Tibetan Connections is a tour company catering to adventurous souls looking to experience Tibetan regions. While we in the West think of Tibet as only one region with Lhasa as its capital (aka the TAR or Tibetan Autonomous Region), there are large Tibetan communities in the Amdo Region (parts of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces), the Kham Region (parts of Sichuan Province) and the Dechen Region (parts of Yunnan Province). The Chinese government has been putting various (and difficult to understand) limitations on travel to the TAR so if its Tibetan life and culture you're interested in, as well as beautiful landscapes, then traveling to these regions is a very good option.
Travel to these regions much more off-the-beaten-path and does take an adventurous spirit and flexibility.
Tibetan Connections is an operation that is run out of Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. The management and staff are all ethnic Tibetans and they specialize in small groups and individual travelers from outside China. We were on a family trip with two small children and so accommodating us was not difficult. However, they specialize in more adventurous travel like trekking, camping with Nomads and photography tours.
Booking a Trip - How it Works
If you're thinking of visiting these regions, you can of course follow bus routes and depend on public (and limited) transportation. You will find little spoken English in many of these places and maybe a bit more Mandarin. If it's within your means, I highly suggest using a car + driver and a guide. In this way, you'll be in control of your itinerary and have a guide who can communicate with you and answer questions that you will undoubtedly have.
If you know where you want to go, then get in touch with Tibetan Connections directly. If you aren't sure, have a look at their various itineraries and see what you think looks good.
Contacting Tibetan Connections
There are various ways of contact:
Tibetan Connections Guides
Tibetan Connections guides are all local Tibetan people. They speak Tibetan, Mandarin Chinese and some foreign languages. Guides can lead groups in English, French and Italian.
Guide Notes - My Experience with Tibetan Connections
When I decided to go to Amdo (Qinghai Province) I got in touch with several tour operators to see what kind of 4-day itinerary they'd offer me. We wanted to base our stay in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province and then take day-trips every day to see different things. I was making my decision on two things - the guarantee of a Tibetan guide and a decent price. I really get annoyed by many tour agencies that charge extremely high prices just because you are foreign.
To give an example - I sent the same inquiry to Tibetan Connections as well as a Lhasa-based tour company called Travel West China. Travel West China quoted me roughly three times the fee for a very similar itinerary. I can not imagine what the difference in service level would be aside from the guide him/herself. The car might be a little nicer but we'd be traveling on the same roads, seeing the same sights. I can't imagine that a better car and more experienced guide is worth three times the price.
I found the staff with whom I communicated about the itinerary knowledgeable and responsive. He guaranteed that we'd have a local Tibetan guide and he was very happy to be flexible in our itinerary. Flexibility is something I always insist on as when you're traveling with children, you just don't know how each day will be. In our case, this was important. As it turned out, we were all suffering from altitude sickness on our first day in Xining (2,300m) so we decided to change the itinerary to visit Qinghai Lake on day 2 instead of day 1 to give us a chance to acclimatize.
They were very happy to accommodate us.
Our guide was extremely friendly and helpful. The kids really liked him by the end of our visit. While culturally knowledgeable and very willing to answer questions, his experience as a guide was lacking. He could answer some of our questions but he didn't have the wealth and depth of knowledge that I was hoping for. Some of this can be attributed possibly to his command of English.
Bottom line: Even though I wasn't totally satisfied with our guide's ability, I will probably use Tibetan Connections again. Visiting these regions is difficult to do alone and I think they do have great resources to assist in adventurous trips.