Tibet is a nation encased in a cocoon of mystery and wonder. It is a place with a thousand nicknames, each of which, only serves to further mystify the land. It is the roof of the world, the land of the snows, the Buddhist kingdom - a forbidden land straight out of our imaginations, and for many, the ideal venue for a spiritual quest. Tibet is situated on a plateau region northeast of the Himalayas. As a country with scant rainfall, short growing season, and a nation littered with political turmoil, the Tibetan people are lacking in many resources.
There is no industry in Tibet, only a few small enterprises. Different sources have pointed the per capita income of Tibetan citizens to be somewhere around $170-$300 a year, however recent developments may have lead to drastic improvements. The estimated literacy rate in the area is around 38% for men and only 13% for women. Many survive through subsistence agriculture and the rearing of livestock. A bulk of income is spent on fuel, few resources are left for education. NGOs and other volunteer organizations must have special clearance to work in the region. There is not a lot of official data, due to the isolation of the region, and because it is not an official independent territory. Most opportunities exist in education, and orphanage care.
Teaching Children: Schools in the region are understaffed and in great need of support. Your role will be to teach children who are underprivileged, most likely very poor or disabled children. The school staff generally supports volunteers by helping them understand the local curriculum, aid in developing teaching methods, and help with communication barriers. This is a chance for volunteers to help these children with math and english, as well as broaden their ideas about western culture. It will probably open your mind as well!
Teaching English: Tibet has a premature and underdeveloped education system. English courses are not offered in most primary and middle schools, and thus are not a part of basic education. Learning the language is important, and english is an enormous challenge for most students who lack this foundation. English teachers are needed badly in this region.
Orphanage Work: Poverty and nomadic lifestyles have forced many families to leave children behind. This is another opportunity to work with children by teaching basic English. Your impact here also reaches into the rest of the children’s lives. Volunteers work with the children playing games, engaging in creative activities such as music or crafts. Help is also needed in the operations of these centers. Help with sanitation, cooking, and administrative work may be requested of volunteers.
Planning Your Trip
- Questions to Ask: How many people will I be working with? What is an average working day? What amenities are available? Which nearby sites should I visit?
- Volunteering in Tibet is an adventure for the most daring and open-minded of travelers. Expect to be submerged in a truly isolated culture, and be surrounded by a strong spiritual culture. Tibet is a region in strong need of volunteers, and can offer something unforgettable in return.
Health and Safety of Volunteers in Tibet:
- High Altitude Concerns: Acute Mountain Sickness - Everyone reacts differently to the high altitude in Tibet, and generally you will not notice symptoms until you reach altitudes of 3000m. Common symptoms include headaches, lack of appetite, and difficulty sleeping. Drink lots of water and don’t be hasty in your travels. It is indeed a bad idea to fly into Lhasa and then head straight to Everest base Camp the next day.
- Travel Insurance: You should always travel with insurance but remember that Tibet is a remote location, and in the event of serious injuries there is a high chance that you will need to be evacuated by air. Make sure your insurance policy covers evacuation.
- Vaccines: China does not officially require any vaccines however the following are highly recommended: Polio, Rabies, Typhoid. If you are traveling from some parts of South America or Africa you will be required to be vaccinated for Yellow Fever. It is always best to get a travel consultation from your doctor.
- Warnings: Protesting to “Free Tibet” is not welcome here. Protest materials are not allowed past the borders. There have been reports of travel guides that contain maps displaying Tibet is not a part of China have been confiscated. Some travelers carrying picture of the Dalai Lama or even Richard Gere have been sent back to the airport and denied entry.
- Safety Tip: Register yourself on the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP). You will receive updates from the State Department about important news in about your country, and it will be easier to assist you if you lose your passport, or contact your family in case of an emergency.
Visas for Volunteering in Tibet:
China- To enter China you will need a Visa that expires more than 6 months from the date you enter the country. If you do not meet these requirements you will be deported and fined. You can apply for a one year multi-entry visa which is essential if you plan to leave the country to visit other localities such as Hong Kong and Macau. You need a visa both to enter and exit the country. If your visa expires while you are in China, you will not be permitted to leave and will need to apply for an extension.
Tibet- To enter Tibet, you will need to apply for a special permit that permits tourist travel, and you may still not be able to enter areas that are restricted. The easiest way to apply for a permit is through a local Chinese travel agent. The permits usually cost RMB 200, for a 3 month, single entry pass.
InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship
The InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship awards up to $10,000 to young Americans who are passionate about helping communities abroad thrive and are eager to learn about the local culture. Fellows identify a project or an organization working on an issue they care about, and with the support of the Christianson Fellowship, contribute their skills and passion to that endeavor for at least six months on-location abroad. This intercultural experience is a meaningful way to help others, improve skills, and gain insight about another culture.
United Planet Service Scholarships
Several scholarships are available for those looking to volunteer for a short or long-term period abroad with the non-profit organization United Planet, who work with communities in over 35 countries around the world.
High Mountain Institute Award
If you’re looking at one of the four High Mountain Institute programs to Patagonia, consider applying for financial aid. Your application must include tax forms from the last two years and will be awarded based on SSS (school and student services calculator) used by National Association of Independent Schools, which HMI is apart of. In addition to tuition and other travel costs, High Mountain Institute also provides discounted gear rentals to financial aid recipients.