Seven days in Tibet

Trip Start Jan 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 30, 2012

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Flag of China  , Tibet,
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finally, the journey between Dunhuang and Lhasa was far more straightforward as I had feared. In the morning, I took the bus from Dunhuang to Golmud, a 11 hours-long trip on precarious roads. During the construction of the railway Xining-Lhasa (the highest railway in the World), Golmud was the logistic center of the site. Now it looks like a prosperous modern city, but there are not many interessant things to do...

Arriving just before dusk, I first went around the city to have diner and buy some supplies (food and water) in prevision of the 1.100 km-long trip to Lhasa. It was not really the distance that mattered but the time I would need to make this journey, depending on my luck to find a ride (since I did not have permit, I couldn't buy a train or bus ticket).  After 2 hours around the city, I started walking South, toward the beginning of the road to Lhasa. After one hour walk, I saw the first check-point, where policemen were standing in the middle of the road and controlling every car and truck. I thought it would be then easier to hitch-hike after the checkpoint, and I ventured in the desert to bypass it. It was 11pm and it was full moon. It was better to find my way, but on the other hand I was at higher risk to be spotted, so I had to make a big detour, far away from the road. Finally, I came back on the road and walked another 2 or 3 kilometers to be out of sight from the check-point. It was then midnight and I prefered catck some sleep before beginning the very long journey, and I pitched my tent in the desert, a dozen meter away from the road.

The next day, I woke-up before down, took 20 minutes for packing, and was before 7am back on the road to start hitch-hiking at the first lights of the day. I was ready to wait a maximum of 24 hours for a ride, considering that after this period, the chance to get a ride would be almost null. Then, I would try another way, like going to the bus station and give a bribe to the driver for him to accept taking me... But I did not have to wait so long... Or I was amazingly lucky, or most of the drivers would take foreigners on this road (because they know what they want), but after only 30 minutes, a truck slowed down and the driver shouted "Lhasa, Lhasa... 200 Yuans !". I was still having breakfast, so I put on my stuff in my plastic bag and runned toward the truck. 200Y is around 25 euros, a very fair price for so long a ride, considering that the driver puts himself at risk, giving a ride to a foreigner. 200Y is even less expensive than the train ticket, and I know I would have paid 500 or 600Y for this ride...

Actually, there were 2 drivers in the truck. When one of them was driving, the other was sleeping, so together they could drive almost 24-hours a day, stopping only twice a day for eating and refueling. They put me on the passenger seat, but after only a couple of kilometers, I had to hide behind to go through another checkpoint. After, the road would be clear until Lhasa... The 2 drivers spoke nothing of English, so the journey was speach-less and very quiet. I spent most of the time watching the scenery, and since the road were along the new railway, I could admire the fantastic engineering work that was required to build it. We crossed all the Tibetan plateau, crossing a pass more than 5.100m high...

At night, I laid on the upper bed behind the driver (the lower was occupied by the 2nd driver) to try catching some sleep, but the road was too bumpy. However, at 2:30am, the truck stopped for good. It was raining and a landslide had cut the road. It gave me the chance to sleep a little bit. The 2 drivers slept together in the lower bed to leave me the upper. At dawn, I walked toward the landslide to see the situation. It was not a big one, so he did not take a lot of time to clean it. In about 20 minutes, after the workers started their job (around 8am), the road was clear. The problem was that the road was blocked on both side by the hundreds of trucks that had arrived during the night. Instead of waiting quietly in a single line, this stupid druck drivers had occupied the 2 lines of the road on both slides of the landslide. So, the road was theorically clear, but nobody could go, and he took the police a lot of time (and shouts) to move the trucks on a single line to allow people to go. We were already in the Tibetan region, so I was illegal, and I am sure some of the cops (and soldiers) who were around spotted me, but they did not do anything. Moving the hundreds of trucks was probably a greater concern for them, than a lonely foreign traveller...

After 7 hours being blocked, we finally resumed the journey. After one last stop for breakfast/lunch, I didn't really know, we were now at 150 kms from Lhasa, and the drivers asked me to lay behind and put a blanket on me. The truck would have to pass several checkpoints before entering Lhasa... 2 hours later, they left me in the suburbs of Lhasa. I thanked and paid them, and took a minibus for the remaining 20 minutes to downtown Lhasa. Actually, Lhasa is a big city, and like evrywhere in China, it did not escape from modernization (50 years progress concentrated in 10)... Fortunately, the old city, although it was restored, still have some charm. On my way to the hostel, I tried to keep a low-profile, because a foreigner walking alone in the streets in Lhasa is not commun, since every foreigners must come with a tour, and that includes airport or train station transfers to the hotel. It was the most risky part of this trip, but eventually I arrived to the youth hostel without being asked anything by the numerous cops and soldiers in town.  I went to the reception and innocently asked for a bed in a dormitory :

"- Do you have a permit ?
- No.
- You cannot stay in any hotel in Lhasa without one !
- Yes, I know, but now here I am.
- ...
- What should I do, sleep in the street ?
- OK, give me your passport, you can stay here..."

In the hostel were mostly Chinese backpackers, and little foreigners, all of them on a tour. I even meet a French girl my age, who was waiting to start a trek with Nomade ( and woud go to Nepal after. They were also a group of Israeli/Swiss/English/Japonese who had bought a very expensive tour to visit Lhasa and several places toward the Nepali border, including the famous Everest Base Camp. Once in the hostel, my backpack securely in my room, I could breath again. Foreigners can freely walk in Lhasa, and there was little risk somebody ever ask me anything. However, most of the foreigners I saw in Lhasa were accompanied by a guide. There were even lonely travellers (but most were couples) who had a guide...

By the way, Lhasa is a very touristic city. Thousands of Chinese travellers can be seen everywhere (there are no restrictions for them to travel into Tibet), and as I said before, many backpackers. It was very interesting to meet them, because they remembered me the ones in Brazil. It is funny to see that the youths of 2 emerging countries (China and Brazil), but which are in all sense opposite one with the other, actually behave the same. To summarize, in both countries it is the very new generation that backpacks (below 25 years old), they have a good education, speak some English and for most of them already travelled, or even studied abroad. The only difference is that Brazilians backpack in neighbouring countries (mostly in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru), while Chinese backpack in their own country. These 2 countries are part of the BRIC (acronyme for Brazil Russia India China, the 4 emerging superpowers). Now, I have to travel to the 2 remaining countries (India and Russia), to see if the youths behave the same. It would be great !

Since there were little foreigners, and all of them on a tour (except Fanny, the French girl who was waiting for the group to arrive from France, as she was travelling for 6 monts), it was difficult to make friends. On the other hand, as I said, the Chinese here had some English and somehow were much more open that the average Chinese citizen (probably because most of them already travelled abroad), so it was woth a try to socialize with them. And it worked actually, I joined them for diner and asked for advice for the rest of my trip toward the Nepali border.

Actually, it looks like that the trip from Golmud to Lhasa was the easiest part. There is still around 700km to go to reach the Nepali border, and as I heard, it is heavily policed. Foreigners are not allowed to take public transport, so most of them take private land cruisers for the 17 hours-long trip to the border, sometimes making it a 4 days tour stopping en-route. But the price of this tours are expensive, and they won't accept me on board since I do not have permit. While in Lhasa, I evaluated the possibilities. I went to the Nepali consulate to apply for a visa. It was not necessary because it can be obtained at the border, and although it won't be a "laisser-passer" through the checkpoints, I thought it could help showing it if I am caught : "I am leaving anyway, I am leaving the country, I am leaving !".

Meanwhile, I spent my time exploring the city : the old city, the nearby monasteries, some walks in the hills. Like the rest of China, every touristic place are unfearly overpriced, but somehow more interesting than elsewhere in China. I succeeded entering for free in a couple of monasteries (using the famous back-doors), but the Jokhang temple was worth the splurge (10 euros). Only the Potala Palace, once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama before he fleed to India in 1959 after the invasion of Tibet by China, I could not visit because they ask for the permit. If I were really motivated, I would have scanned the permit of Fanny and changed the name with paint, but everybody who have been there told me it is not worth the 12 euros entrance fee (and enduring the massive queue). Instead, I walked around and I believe it was enough to feel its domination over the whole city.

I have been in Tibet for almost one week now, mainly resting in Lhasa before starting the possibly long and risky trip to the border. This afternoon, I pick up my Nepali visa and tomorrow I will be back on the roads. My idea is trying to give a bribe to a bus driver or taking a shared taxi to Shigatse, a city half-way between Lhasa and Nepal, because some Chinese told me that the checkpoints are after. Once in Shigatse, I will improvise. Maybe I can try to hitch-hike a land cruiser or a truck, maybe public transport might work after all... I have another solution in mind, but will use it only in last resort.

I still have 11 days on my visa, it is probably enough to make this 600 kms journey, whatever the way I make it...
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