Monday, April 26, 2010

Trying Tibet

My first attempt to visit Tibet started back in August 2009. Faced with a 5 day work holiday, I couldn’t think of a better place to spend it than on the fringe of the Himalayas so I went to my internet travel agency and booked the tickets. A half hour later, I received a frantic phone call from the travel agency asking if I had the necessary travel permits - it seems that despite the fact that Tibet is an Autonomous Region, you can’t just hop on a plane and go there. Unless you’re Chinese. This surprised me a bit because I had just had a conversation with our local “expert” and he’d told me nothing about that. I told the travel agency to book the tickets and that I’d deal with the rest. And I went off to re-visit our local expert who had apparently felt that recommending hotels and doctors for altitude sickness treatment qualified as “helping me out.” On this visit he confirmed the need for a travel permit and added that you can’t have a travel permit without booking a tour.

I didn’t relish the idea of spending even a weekend with a bunch of tourists, so I went to the web and began to investigate agencies specializing in travel to Tibet. I found a host of them, and so I winnowed them down to the two or three most attractive. Shopping on the web for something like this is really hit or miss – you judge the capability of the company by the quality of their web site and hopefully some reviews written on web site such as Trip Advisor. The problem with the former is that any 15 year old in some foreign land with a computer and a credit card reader can call himself a “travel agency” and do nothing more than take your account number and buy a new motorbike. The latter, well my fellow travelers tend to be pretty dense when it comes to reviews complaining about important things like being unable log onto their Well Fargo account to check the interest on their savings account while staying at a $15 per night hostel in Urumqi. Rarely do you find anything useful. But given the nature of blindfolded travel, that’s all you have to work with so you take the next step and start some email conversations.

The next branch of the decision tree deals with your prospective host’s ability to communicate with you and their price. Communications are key, because if they can’t answer some specific questions via email then their English is probably not good enough to understand what you’re really after when the discussion gets down to brass tacks. Cost can be a good indicator and what I found with this little project is that the same package – get me at the airport, take me to the Potala and the Jokhang, drive me around the countryside, don’t force me to visit a Tibetan family and make joss sticks, and take me back to the airport – ranged for a tour of one, from $250 to $1500 with a statistical node between $650 and $800. You throw away the low end because you get what you pay for and you toss out the high end because they smell “sucker” and you get deeper into the negotiations with a couple in the middle. I spoke at length with one agent that fit all of my criteria and decided to use her.

One other roadblock was looming – somehow the travel papers had to be delivered to me. This was a deal breaker because first of all I don’t have a mailbox and second of all I can’t have things delivered to me at work. I was considering having it sent to a friend’s house when I hit upon what I thought was a brainstorm – I’d use a local travel agent and let her do the legwork. I called the gal up and she was more than happy to get things rolling. One minor detail, she wanted to book the tour as well. I agreed and put her to work. A week later, she returned with the package – it was well over $1000 and was through one of the more expensive companies that I’d discarded during my initial research. I thought about it for a while and decided that the difference – about $300 – was worth paying for ease. All we had to do now was wait – it was early September, I was planning on going the 2nd of October, and you can’t make an application more than 20 days before departure.

I went to work collecting and scanning the necessary documents – passport, residence visa and most interesting, a letter signed and stamped from my company guaranteeing that I was not a spy, journalist or government official. We were getting closer now but there was a storm cloud brewing on the horizon – the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China which happened to be on the 1st. The people in the travel permit agency were not terribly upbeat about my wish to visit a politically charged region on that particular weekend and so they began to drag their feet. What they were waiting for became clear a day or two later, the government banned all travel for the entire month. I cancelled my plane tickets, absorbing the fees and went back to planning.

With the end of my local assignment looming within the year, I decided in February that it was time to try once again. Starting again at the beginning, I re-opened my communication with an agent in Tibet and with the local gal, trying to see if there was a way to have my Yak burger and eat it too. I managed a nicely designed package at a reasonable price and I had the local agent working the angles on the permits and the flights. But again, a roadblock – the tour had to be booked through the person doing the permit, two could not do it. That $300 that seemed so reasonable 6 months prior didn’t seem so minor this time so I told the local agent to shelve the plan and I went to work on the internet agency. She’d do the permit, send it via express mail to a colleague’s home and I’d save the surcharge. Once again things were rolling; I made the plane reservations, fielded the frantic phone call for the second time and began to put things together.

A few more minor things popped up such as trying to figure out how to transfer the deposit between Chinese banks and the agent’s balking at sending the permit (she offered a dozen other ways from meeting me at the airport in Chengdu while I was transferring planes to leaving it at the hotel I didn’t have, also in Chengdu) but she finally sent it on its way and it arrived while I was home for a week visiting My Lovely Wife.

Travel is tricky in China, schedules change, flights are cancelled, and it’s far more hit or miss than it is in the west. To account for this, I never head out into the field without a lot of backup information. Usually I take the time to print out all the other flights available to and from wherever I’m heading so that if there is a problem I have enough information in hand to make some educated choices. That’s because when your plans go off the track here, they’re out in the field somewhere. No one speaks English, no one cares about you and getting an answer in an orderly fashion is impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up in a screaming mob of people just trying to figure out what they’re offering in ways of solving your problem. One the morning before my departure, I logged into my on line provider and had look at my options. For a reason completely unrelated to printing out my pages of options, I happened to take a look at my existing reservations and found that they’d all been cancelled. Except for the Chengdu – Lhasa round trip. In other words, the most impossible part to get was booked and the easy pieces were gone. I suppose at this point I had to ask myself if I was meant to go. Getting beyond that moment of weakness, I started scrambling, ordering the legs I was missing and having a friend order the next day’s portion because they would not accept a foreign credit card less than 24 hours before departure. Nice, create the problem and then punish me for it. I got it all together though and once again I was primed to go.

It was an early flight but I made it on time. Unbeknownst to me we had a stopover in my most favorite of cities, Xi’an and while it was factored into my timing, it was just another opportunity for a problem. We left Dalian on time and when we landed, staying on the plane was not an option despite it being a continuing flight. I left with the others and went up the jet way where I was met by a gate agent who traded my boarding pass for a green chit with a handwritten number on it. Now I gathered that this was my ticket back to the plane but I wondered how all those people were going to end up in the correct seats, this being a country where virtually no one understands the seat numbering system on planes. I got my answer a few minutes later – when they were confiscating the boarding passes, one person was handing out chits and another was writing the corresponding number on your pass. As I went by the gate, an agent pulled my pass out of a neatly spread out pile of boarding passes, each with its corner dog-eared up to facilitate grabbing. I was on my way again.

Flying to Chengdu was easy despite a late departure and my ever-shrinking layover time. I was expecting problems because I was now flying into uncharted territory, the place where my travel permit was required. Normally I’d go to a transfer desk and this time I went to what I thought was one. This girl did not want me spoiling her day so after much confusing conversation she wrote the range of check-in counters where I could get a ticket and pointed me away. It seemed that unlike every other airport, I had to go back out front and start over again. After running into 3 people from my department (in Chengdu on business) I got to the head of the line and surprisingly was granted a ticket. I left and went to security where things changed. It turns out that it was the wrong place – I was leaving from concourse C and this was B – but the response was far more ominous. The agent took my papers and yelled “Lhasa” whereupon a second agent came out from the frosted glass booth and sized me up. As it turned out, all that was happening was that they were bringing out the English speaker one of whose friends told me to “follow she.” This agent told me “go down there, you find it.” I tried for a bit more detail but got the same answer re-phrased, “you see it down there.” So off I went, wandering in a straight line until she was proven correct and I discovered the security station for the C concourse.

I played the line length game a bit and changed once only to discover that I should have stayed where I was. Except as it turned out, both of the choices were wrong and this became obvious when I got up to the desk and the agent told me to get in the Lhasa line. Now of course there was no line marked as such. Rather it was a third line to my right that had no entrance. It was delineated by black poles and red ribbons but there was no way in. Being at the front and considering that there was no one in it, I lifted the ribbon out of the pole and stepped through, handing my passport and permission letter over.

This agent was clearly groomed for the job. She didn’t speak English and she looked at the permit as though she’d never seen one before. There was some problem that the other agent had to translate but it was so insignificant that I can’t remember it now. The Lhasa agent took a couple additional scans of both of the pages, front and back, and just when I thought she was going to send me away, stamped it and handed it back. I was through! At least to the security check where I had a China first – removal of my shoes. That done, I was through.
It was now just a matter of waiting and of course the flight was late. I had a conversation with a couple of surly agents who clearly relished their jobs aside from the part about talking to customers. I asked if it was going to be an hour, he told me a half and I ended up being right.

Nothing was going to be easy today it seemed and the Buddhist monk in seat who (surprisingly) didn’t understand the seat numbering convention drove that point home. As did the conversation with the flight attendant concerning how Pepsi qualifies as a “cola.” The snack consisted of some interesting wheat crackers and a bag of Yak bouillon cubes. The view of the Himalayas made up for all of it though – cruising at 33,000 feet over 25,000 foot mountains is an amazing sight. I’ve seen the Rockies, the Sierra, the Cascades and the Coast Range. I’ve seen the Alps and the Appalachians. But I’ve never seen anything to stark, craggy, vertical and bare. Snow covered only where the sides were not so steep as to prevent it. They covered the view as far as I could see in any direction. Nothing like I’ve seen before.


We landed and I found my guide Tse Tan and driver Mr. Sung outside. Travel people are not allowed in the airport it seems. I was noticing the first effects of the altitude – walking up the jet way was a chore. It was steep compared to most, but not so steep as to merit my gasping lungs and pounding head. I was glad to get in the car and sit down. The airport lies a good 40 miles from town and the road is not up to the demand. It’s rough and it’s bumpy. But I tried to overlook it as we headed down a broad valley hemmed in by tall, sandy colored completely bare mountains. The road ran alongside the earliest bits of the Brahmaputra River, known here at its beginning as the Lhasa and later as the Tsangpo before adopting its Indian name and dumping into the Bay of Bengal some 1500 miles later. Chinese Mergansers and Mallards were bobbing in the calm pools while Greater Black-headed Gulls wheeled over the rapids. Big orange Ruddy Shelducks were just about everywhere.

The Buddhist influence was immediately obvious with shrines along the road and prayer flags decorating almost all of the willow trees lining the irrigation ditches. The top of every building had a stripped tree branch with flags, looking like a television antenna decorated for some festive holiday. Farmers were working the fields. The city kind of came out of nowhere, I found myself on a broad boulevard with the most unusual and ornate streetlights – like giant tulips fashioned out of yellow steel with white flowers. We drove into rush hour traffic and I was instantly struck by two things – not many cars and no tall buildings. Looking at it, you’d say you were in some small provincial town, not the capital of the province. While grimy on this, the Chinese of town, overall you did not get that same oppressive feeling you get from every other Chinese city. Crowning the feeling was the sky – blue with puffy white clouds. As we got into the heart of town and on the way to my hotel, I kept glancing up every street to my left until I caught a glimpse of what I had come so far and struggled to see - the palace of the Dalai Lama, the Potala. I knew I was here.




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