of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet
Potala Palace in Lhasa

There are 5 airports in Tibet:

  • Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA). Located near Lhasa, elevation 3,550 m.
  • Shigatse Peace Airport (RKZ). Located 43 km away from Shigatse, elevation 3780 m.
  • Qamdo Bangda Airport (BPX). Located in Bamda, elevation 4300 m.
  • Nyingchi Mainling Airport (LZY). Located in Mainling, elevation 2950 m.
  • Ngari Gunsa Airport (NGQ). Located in Shiquanhe, elevation 4250 m.

Many travelers start their journey in Tibet in Lhasa. You can arrive at Lhasa Gonggar airport located only about 1 hour of drive from the city center. A few days stay in Lhasa allows you to acclimatize to higher-altitude areas.

Although Nyingchi in Eastern Tibet is a less popular option, it is a great place to start your journey in Tibet. Flying into lower altitude areas in Tibet and gradually ascending to higher areas is a great way to acclimatize.

Due to its lower elevation, Nyingchi is famous for its incredible scenery with tall mountains covered with trees, gorgeous lakes, and magnificent peach blossoms in spring.

Flying to and from Shigatse is not a common option, because there are very few available flights. Similarly, the airport in Bamda is not commonly used by travelers because of its remote location and high altitude.

Lake Manasarovar with Mount Kailash in Western Tibet
Manasarovar Lake and Mount Kailash in the high-altitude region in Western Tibet

Finally, flying directly to Ngari from sea level is not recommended and can be dangerous. Ngari airport is located near Mount Kailash area, a very popular pilgrimage destination in Tibet. Most of the tours to the Mount Kailash area are longer than 10 days, and our classic itinerary to Mount Kailash is 15 days long.

It might be tempting to fly to Ngari airport, drive to Mount Kailash, and return the same way to save time. However, we never recommend it as it is extremely dangerous, especially if you are planning to trek around Mount Kailash, where the route reaches its highest point at 5,640 meters. It is impossible to safely reach this elevation without proper acclimatizing first.

You can consider traveling to Mount Kailash overland, spending enough time along the way to ascend safely, and then fly from Ngari airport to Lhasa to save some travel time.

TAKING THE TRAIN TO LHASA TO ACCLIMATIZE

Shigatse train station platform

While taking a train to Lhasa is another popular option to reach Tibet, it doesn’t offer significant benefits for altitude acclimatizing.

You can take a train from many large cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xian, Chongqing, and Chengdu. The city with the closest connection to Lhasa is Xining. Regardless of what train you take, you will travel through Xining, as this is currently the only entry point to the railway to Tibet. There are plans to build another railroad connecting Chengdu with Lhasa.

As you travel from any city to Xining you will be going through non-high altitude areas. After you reach Xining (approximately 2,200 meters), your journey through higher-elevation areas begins. The entire journey from Xining to Lhasa takes about 20 hours. And not all 20 hours are spent at high altitudes, a lot of the time you will travel in areas below 3,000 meters.

When the train starts climbing higher, crossing mountain passes above 5,000 meters, the supplemental oxygen is pumped into the train. This additional oxygen creates an air pressure similar to elevation at 3,000 meters. That makes train rides safe for travelers. However, it is not very efficient for acclimatizing to high altitudes.

Taking a train to Lhasa can be a great way to see different scenery, the train passes through a protected national park area in Eastern Tibet. If you have extra time for this journey and you like traveling by train, check more details about train rides here:

PREPARE FOR TOUR AT HIGH ALTITUDE

Group trekking on Drolma la Pass, Kailash
Walking path on Drolma La pass on the trek around Kailash

Here are a few steps to prepare for your tour in areas with high elevation:

  • Consult your doctor, especially if you have some pre-existing conditions, such as heart or lung diseases, to check if you need any additional medication, or to get a prescription for Diamox.
  • Pack your medication: your personal medications and generic medicine, such as remedies for headaches.
  • Pack sun protection: sunscreen, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts for summer, and hat.
  • Remember to drink plenty of water. You can bring a reusable bottle and hydration /electrolyte packets.
  • Warm and layered clothing, because temperature can change quickly from daytime to evening and nighttime.

Frequently asked questions about altitude in Tibet

Genetics plays a significant role in how easily the person will acclimatize, which makes it very difficult to predict who will be affected by high altitude.

Based on scientific evidence, physical fitness, age, or even prior experiences at high altitudes doesn’t predict an individual’s risk of experiencing altitude sickness.

Although young, physically fit travelers might assume they’re less susceptible, taking more risk with rapid ascent without adequate acclimatization may place them at higher risk.

Interestingly, individuals over 50 years old exhibit a slightly reduced risk, challenging common perceptions regarding age and vulnerability to altitude sickness.

Ascending slowly, however, allows for gradual acclimatization and significantly reduces the risk of altitude sickness.

Altitudes are usually classified in the following way:

  • Below 2500 meters. Altitude in Xining. Travelers typically don’t experience any altitude sickness symptoms
  • High altitude: between 2,500 and 3,700 meters. The altitude in Lhasa, Samye, and Nyingchi. Travelers might experience some symptoms of altitude sickness, that typically go away once you acclimatize within the first 2-3 days.
  • Very high altitude: between 3,700 and 5,500 meters. The altitude in Namtso Lake, Mount Kailash area, including Manasarovar Lake. Note, that the highest point on the Mount Kailash trek (5,640 meters) is even higher than this range. You need to acclimatize at lower altitudes to travel to these very high-altitude areas.
  • Extreme high altitude: above 5,500 meters. On your tours in Tibet, the highest point for non-climbers is located on the Mount Kailash trekking route at 5,640 meters. All our tours to Mount Kailash are designed to gradually approach this area, allowing most travelers to acclimatize before reaching it.

Tibetans have over 30 genetic adaptations, helping them cope with lower oxygen levels. In Tibet, you can also find herbal medicine made from local plants to help acclimatize.

In Tibet, you always travel with a licensed guide. All guides know about high altitude symptoms and will be able to offer help. On all tours, we will help you use oxygen to cope with some symptoms. If your symptoms are mild, it is best to give yourself time to acclimatize naturally. Oxygen can be a good short-term remedy, but it can slow down the acclimatizing process. If the symptoms are not going away, your guide might recommend you visit a medical facility.

While no special training is required, it helps to exercise before visiting Tibet. First, you will have more stamina to walk when you are exploring Tibet and trekking (if it is in your itinerary). In addition, regular exercise can improve your cardiovascular health before your trip.

The initial symptoms of altitude sickness can vary from person to person but commonly include headache, loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and trouble sleeping.

Recognizing these early signs is crucial for preventing more severe forms of altitude illness, such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), both of which require immediate medical attention.

It’s important for travelers to high-altitude areas to acclimatize properly and to ascend gradually to reduce the risk of altitude sickness.

Yes, starting in 2024, high-altitude areas can be restricted to travelers 75 years old and above for their safety. We recommend choosing itineraries in lower altitude areas, such as Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse, Samye monastery, and Nyingchi.

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT ALTITUDE

Climbers tents by the glaciers

Altitude sickness: symptoms and prevention

Learn how to recognize altitude sickness, its symptoms, and how to cope with high altitude.

High Altitude areas in Tibet

7 Tips for Altitude Sickness Prevention

Learn about the seven natural ways to acclimatize to high altitude.

TOURS YOU MIGHT LIKE

Peach blossom - spring views in Eastern Tibet

10 DAYS EASY ACCLIMATIZING TOUR FROM NYINGCHI TO EVEREST

This tour starts in Nyingchi, at an elevation just below 3,000 meters. We will spend two days there, traveling through one of the most beautiful regions in Tibet. It is often called “Tibetan Switzerland” for its forested mountains, river canyons, and alpine lakes.

After that, we will head to Lhasa, where we will spend another two days acclimatizing. We will visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, and Drepung monastery.

Finally, we will drive to the Everest Base Camp through Gyantse and Shigatse. We make stops at Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers and many of the high mountain passes and viewpoints.

Mount Everest and Rongbuk monastery in Tibet

8 DAYS LHASA TO EVEREST BASE CAMP TOUR

A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok Lake and Karola glaciers.

Both group and private tours are available.

Shakyamuni Buddha statue in Sakya monastery, Tibet

10 DAYS EASY ACCLIMATIZING EVEREST TOUR

This slow-paced private tour takes you from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse, where we spend the first few days acclimatizing. We will visit many of the historical and religious places, such as Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Gyantse Monastery, and Kumbum Stupa.

We will make stops by the most beautiful natural spots: Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers and many of the high mountain passes and viewpoints. Finally, we will reach Everest Base Camp, where we stay for the night.

Samye Monastery the first monastery in Tibet

6 DAYS TIBETAN CULTURAL HERITAGE TOUR

This private tour takes you from Lhasa to Yarlung Valley and Samye Monastery. Yarlung Valley is the birthplace of Tibetan civilization. You can see Yumbulakhang, an ancient fort and the first surviving building in Tibet. After that, you will visit Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

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