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.
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.
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.
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.
Time of visit: August 2013
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