High Times in Tibet

High Times in Tibet

Buddhist & nomad culture + whitewater on the Tibetan plateau

Class II-III

Season: August

Ever thought you’d go rafting at almost 15,000 feet?  Here’s your chance to do just that, high on the Tibetan plateau.

Wantok prides itself on delivering cutting edge river adventures at great values. Where else could you join a journey to the rooftop of the world, gradually acclimatizing on successively higher rivers until you put in at 4500 meters (about 14,765 feet) on the mighty Reting Tsangpo? You’ll spend six days on the Drigung and Reting rivers, three days acclimatizing while enjoying the wonderful highlights of Buddhist Lhasa and some delightful hours driving through the spectacular scenery of the central Tibetan plateau on our way to put-ins and from take-outs.

If what you are looking for is serious whitewater action this is not the trip for you.  If you’re looking for an amazing cultural and visual experience at elevations you might never have thought of reaching, read on.   The Drigung is a small, clear, fast-dropping mountain stream that provides us with two days of constant excitement as we navigate its many rapids.  The Reting is a wider, slower pool-and-drop river with mellow stretches punctuated by a fair number of Class III-IV drops.  Both rivers are thrilling and fun, and serve as perfect backdrops to the villages, monasteries, snow-capped peaks, juniper forests, thousands of yaks, hot springs, and incredibly scenic campsites along the way.

While we acclimatize in Lhasa before venturing into the backcountry we spend our time in the Barkhor, the old Tibetan part of Lhasa, with its narrow alleys, colorful denizens and great shopping, visiting the Jokhang  monastery and Potala palace, repositories of much of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and exploring the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace.  Later on the trip we camp by small villages and interact with the communities, visit nomad encampments, discover remote monasteries, and enjoy 15,600 foot Namtso Lake and the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Tashi Dor.

If that’s not enough to convince you that this is the trip for you, we throw in the best panda experience available in the world at the Panda Breeding and Research Base in Chengdu, Sichuan, on the first morning of the trip.

It’s an amazing package of experiences that will keep you enthralled from first to last.   There is even a variety of craft to choose from when on the river: Ride in an oar boat, paddle a raft, try your luck in an inflatable kayak, or even request a hard shell river kayak if you have the experience to paddle it (see River Craft section below).


Note: This itinerary is designed to be flexible based on river levels, road and weather conditions, the fast pace of development in China, and the unexpected surprises of adventure travel in Asia.

All elevations are from a barometric altimeter and are therefore approximate.




Arrive at the Chengdu Shuangliu International airport. You’ll receive full information on taking the easy taxi ride to the Traffic Hotel (private transfers available on request at an additional cost), where you may spend the balance of the day resting and alleviating jet lag, or get out and explore the sites of Chengdu. The Traffic Hotel is a perfect example of a Wantok hotel choice, comfortable, clean, convenient and Chinese. It may be difficult at times to communicate with the front desk people when you need an extra towel or want to change money, but it all works out in the end.  In the evening we’ll share a Sichuan cuisine welcome dinner at a local restaurant.

If you choose to arrive early for the trip, we’ll be happy to reserve your hotel room for you and provide suggestions of things to do in Chengdu or arrange tours to the Leshan Buddha, the holy mountain of Mt. Emei or other attractions in the area.

Traffic Hotel, Welcome dinner




After breakfast (the hotel stay includes a Chinese-style breakfast of congee (bland rice porridge), steam buns and side dishes, but a full western breakfast is available elsewhere in the hotel) we’ll drive out to the Panda Breeding and Research Base to be there when it opens at 8 AM.  We walk around the park to see the giant pandas, big and small, enjoying their bamboo breakfast and frolicking after a good night’s rest.  The tour includes an educational video, encounters with the winsome red pandas and perhaps endangered cranes.  We go directly from the panda institute to the airport for the flight to Lhasa, with a pack lunch in hand.

When we arrive at Lhasa’s Gonggar Airport we’ll be met by our Tibetan guide and take the scenic 45 minute drive to Lhasa. You may feel the effects of the high altitude (almost 12,000 feet), so it’s best if we have a relaxing afternoon, and drink plenty of water. Later in the day we’ll walk to the nearby old quarter, the Barkhor, to orient ourselves for the rest of the stay.  While there we visit the delightful Buddhist nunnery of Ani Tsangkhung, built in the 7th century, and perhaps take a break for tea in its small traditional teahouse. When we’re ready, we’ll walk on into the Barkhor to one of Lhasa’s better restaurants for a welcome dinner.

We stay in Lhasa for three days and nights not just because it is a fascinating place to explore, but also because full acclimatization to its altitude is essential to the enjoyment of the rest of the trip.  Before we get active in the thin air, we have to be sure our blood, heart and lungs have adjusted to the change.

Dekang Hotel (3650m,12,000ft), all meals (pack lunch)



After breakfast at the hotel, head back into the Barkhor and tour the Jokhang Temple. Built in AD 650, this ancient temple is home to some of Tibetan Buddhism’s most venerated statues. We walk through its many chapels, burial monuments, statues and paintings of Buddhas, teachers, and holy protectors alongside the Tibetan pilgrims, some of whom will have come thousands of kilometers to worship at the sacred temple. After the tour of the temple, we may join the pilgrims for a kora, or holy walk around the outside of the temple. For Buddhists, 108 laps of the temple is guaranteed to bring long life and good luck (but we don’t recommend 108 laps today!)

The market stalls surrounding the Jokhang have been in place since the early days of the temple. The Barkhor is one of the best places for souvenir shopping in Lhasa, but bargain hard!  After lunch we’ll head to Sera Monastery to watch the monks debate energetically and theatrically as they have every day since the 14th century. The Sera monks are renowned for their intelligence and political acumen. The debates are said to train the mind and are very entertaining to watch.

For each of our dinners and lunches in Lhasa we’ll try out different restaurants in the Barkhor area.  There are many Tibetan, Chinese and Western options for tasty and diverse eating.

Dekang Hotel (3650m,12,000ft), all meals




Today we visit the Potala Palace, Lhasa’s best-known attraction.  The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet.  It was home to the present Dalai Lama until he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959. Later in the day we visit the Norbulingka Palace, the park-like summer palaces of several of the Dalai Lamas, begun in the 18th century and added to right up until 1959, when the current Dalai Lama fled to India.  It is a masterpiece of Tibetan art. The beauty and originality of the architecture of these three monuments (the Jokhang, Potala, and Norbulingka),and their rich ornamentation and harmonious integration in a striking landscape, add to their historic and religious interest.  They are all three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Whatever is left of the afternoon is free for last minute expedition preparation or shopping or sightseeing on your own.

Dekang Hotel (3650m,12,000ft), all meals



This morning we’re up early to drive about three hours to the Drigung Valley to our riverside camp. After a quick lunch at our campsite, we drive upstream to the put-in for the upper section of the Class III run.  On the way we may stop to visit the Drigung Monastery, an extensive and attractive group of buildings which is the head monastery of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  It is famous for its sky burials: after several days of rituals bodies, now devoid of their essence which has been reborn, are left in special sites for the vultures and other predators to dispose of.  Pilgrims come from all over Tibet to bury their dead this way.

We then continue on to put-in at 13,700 feet, and raft the Drigung River back to our camp.  It’s about a ten mile stretch that drops a constant 50 feet per mile, creating a very fast and splashy Class II/III section of river.  The water is very cold and we’ll welcome the sight of our camp when we come to it.  On this trip all of our camping is vehicle supported, so we never have to load our boats with our gear—it all stays on the bus.  This allows for tremendous comfort and flexibility in our packing.

Camping (4050m,13,250ft), all meals



Right below camp is a short Class V+ gorge, so we load our paddling gear on the truck and drive 10 minutes to our next put-in.  The lower Drigung is a wonderful Class III/IV run through two short granite gorges.  It’s a little longer than the first day but still flows at the same consistent drop.  There a long stretch of fast and splashy water that leads into a series of exciting rapids culminating in a narrow squeeze through a short gorge, followed by another hour of exhilarating non-stop Class III action. We drive back to the same campsite as the night before.  There’s time this afternoon to dry out, hike in the neighboring hills or hamlet, relax with a hot drink, soak in the great mountain scenery, or maybe catch up on your reading.

Camping (4050m,13,250ft), all meals



Shortly after we leave the Drigung we come to a small hotel built around a hot springs pool.  We stop here to soak away our aches and worries, along with local Tibetans and a few tourists who have come for the same reason.  When we are ready we drive up and over a spectacular high pass (4980m, 16,300ft).  The road winds past yak herds and nomad encampments with countless photo opportunities.  We may stop by one of the camps to get a closer look at the mix of modern and traditional felt and wood tents and get a closer look at the nomad life in modern Tibet.  It’s a leisurely day of sightseeing and cultural interactions as we complete the 5+ hour drive from one river to the next.  Our camp on the Reting Tsangpo puts us in perfect position for an easy start on the river in the morning.

Camping (4400m,14,450ft), all meals



Starting high on the plateau, the Reting begins as an alpine stream before quickly building in volume and intensity.  If snow melt and rain brings the water up this run has superb waves and is a great introduction to big volume Himalayan-style rafting.   If the water level is low the water is a stunning blue and the run becomes more technical.  The river provides a great mixed of relaxed floating and whitewater action suitable for all experienced rafters.

For maximum river time we drive another 10 kilometers (6 miles) up from camp in the morning and float back downstream, pass our camp then raft about 14 more miles of nice Class II/III water to a great camp on a grassy bench high above the river, where our truck will have delivered our camping gear and our crew will have set up camp.  The river flows swiftly and the 20 miles go by quickly.  Even with a leisurely lunch we have plenty of time to enjoy our camp. The views are great and we may have visitors from the nearby community coming to see what we are and share who they are.

Camping (4350m,14,250ft), all meals




This is a fantastic river day, with 15 miles of beautiful boating, starting with a long Class II section that builds up into III and III+ and then a challenging Class IV.  The morning run is our quietest stretch of river yet, but by lunch time the river gets back to its fast-dropping ways.  It’s a great section of continuous action in an amazing setting.  The Upper Reting Valley is remote and foreigners rarely visit this valley.  Its sandstone canyon is broad and rocky, with layer-cake sedimentary strata, steep cliffs, juniper forests and vertical swaths of yak-forage turf.   We float by nomad camps, small villages and countless yaks!  Don’t forget to look up at the spectacular craggy peaks on both sides of the river valley.

The campsite is something to write home about.  Perched well above the river like the previous night, it overlooks a big rapid that you can scout from your tent.  With a stream running through it, gnarled and fantastical junipers, and strategically placed granite boulders, it is a terrific spot.  That’s without even considering the view of soaring cliffs, mountain crags, distant peaks, and  friendly villagers from the nearby hamlet.  We have enough time in camp to appreciate all of this, perhaps even walking up to the village to see the water-driven prayer wheels powered by the creek along which we are camped.


Camping (4300m,14,100ft), all meals



The day starts with eight more miles of fun on the river, including several Class III rapids. We take out at lunch time, pack up the equipment and drive 4-5hrs to Lake Namtso.  The road takes us over Laken La, a 5190m (17,130 ft) pass, complete with Buddhist monument and thousands of prayer flags flapping in the breeze.  As we drive towards the pass, the tower-like bulk of Samding Kangshar, completely draped in snow, dominates the horizon.  As soon as we are over the pass, we start to see parts of Namtso Lake’s 2000 square kilometer (770 square mile) extent.  We head down to our campsite on the shores of the lake after 4-5 hours of driving.

In the evening we drive over to the Tashi Dor peninsula that juts out into the lake, where we can wander among small chapels and old hermit caves, with mani (prayer stone) walls, stupas, stupendous reaches of prayer flags draping hills and natural rock formations, and, unfortunately, a heavy dose of modern Chinese tourist facilities.  This is a very popular destination for Chinese tourists visiting Lhasa (though we see few westerners there), with many hotels and restaurants and trinket stores, so when we are sated with the place we can drive back to our peaceful campsite, perhaps stopping along the way to marvel at an amazing high altitude sunset, with alpenglow on Samding Kangshar in one direction and Nyenchen Thanglha (7162m, 23,500ft) in the other, and on the horizon a spectacle of glowing golden clouds and backlit sharply-featured islands.

Camping (4760m,15,600ft), all meals



This morning we’ll wake to one of the most spectacular views in Tibet. After breakfast we board our bus for the 5 hour drive back to Lhasa.  We are gradually reintroduced to civilization as we drive through increasingly larger towns on well-paved roads, regularly passing tour buses headed the other way.  We stop for a picnic lunch along the way.  We should get back in time to have a few hours for last minute shopping and packing for the trip home.  We will enjoy a group farewell dinner at a good Tibetan restaurant.

Dekang Hotel (3650m,12,000ft), all meals



Transfer to Lhasa airport for our flight to Chengdu (not included in the land cost of the trip).

In Chengdu you can connect through for home (please do not book a flight with a departure time before 1 PM), or if your connection requires going into town we can set up transfers, lodging and even tours for you.

You might also consider leaving Tibet via the spectacular high altitude drive from Lhasa to Kathmandu with its close-up views of Everest and other peaks, monasteries and unbeatable scenery.  The trip takes five days, and we can make full arrangements for you on request (see below).

Breakfast only



  • Wantok leadership on the trip and planning assistance before it
  • accommodations in hotels or inns in cities and villages
  • all arrangements in the field, including camp meals, cook staffs, group gear and rafting equipment
  • wetsuits/drysuits/splash jackets for the river
  • all meals from dinner Day 1 to breakfast Day 12
  • sightseeing and activities as noted in the itinerary
  • ground transportation
  • monastery and monument entrance fees



  • international airfare to Chengdu
  • domestic flights within China (Chengdu/Lhasa round-trip, about $600)
  • insurance (see Insurance section below)
  • optional tipping off-river and to leader, guides and river staff
  • airport transfers if arriving earlier or later than trip dates
  • excess baggage charges
  • airport taxes
  • personal items like drinks, laundry, souvenirs, etc.


If at the end of this itinerary you are interested in joining a four-wheel drive trip to Everest Base Camp (on the Chinese side) and on across the Nepal border and to Kathmandu, it appears that it will once again be possible to enjoy this trip in 2014.  For the past three years, the Chinese government has not issued permits to do the overland trip.  Please let us know if you are interested in this option.


Depending on group size we will have oar boats, paddle boats, oar-assisted paddle boats, inflatable kayaks and hard shell kayaks (by special arrangement only) available.  You’ll be asked on booking to let us know your boat preference.  Here is some information on your choices:

  • Oar Raft—Oar rafts are piloted by your guide pilots with long oars from a center-mounted aluminum frame. Ample space allows for lounging in calm stretches, and in the whitewater you can hang on and enjoy yourself. (Three to five passengers)
  • Paddle Raft—The sportiest of crafts we put on the water, everybody handles a paddle while the guide steers and gives directions from the rear. Paddling together is essential to finding the right run, and team work begets success. A thrilling way to brave the rapids! Helmets required. (Four to eight paddlers)
  • Oar Raft with Paddle Assist—The most agile of any boat. Your guide powers the raft with two hefty oars on a rear-mounted frame, while the crew wields single blade paddles up front for added horse-power. Helmets required. (Two to four paddlers)
  • Inflatable Kayak—Also known as Duckies, inflatable kayaks float low to the water, putting you in touch with the pull of the current and splash of every wave. Several single inflatable kayaks are available. Helmets required. (One paddler)


Most of this trip is spent above 10,000 feet, and we sleep one night at 15,600 feet.  Acclimatization takes place on the approach to the rivers.  We fly into Chengdu for a night, then into Lhasa, then spend two days sightseeing there.  By the end of that period most people will be ready for activity at high elevation.  If you have had previous difficulty with altitude sickness, please discuss with your doctor the possibility of taking Diamox or a similar drug to facilitate adaptation to the altitude gains.