Start of the Tibet adventure: from Xiahe to Lhasa

Lhasa, Tibet – a dream and yet we are almost there. We’ve done our best to adjust to the altitude we’ll be at. All it takes now is to get to Xining in time to pick up our permits for Tibet and to board our flight to the land of snows.

Labrang monastery in the morning with two Tibetans walking the khora.

Labrang monastery in the morning with two Tibetans walking the khora.

The trip begins in Xiahe with a LP-recommended scenic bus ride in a tiny bus and on a road that is all mud and potholes. We endure for 2.5 hours until we reach Tongren, or Repkong by its Tibetan name. We’re now more than 2000 km away from Hong Kong where we landed four weeks ago. Nothing here is like the China we imagined before we started planning this trip, and it is not like we imagined after reading the travel guide either. There are no curved roofs, no red lanterns, no signs with golden characters. The LP stresses the Tibetan influence, the proximity of a Buddhist monastery and the possibility to buy original Tibetan art, seemingly forgetting everything about the unmistakably strong Muslim influence we meet everywhere we walk.

And I am not even tall at all!

And I am not even tall at all!

Somewhere in the middle of China we may as well start to believe that we are in Australia.

Somewhere in the middle of China we may as well start to believe that we are in Australia.

Xining, another four hours away, is one of these Chinese cities with more than a million inhabitants that no one has ever heard about. Navigating public transport here is a new challenge – there is no pinyin (transcription of Chinese with standard letters) but only Chinese sign characters. A friendly old woman on the bus keeps us updated of where we are so that we don’t miss our stop. As we walk around the city to pick up our precious Tibet permits, we are stared at more than anywhere else. We cause a commotion and a lot of giggling when we walk into a small hairdresser’s shop to have Mr. Colors’ beard cut for the first time since several weeks.

What the hack are those Tibet permits?
Access to Tibet is regulated by the Chinese government. Around big Tibetan festivals, the area is often closed altogether. At other times, there is a (changing) set of rules to observe. In 2013, the main requirement was to have a valid visa for China and to book a tour through an accredited travel agency. We had to book a guide for every day in Tibet and a driver for every day spent outside Lhasa. Of course, there were restrictions on the travel route too. In the previous years, there were more complicated rules about the size and constellation of the group. A main difficulty was that it is not recommended to mention a planned visit to Tibet in the visa application. Yet, we had to submit a full travel itinerary with proofs for hotel bookings and flight tickets when we applied for our visa. We did some research on the web and came up with a fake itinerary, booked hotels without cancellation fees and cancelled all of them once we arrived in China. It worked even though our return ticket was from Kathmandu and we had to, rather unconvincingly, claim that we were going to leave China via Hong Kong anyway. Most travel agencies have information about the current situation on their web pages.

We also cause a commotion at the check-in counter for our flight to Lhasa. We are the only foreigners at the airport and we are hastily announced to someone over the phone. We are nervous about our Tibet permits. We only learned the day before that, according to these documents we are both designers; the agency through which we booked our tour thought that our real professions were not appropriate. And of course we can’t read what the papers say. But luckily, all goes well and with several hours delay we finally arrive on the roof of the world, ready for three awesome days in Lhasa and a road trip to the border with Nepal. More coming soon.

In the days that follow, we'll be walking the khora many times.

In the days that follow, we’ll be walking the khora many times.

Time of visit: August 2013

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This article was published on perelincolors.com

15 thoughts on “Start of the Tibet adventure: from Xiahe to Lhasa

  1. donnaevaligia

    Actually this year the permits were even worse: part of the trips closed off from one day to next, checking in the PSB DAILY, denied to go any close to pilgrims, denied to enter Far Western Tibet because we had been in Eastern Tibet already. The cherry on the cake were 7 policemen with a squat that entered our hotel room in Kongpo Gyamda at half past midnight after having interrogated the guide and driver (and we had duly registered 3 hours before). China is making it very difficult and unpleasant for non Chinese.

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    1. perelincolors

      Oh, I am very sorry to hear that! We only had one weird encounter with a policeman there who “recommended” us to eat in a certain restaurant and not the other. Don’t like at all what the Chinese are doing there.

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      1. donnaevaligia

        Yes, we were very sorry. There is this thing when you travel in Tibet about how you realize how amazing and unique the place is and at the same time your stomach turns at seeing what happens. Every five minutes we would say I do not want to come again and then the opposite. We had already been a few years ago and we realized that now most of the travelers are chinese, so I think that the government does not depend anymore that much on foreign tourists, so I do not know if things will ever be more relaxed; eventhough many people said this was because this was the Horse year so heavily charged with pilgrims.

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      2. perelincolors

        Personally, I am still undecided if I would ever like to go back to Tibet. The landscape is amazing and it is such a special place because it is so remote and so deeply religious. But then I could barely stand the sight of surveillance cameras everywhere we went or that feeling of knowing that I can NOT ask the guide everything I am interested in because I might put them in danger if we are overheard. On the other hand, while I am not sure if I would go again myself, I would recommend everyone else to go as soon as they can – I fear that the time when it will still be possible to experience Tibetan culture is way too short and I also believe there is no better way to spread compassion with these people then to have people go there and see the country.

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  2. Anne

    I love your blog:) My husband has an aunt and uncle who are very Buddhist and want to travel to Tibet with us next time we are in China to visit family. I’m so excited about the idea, but my mother-in-law thinks we shouldn’t do it at all because it’s in such an unstable situation. We’ll have to see what it’s like next time we’re in China.

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  3. perelincolors

    Thank you! Going to Tibet as a Buddhist or with someone close who is must be even more wonderful. If you can, you really should do it! Or, if the situation on the plateau is too unstable, you could visit the Labrang monastery in Xiahe instead, it is also very beautiful. I have a post about it and the previous commenter also has a lot of interesting impressions and pictures from western China on her blog, maybe you can have a look at it too (it’s camelandcats.com) if you want to explore that area with your family.

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  4. Jill's Scene

    Oh, this is a very interesting post for me. I’ve wanted to visit Tibet for a long time now … but I fully expect if I do get there I will have very mixed feelings about the situation.

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    1. perelincolors

      I hope you will find an opportunity to go there! It’s not easy to travel in Tibet with what the political situation is and I think every western traveler is bound to sympathize with the Tibetans. But it is all worth the effort – both to see the landscape and to learn about Tibetan Buddhism.

      Liked by 1 person

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