These days, the only way to get into Tibet (or more accurately the Tibet Autonomous Region) is on a Group Visa. It was therefore as one of a merry band of twelve (rapidly assembled by a small tour company in Kathmandu) that I approached the Nepali-Tibet border earlier this week.
In sharp contrast to the gentle transition from India to Nepal, the shift from Nepal to Tibet (China) was abrupt, and full of incident.
The lackadaisacal Nepali approach to life is reflected in its border controls; friendly officials made the necessary stamps in our twelve passports, smiled sweetly, wished us well, and waved us across the river that marks the border at Kodari.
And… welcome to China. Immaculate shiny white walls embossed with Golden chinese characters. Officials looking, well, official, in smart olive-green uniforms. Brand new electronic scanning machines lined up ready to gobble up and spit out the odds and sods of our luggage. Heat sensitive body scanners at the customs point.
This was, of course, all to be expected. Less predictable were the white-coated face-masked medical staff hustling us into lines and preparing for a series of Swine Flu tests. Body temperature was the chosen method of testing; an imposing nurse with a blacksmith’s forearms thrust a thermometers at each of us, commanding us to despatch them under armpits. A couple of us mused on the fact that the prospect of failure was enough to raise the temperature of the hardiest traveler.
Two of our group (Italian girls) did, in fact, fail at the first hurdle. Three painful hours later, they were let through, much to our collective relief. It had been a nervy period.
We later found out that we were exceptionally lucky. The previous group that had come from Kathmandu had been in quarantine for three days after one of their group had been a solitary centigrade above normal body temperature and had confessed to having a bit of a snuffle. As we drove off into the heart of Tibet, we passed the hotel where the quarantined group were being held, complete with officials in full head-to-toe white bodysuits loitering outside.
At that point, the group were only halfway through their ordeal – they were eventually released after six days when it was established that Italy did not, in fact, share a border with Mexico. They caught up with us in Lhasa, bemused but in excellent spirits, and full of amusing tales. The official story can be read here; a less official (but harmless) story will, I am told, be contained in a rap on youtube (recorded while under quarantine) by the end of this week. (14.07 – Now available).
Through Tibet on a shoestring
The Friendship Highway is the name for the remarkable road that connects Nepal to Lhasa across the Tibetan plateau, above 3500m for most of the way and rising to over 5200m over half a dozen passes. Long stretches are either still under construction (or suffering from rapid and near-perpetual disintegration); beleagured Tibetan workers line the road day and night marshalled into action by military-clad officials.
The landscape is unforgettable. There is a tangible sense of being on the roof of the world. We gained altitude rapidly, tumbling over farmtrack-standard roads in three 4x4s, skirting round below the Tibetan base camp for Northern approaches to Mount Everest.
I was relieved that I had effectively acclimatised during my trek; others were less lucky. Our first night was spent dangerously high for the uunacclimatised at 4300m, leading to five of our party feeling thoroughly rotten for days.
Over the next four days, we saw many faces of Tibet. We visited magnificent Buddhist monasteries, marvelled at views south to the Himalayas across barren steppes, and stayed in depressing high altitude ghost-towns whose streets were filled with alcohol-sodden Tibetans. The contrasts and contradictions here are many.
We arrived in Lhasa yesterday, sweeping along the broad boulevards that have been constructed as the city shifts to being a de facto part of China. Nothing, though, can detract from the splendour of the Potala Palace and the amazing sight of pilgrims from across the region prostrating in front of the Jorkhang temple. But as Lhasa starts to sprawl Westwards it is very definitely becoming a modern Chinese city. The majority of the population are now Chinese, and a walk through the commercial district today revealed branded western shops like Nike, Kappa and Adidas jostling with emerging Chinese brands, even a luxury watch shop offering Rolexes. Perhaps the supreme irony (in a city initially constructed around the Buddhist philosophy that desire is at the root of all suffering) is the existence of a Playboy store in the heart of this ancient city.
It will take a while to assimilate all the impressions from the past week, which is probably a Good Thing. The cast of characters in our group have been tremendous fun and ensured a positive attitude; and with nine countries represented (DE, SWE, AUS, CZ, SLO, US, UK, BRA, ITA), certain national characteristics have been flamboyantly and most amusingly flaunted.
Much as I would love to stay here longer, it appears that this is impossible so I will leave in a couple of days for Golmud in Qinghai province, an “incredibly isolated city, even by the standards of Northwest China” that, so my guidebook tells me, is “definitely worth a look, if only for sociological reasons”.
(“Technical problems” in China mean that it is hard enough to post anything at the moment, let alone pictures – but some will follow in due course when/if things ease up.)