Travel writer and Tibet expert Yolanda O’Bannon asked me recently if I’d like to share some tips for my readers about traveling to Tibet.
I get a lot of requests from people, and honestly, my answer to such requests is usually no, but I sensed that Yolanda was offering something more, so I asked her to tell me more about her, her site — YoWangdu Tibet, and how her site supports women in Tibet and women who travel to Tibet.
Here’s what she said:
About Yolanda O’Bannon
I’m an US Air Force brat who has been traveling and living all over the world since I was two, when Dad was assigned to France. In my thirties, I slowly spun a globe in the living room of my student-co-op in Berkeley, looking for the most wildly exotic, wonderful place I could find. My finger stopped at Kathmandu, and I bought a one-way ticket a few weeks later. I was hooked from that moment on the Himalayas, both the mountains and the people, but it took me a while to get back.
The next five years found me in Kyoto, working as a university English teacher, studying Aikido and taiko drumming. I had this incredible schedule with 6 months paid leave a year, and traveled like a lunatic on my breaks — cycling in New Zealand, visiting a friend in Togo, learning some mountain skills in the Cascades, hiking in the Lake District, Aikido camp north of Tokyo…
After leaving Kyoto, I spent 6 weeks in India, and it was there that I re-discovered my heart, in so many ways. Exhausted from hard-core touring India, and sad that a friend who had accompanied me on it was returning to Japan, I decided to go rest somewhere. I remembered a friend had talked about Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lived, and I took a gnarly all-night bus there, queasy, tired in my soul, and doubting my life.
All doubt faded away when I stepped off that bus into a beautiful dawn in the then-sleepy town of McLeod Ganj, perched on the western edge of the Himalaya, 6000 feet above the Indian plains. My whole body breathed a sigh of relief and I felt an immediate wish to stay there awhile.
I ended up spending a year, volunteer teaching English, interviewing Tibetan refugees, soaking in the beautiful Tibetan way of life, and studying the ancient wisdoms of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was a life-changing time. I interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a highlight of my life. And I met the wonderful Tibetan man, Lobsang Wangdu, who is now my husband.
After a year in McLeod Ganj, I came back to the US, with Lobsang, to settle in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ve been here ever since, spending much of the last 20+ years supporting the Tibetan people and the preservation of Tibetan culture.
As my friend Tony says, I’m all about “Tibet, Tibet, Tibet.” 🙂
I’ve traveled all over the world, and, honestly, to me there is no more magical and powerful place than Tibet, no more charming, strong and unique people than Tibetans, no greater wisdom than the 1000-year-old teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
I may just be a tiny bit biased. 😉
YoWangdu Experience Tibet
YoWangdu Experience Tibet is the portal we have made to help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical, so that good-hearted travelers can feel peace of mind about their trips.
A big factor in our work is that we exclusively work with Tibetan-owned agencies, who suffer from the ongoing problem of being at a severe disadvantage in the face of huge competition from Chinese-owned agencies, which often pretend to be “local.”
We’re obsessed with supporting Tibetan-owned travel agencies through our work, and the many local Tibetan women positively impacted by those agencies.
Supporting the local agencies creates these wonderful waves of goodness…
- The Tibetan agencies employ women guides and office staff. The more travelers we send them, the more Tibetan women (and men) they employ.
- Our favorite agency is also branching out with awesome projects in which they ethically partner with local nomad villages to provide genuine, sustainable cultural experiences for travelers while benefiting the villagers.
- Tibetan-owned businesses give back to their communities, with community service projects, like helping sell handicrafts from a disability training center, and donating winter clothing to impoverished nomad families, and helping with the purchase of a barley roaster for a small village.
As you can imagine, the closure of China, and Tibet, to foreign travelers during COVID has had a severe impact on the Tibetan travel agencies. The good news is that you can pre-book travel for a later date.
You will get a win-win, because prices are currently lower than normal, AND you support the local Tibetan-owned agencies at a time when they are struggling to survive. Honestly, a trip to Tibet is best planned long in advance, so it’s a great time to plan and book now.
Because we’re devoted to preserving Tibetan culture, you can explore the amazing world of Tibetan food and Buddhism on our site as well. Lobsang is a master Tibetan chef, and we provide a ton of classic Tibetan recipes on the site, like his awesome recipe for Tibetan momos (dumplings).
Even though I’m a terrible cook in general, I even contributed my one delicious dish — a banana bread that was once served to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (The honor of a lifetime for this non-cook!)
Tips for Women Traveling in Tibet
Because the political situation with refugee Tibetans makes it difficult for Lobsang to travel back to Tibet, I have traveled alone and also with another woman.
Tibet is generally remarkably safe. As a woman, I feel considerably more safe in Tibet than I do at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Plus, if you travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region, you must be on an official tour, although that tour can be a private tour, so you can go alone if you wish, and can afford it.
Whether you are on a private or group tour, you will be accompanied much of the time with a guide, and driver. In Lhasa, you can wander around the streets on your own, though you need your guide to get into the main tourist attractions. I’ve never felt the least bit unsafe anywhere in Lhasa.
So here are my tips:
- Book with a high-quality Tibetan-owned agency. Everything about your trip will depend on how good your agency is, so get a good one. And of course get a Tibetan-owned one, if you care at all about the Tibetan people.
- Don’t be fooled by Chinese agencies that pretend to be Tibetan-owned. Many of the agencies you see on a Google search will be Chinese-owned companies that just flat out lie and say they are “local” and “Tibetan owned.” There’s honestly no way to know how to tell the difference unless you just know the companies, like we and our partners do. We can help you connect to a reliable, genuinely Tibetan agency.
- Speak up if you feel unsafe while being driven. The only life-endangering moment I’ve ever had in Tibet was when a very tired driver was going too fast on a windy road in the dark and nearly plunged us over the edge of a bridge. I had been afraid that he was driving too fast, but didn’t speak up for fear of being a jerk. I will never do that again!
- Take steps for altitude sickness prevention in Tibet. It is appalling how many people suffer from altitude sickness in Tibet, because the agencies don’t know or care much about the issue. Even the best agencies tend to give backward, un-scientific advice, sadly. The risk is high, for all kinds of reasons, including the extreme altitudes, and the fact that many people fly into sky-high Lhasa from ground level. There are simple steps you can take to mitigate a bunch of the risk. You can start with our beginner’s guide to altitude sickness.
I hope very much this has helped you, and that you have the transformative opportunity to visit Tibet!
Contact Details for Yolanda
If you’d love to hear more about visiting Tibet safely and easily as a solo woman traveler or in a group, contact Yolanda at email@example.com.
She is also a self-care life coach who helps women stop being burned out, stressed, pissy with your people, low-grade depressed, and eating all the things.
YoWangdu Experience Tibet