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WINGS Birding Tours – Information

China: Lhasa and the Tibetan Plateau

Tour Information

Note: The information presented here is an abbreviated version of our formal General Information for this tour. Its purpose is solely to give readers a sense of what might be involved if they take this tour. It should not be used as a replacement for the formal document which will be sent to all registrants, and whose contents supersedes any information contained here.

ENTERING CHINA: United States citizens need both a passport, valid for at least six months from date of entry into China, and a tourist visa. A letter of invitation is also required and we’ll send you this, along with our ground agent’s details, when we issue the final invoice for the tour.

Citizens of other countries may need a visa and should check their nearest China embassy. If required by the embassy or visa-granting entity, WINGS can provide a letter for you to use regarding your participation in the tour.

At the current time no health certificates are required to enter China.

COUNTRY INFORMATION:You can review the U.S. Department of State Country Specific Travel Information at http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/china.html  and the CIA World Factbook background notes on China at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html 

PACE OF TOUR AND DAILY ROUTINE: This is not an easy tour. There is a considerable amount of traveling, and several of the days are long and tiring. Moreover, Huzhu Bei Shan and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau are both strenuous places to visit. We’ll be at moderate to high altitude throughout the region, a few of the trails we’ll explore are steep, and some of the walks will be three to four hours (the walk to the top of 15,700 ft. Ela Mountain is six hours, round trip, but we’ll only attempt it with a robust group) in duration and two to three miles in length (round trip).  While we’ll walk slowly, the altitude will make even walking on level ground tiring. An appropriate degree of fitness is recommended.

We’ll be out in the field early each day. On occasion we’ll depart at 5:00 a.m., driving to our first site and having a picnic breakfast there. On the day we drive to the Ela Shan Pass, we’ll start even earlier than that, possibly at 4:00 a.m. 

We’ll compile a checklist of the birds we’ve seen just before or just after dinner, and then retire early to bed (especially when we are making an early start next day). 

We’ll spend about 24 hours on the train heading from Xining to Lhasa and while the scenery, the mammals, and the birding can be excellent some people might like to catch up with some rest. 

HEALTH: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all travelers be up to date on routine vaccinations. These include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot. 

They further recommend that most travelers have protection against Hepatitis A and Typhoid.

The most current information about travelers’ health recommendations for China can be found on the CDC’s Travel Health website at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/china

Drinking Water: Tap water is not safe to drink anywhere in China. Bottled water and soft drinks are widely available, and your room will normally be supplied with either a large thermos of boiled water or a kettle with which you can make tea or coffee. 

Insects: Biting insects are not numerous although mosquitoes are occasionally found in the marshy areas on the edge of the Plateau. They are more common, but still not numerous, in the lowlands around Beijing. Malaria is not a problem anywhere in Northern China or on the Plateau. Spray repellent should provide adequate protection.  

Altitude:Beijing is only about 250 feet above sea level but much of the rest of the tour is at a high altitude. On the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau we’ll spend considerable amounts of time above 11,000 feet and there will be an optional walk that will reach almost 16,000 feet.  

When at such high altitudes we’ll attempt to limit our activities, try to avoid excessive uphill walking, and move at a fairly slow pace so as to limit altitudinal headaches and breathlessness, etc. However, participants should note that this is a strenuous tour, much more so than most WINGS offerings. Most altitudinal problems can be overcome by sitting quietly in or near the vehicle and drinking plenty of fluids. There will be oxygen available in at least one of the vehicles we will use on the tour.

Smoking:  Smoking is prohibited in the vehicles or when the group is gathered for meals, checklists, etc. If you are sharing a room with a non-smoker, please do not smoke in the room. If you smoke in the field, do so well away and downwind from the group. If any location where the group is gathered has a stricter policy than the WINGS policy, that stricter policy will prevail. 

Many Chinese men, and an increasing number of women, smoke heavily. We will not permit our drivers or locals guides to smoke in our vehicle or in close proximity to the group but we have no control over anyone else. Inquisitive strangers may come up to us and smoke nearby and while we can and will ask them not to smoke near us we cannot stop them doing so. While we’ll eat most, if not all, of our sit-down meals in private dining rooms, very occasionally this is not possible and we might have to eat in the common dining hall where there might be smokers. This does not happen on every tour, or even on every other tour, but it can happen. 

None of the hotels that we will stay in have designated non-smoking rooms and the rooms that we stay in might have been previously occupied by a smoker. While the bed linen will certainly be clean, cigarette odors in the bedrooms are fairly common. 

CLIMATE: Beijing is likely to be fairly warm (up to 80-90F) during the day, but the early mornings will be cooler. The weather in both Xining and Lhasa in August will be even cooler. Up on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and particularly when we cross some of the higher passes near Koko Nur and near Wenchuan, it is likely to be cold, especially in the mornings, when temperatures can drop to around freezing. There may already be some snow on the highest peaks. 

Precipitation is rather scarce throughout the tour, but is still a distinct possibility; this may fall as snow at some of the higher elevations that we visit. Precipitation is perhaps most likely on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and at Huzhu Bei Shan. 

ACCOMMODATION: The hotels in Beijing, Xining, and Lhasa are of a good standard with private bathrooms, proper restaurants, and other facilities that you would normally expect, such as gift shops in the lobby and facilities for making international phone calls, etc. 

The hotels and guest houses that we’ll use on the rest of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau vary enormously. Almost the entire region is rarely visited by foreigners, and as a consequence, the accommodations are often simple, although some have recently improved because better standards are being demanded by the growing number of middle class Chinese travelers. Even in some of the better hotels, many of the rooms are poorly maintained. 

The recently-built hotel at Heimahe near Qinghai Hu (Koko Nur) is still only occasionally visited by foreign visitors. It has recently been refurbished and is now of a Chinese 3-star standard. All the rooms are clean, and each has a private bathroom with a western toilet and a shower. We will spend two nights here before moving on to spend one night at a relatively modern one-star guest house at Chaka. The latter is clean, warm, and well-maintained.   

Please note that at Heimahe and at a couple of the other hotels/guest houses we’ll visit, hot water is often not available until after 8:00 p.m., and it is quite likely that we will have dinner and do our daily bird list before having showers. 

Leaving Chaka, our next hotel will be a decent one at Gonghe. All the rooms here have private bathrooms with a basin, western toilets, and a shower. There’s supposed to be 24-hour hot water here, but we’ve found from past experience that it’s rarely more than tepid until about 8:00 p.m. We’ll spend two nights in the Gonghe hotel before heading back to Xinging. We’ll have access to several day rooms in a hotel in Xining before taking the train overnight sleeper train to Lhasa. 

WiFi and Internet: Most of the hotels that we use have internet access and we expect this situation to continue, and possibly improve, in the future. The hotel that we will stay in at Huzhu Bei Shan has wireless internet in the lobby and in the rooms; our hotel in Xining has wireless in the rooms; the hotel near Heimahe at the western end of Qinghai Hu has wireless in the rooms; the hotel at Gonghe has wireless in the rooms and our hotel in Lhasa has wireless internet in the lobby and cable access in the room. Participants should be aware, however, that internet access is occasionally suspended in China – perhaps because of floods, landslides or political issues. Mobile phone coverage is superb over most of China and, while not all foreign mobile operators have agreements with the Chinese carriers, many do. You are advised to contact your mobile phone provider in advance of the trip to confirm this. 

FOOD: Chinese cuisine is well known and widely appreciated. Beer, soft drinks, and green tea will be served with the food. The Chinese often also drink hard liquor, bai-jiu, with the food. Western brands of alcohol are not easily obtainable outside of the bigger cities on this tour (and where they are available, they are usually expensive), so you may wish to consider bringing your own supply. However, please note that alcohol cannot be taken as a carry-on item on the internal flights we have in China, and so it must be packed in your checked luggage. 

Coffee and English-style tea are still uncommon in China, but hot water is readily available in hotel rooms and in restaurants. Cups are usually, but not always, provided, so you may wish to bring your own, plus some instant coffee, drinking chocolate, cocoa, or tea bags (and powdered milk and sugar, if you like). Some people also take packets of soup or other items that only need to be re-hydrated. 

 In Qinghai Province and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and indeed throughout most of China, hotel breakfasts are poor, so we will almost always have picnic breakfasts provided for us by our ground agent. These will usually consist of cereal (often muesli or cornflakes), yogurt, fruit juice, instant noodles, biscuits, muffins, bread with jam or possibly honey, peanuts, sausages, and boiled eggs, plus tea and coffee, and supplemented, where possible, by fruit, chocolate and steamed local bread. On some mornings in Qinghai our driver will be able to prepare fried egg sandwiches for those who would like them. 

Lunches will typically be picnics as well.

The Chinese way of eating differs from that in the West in that for the evening meal a selection of different dishes is shared by those sitting at the table. Food is almost always plentiful. Few of the restaurants we’ll visit provide knives and forks. If you are not used to eating with chopsticks, you might start practicing right away or bring your own cutlery.

Drinks:  Bottled water and/or a soft drink or a beer is provided at lunch and dinner, as is coffee or tea. Bottled water will always be available in our vehicles. All other drinks or “personal” drinking water for use in your room etc. is the responsibility of the individual.

Food Allergies / Requirements: We cannot guarantee that all food allergies can be accommodated at every destination. Participants with significant food allergies or special dietary requirements should bring appropriate foods with them for those times when their needs cannot be met. Announced meal times are always approximate depending on how the day unfolds. Participants who need to eat according to a fixed schedule should bring supplemental food. Please contact the WINGS office if you have any questions.

TRANSPORTATION:  Transportation for our time in Qinghai will be by a coach while around Lhasa we will use a similar if possibly smaller vehicle. We also have several of internal flights on regularly scheduled service. Some of the drives are long and may last for up to seven hours, but we will, of course, make regular stops along the way to stretch and to bird watch. The leader will arrange a seating rotation. Participants should be able and willing to ride in any seat in tour vehicles. 

There will be one 24-hour train ride as we travel over the Tibetan Plateau from Xining to Lhasa. Our route will take us over the Tangula Shan Pass which, at 16,634 feet, is the highest rail journey in the world. We’ll travel in what is called hard sleeper class. The carriage is divided in to about 20 separate compartments each with six bunk beds (three on each side) and a small table. We hope to be able to only put four people in each compartment and use the upper two beds for storage.  Increasingly however this is not being allowed on trains in China where demand for berths far exceeds supply. There will be a shared washroom and a toilet at both ends of the carriage. Usually one of these toilets is Western style, the other Chinese hole-in-the-floor style, but this can vary from one carriage to the next. Warm bedding, usually in the form of quilts, will also be provided. Better quality soft sleeper berths (with four, more comfortable beds per cabin and a sliding, lockable door) are available on this train but these still cannot be booked directly by Chinese travel agents. Many soft sleeper berths still appear to be reserved for government officers and are extremely difficult to obtain. Our ground agent will endeavor to purchase soft sleeper tickets for us all – but this cannot be guaranteed. 

Private single or double rooms are not available on the trains in overpopulated China – it is simply not possible to secure such rooms and even if we paid for all the beds and didn’t occupy them the train guard would confiscate those that weren’t being used and re-sell them. Sexes are not normally segregated on Chinese trains but, depending on the group dynamics we might attempt to segregate men and women in our party. On previous tours the train ride has proved to be a real highlight of the entire trip.

Updated: 07 September 2016