Tibet has just been opened again for foreigners. Our writer was one of the first let in. Here she lists what you NEED to know
Permits were being issued again as of the end of July 2011, but it's a mad scramble. I ended up booking alone as everyone I met at the Chengdu backpackers were still trying to sort out dates for later in the month. I'd booked a tour with Intrepid but it was cancelled as permits weren't being issued for its start date.
Chinese tourists come here in their droves in summer. While we were waiting for Tibet to open again, they were busy booking ahead. It's almost impossible to get the good budget lodging (I couldn't and I'm in a cheesy 30 euro a night place with stinky sewer gas).
There are hundreds of young independent Chinese backpackers here. They stay in the hostels and budget lodges, which are fairly modern and include free wifi. This is the main competition for the western budget traveler.
You could get two hard seats or three, but they really are hard and don't recline, and sometimes you get one in the middle of the three-across row, and it's a 44-48 hour trip depending on where you start. Hard seats from Chengdu are 500 yuan per seat.
One option I hadn't noticed before I got here is that you could get a train or bus to Golmud, and get a sleeper bus from there. I know that sounds like hell but I don't think it would be any worse than a hard seat. At least you could lie down, and I'm sure there's little competition for those berths.
You can still buy plane tickets with just a few days notice, and a new airline just started up, Tibet Airlines.
I had to show my permit at check-in at my hotel, and twice at the airport. I got it at a backpacker hostel in Chengdu, which I cannot recommend as they were chaotic and put me through to what appears to be a faux-Tibetan shell of CITS. If I could go back and do this again, I'd book with a local agency over the internet.
You can wander around Lhasa on your own, but you're forbidden from going into temples without a guide. You are required to hire a driver and guide for the run from Lhasa to the Nepal border.
My guide took me on a taxi ride the first day, then turned to me and told me it would be 40 yuan. I explained that I don't like financial surprises. Since then, we have been taking the public bus or walking.
Someone is making a killing on tourism here, and I'm pretty sure that someone isn't the local travel agency. Here are a few places I should have contacted rather than booking the way I did: CafeSpinn and Life on the Tibetan Plate. This would have increased the amount of my funds working locally.