03.08.2013 - 04.08.2013
Last summer, we fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to Tibet. In our case, it was third time lucky. We had come close to booking a trip there in 2011, but decided it was too extreme for our first overseas cycle tour. The following year, our plans were thwarted by David Cameron's handshake with the Dalai Lama, which didn't go down well in Beijing's corridors of power. Travel restrictions were imposed making it all but impossible for British nationals to enter Tibet. The rules were officially relaxed in April 2013, and four months later we were on a plane to Lhasa.
Even before setting foot on Tibetan soil, it had lived up to its reputation as a difficult place for travellers. The Chinese government may have eased the visa restrictions, but entry requirements for foreigners can change on a whim and tight controls are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Over the years, many intrepid travellers have tried to bend or break the rules to enter Tibet. Most fail, but those who succeed usually have a good story to tell afterwards. As this blog will hopefully demonstrate, you can even spin a decent yarn if you follow the official procedures.
Our Tibetan tour was the first leg of a month-long trip to China, the second leg being a cycle tour in Yunnan province. With 10 days set aside, we had time enough to venture beyond Lhasa to other parts of Tibet. (The photographs that accompany the blog are from in and around Lhasa). This would seem entirely natural to you and me, but Chinese bureaucrats are sensitive to strange folk wandering around their far-flung provinces and impose a whole series of tiresome rules and conditions.
Firstly, we would need to secure the services of a licensed guide, who would accompany us every step of the way. The guide would also help to arrange our travel documents with the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The Bureau issue a Tibet Permit to all travellers and an Alien Permit to those travelling beyond Lhasa. (Being labelled an alien in Tibet makes UKIP's immigration policy look broad-minded.) On top of this, we were responsible for obtaining our Chinese visas.
The visa application system involved a certain degree of subterfuge, because we had been advised not to mention Tibet on the visa form. So for the purposes of obtaining the visa we devised an alternative itinerary, listing every night's accommodation, which sounded wonderful but was complete fantasy. Rumours vary as to how thoroughly this would be checked. Some people even go as far as booking the first few hotels only to cancel them once they receive their visas, but we decided to chance our luck, and it worked.
With guide, visas and permits all arranged, the final hurdle was getting in. Tibet's land borders, both domestic and international, are typically closed to foreigners, so most people circumvent this problem by flying in. With the exception of a seasonal service from Nepal, there are no international flights to Tibet, so flying from anywhere outside China involves a transfer at a Chinese airport and a domestic flight. We chose Chongqing, not for its beauty as a stopover destination, but because it's a relatively central hub with good value international flights and good connections to both Tibet and Yunnan.
Chongqing, with a population of 30 million, has been christened the biggest city you've never heard of. Its heavy industry and coal-fired power plants also make it one of the most polluted cities in the world. When the writer Simon Winchester reached Chongqing on his journey up the Yangtze, he described the air as "usually like that of Leeds or Dundee in Victorian times, with a sharp smell of half-burned coal gas, rust, scorched tin and dirt." In other words, not somewhere you would wish to spend any longer than necessary. With that in mind, we arranged our onward travel to Tibet the same day our international flight arrived, a decision which almost came back to haunt us.
The system seems to rely on foreigners spending at least one night somewhere else in China before entering Tibet. This allows the necessary permits, which must be produced at the point of entry, to be forwarded to your Chinese hotel ready for you to collect on arrival. Furthermore, if you are flying into Tibet, you need to present the original permit at check-in – a copy will not suffice. After a series of protracted email exchanges in broken English with various Tibetan tour agencies, we found one that assured us they could take the highly unusual step of arranging for a courier to deliver the permits into our hands at Chongqing airport's domestic terminal, in the six-hour window between flights. Our entire holiday hinged on us trusting that this one individual, who we had never dealt with before, would present him- or herself at the right place and the right time with the right documents. What could possibly go wrong?
The prearranged time of 11 o'clock came and went. My palms were going sweaty, and I had visions of our Tibetan dream slowly evaporating, to be replaced by a Chongqing nightmare. I made eye contact with a woman as she entered the building. She approached me directly and we exchanged greetings. I couldn't tell you what she looked like or what she was wearing, because I was completely focussed on the big envelope tucked under her arm. Our permits had arrived! Wide-eyed and trembling, I snatched them uncontrollably from her hands and cried "Myyy preccciiiouussss!" in a creepy, lustful voice. Or something like that.
We brandished the permits at check in, and were waved through to departures. At security, there was a problem. Uniformed officials gathered, frowning. We showed the permits again, and the officials immediately relaxed and ushered us through. After repeating this ritual several more times - there is definitely no way of boarding a plane without the Tibet Permit - we finally made it onto the aircraft, much to our relief.
The Chongqing to Lhasa leg takes just under three hours. Somewhere below us was the middle of nowhere. Thick cloud cover obscured most of the views, but occasionally we were granted glimpses of towering peaks, awesome glaciers and long valleys that disappeared into the distance. These were the Hengduan Mountains of western China, which eventually gave way to the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. The final descent into Lhasa airport was memorable, the plane sweeping low into the wide Yarlung Tsangpo valley, turning sharply over a pinnacled ridge and aiming for the runway, dwarfed by the mighty river alongside.
It had been a day of drama, and now our Tibetan adventure could finally begin!