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Tibet: Getting there is half the fun


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

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.

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Barkhor Square, 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.

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

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.

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

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.

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

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.

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

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!

The Hengduan Mountains from the air

The Hengduan Mountains from the air


The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:01 Archived in China Tagged planes tibet visas Comments (0)

In pursuit of the perfect Potala Palace picture


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Lhasa takes your breath away, quite literally as we discovered when we stepped off the plane at 3,700m. Canisters of oxygen were provided in our airport transfer car and next to the minibar in the hotel room, but being experienced in the acclimatization business we refused to succumb to their temptations. After 24 hours of suffering we were ready for Lhasa, and Lhasa was ready for us.

The Potala Palace also takes your breath away: not only for its scale (1,000 rooms, 113m high and 2m thick walls), but also for its dramatic setting and dizzying construction which make it quite unlike any other building in the world. Even seeing it for what felt like the hundredth time, our eyes were still drawn magnetically to it; such is its captivating power. Capturing this emotional response in a photograph is impossible, of course, but that didn’t stop us from trying. And so we embarked on a quest for the perfect Potala picture.

We used an early drive-by as a reconnaissance, checking out the light and shade on the Palace walls, imagining the trajectory of the sun and assessing the promising backdrop of mountain peaks. An elevated viewpoint to the south west of the Potala seemed promising, and a quick non-Google search (this is China, remember) revealed this to be King Medicine Hill. We hatched a plan to return early the following morning armed with bagfuls of camera gear.

The following morning was overcast, but undeterred, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the viewpoint. We were dropped off some distance short – at first I thought we were about to be victims of a scam, but in fact this was as close as our rickshaw could get. Security around the Potala was tight, for this happened to be the first day of the Shoton Festival and a big show was taking place that evening in the square in front of the Palace, featuring live performances and a fireworks display. We paid 2 yuan each to climb the steps to King Medicine Hill and reeled off a few photos of the Potala under brooding skies. We knew the photos were nothing spectacular, but they were 'bankers' and might look quite effective in black and white.

Potala Palace in monochrome

Potala Palace in monochrome

The same website that had given us the name of the viewpoint also mentioned a small temple nearby which afforded another view of the Potala from a slightly different angle, so we headed there next. Events took a turn for the bizarre at this point. The temple kept two tame blue sheep (a wild species normally found at high altitudes in the Himalayas). Here was an animal I had spent many hours tracking across remote mountain slopes in India and Nepal in a vain attempt to photograph, now practically tame enough to eat out of my hand. I knelt down for an eye-level photo (at this point a pet rabbit had taken shelter under the sheep’s body, adding an even more surreal aspect to the scene). The blue sheep faced down my camera lens and charged – I had to take evasive action to avoid a head butt. Round one to the sheep, but it wasn’t finished there. Clearly thinking I was a rival worth seeing off, the sheep made repeated attacks on both me and Jen, and only by grabbing its horns could I stop it. Salvation came in the form of a friendly local, clearly highly amused by proceedings, who managed to distract the sheep with some food, allowing us to dodge into the temple. The photos of the Potala from here, it has to be said, were not really worth the effort.

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Early afternoon saw us back at King Medicine Hill with our fingers on the shutters again, this time with the Potala looking resplendent in the sunshine. We had just finished our guided tour of the Palace: all tourists are allotted a one-hour time slot, such is the popularity of the tour. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the Palace, but there are plenty of interesting angles as you climb the switchback stairs to the main entrance, and we covered them all. Now we had a set of classic Potala images, and we thought that was that.

Potala Palace in the sunshine

Potala Palace in the sunshine


Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

But the quest was not over. Our Tibetan guide Phurpu mentioned how impressive the Potala looked at night, when the whole building is floodlit. Suddenly our mission seemed unfulfilled without that night-time shot. Musing over this problem at a local café later, it struck me that if I could get on to the roof of the hotel, I would have an unrivaled view of the Palace from another angle. I’m not sure guests are supposed to go on the roof, given that it involved crawling through an access hatch at the top of the stairs, but I was proved right. Now all was set!

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Dinner came and went and night began to fall. Over in the Potala Square, the various dignitaries, officials and army officers were assembling for the Shoton Festival show. Just when it seemed our quest would be fulfilled, the weather decided to intervene. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning signalled a major storm was about to hit the city. I fired off some shots of the Potala before the rain arrived, beautifully floodlit and looking magnificent. Yes!

Potala Palace illuminated at night

Potala Palace illuminated at night

But my ultimate Potala Palace photo is none of the above. In fact, it’s an image I hadn’t conceived and didn’t even realise I had taken. As the storm raged outside I caught another sound in between the thunderclaps: the fireworks had begun. Wouldn’t it be cool to capture the Palace and the fireworks in the same photo, I thought. With the rain now pelting down (those poor Chinese dignitaries), I found a window at the end of the corridor outside our hotel room which afforded a good enough view of events, braced myself against the window frame and began to reel off some continuous shots of the fireworks exploding, hoping to capture the perfect moment. Well I got it, and then some: it seems God himself decided to partake in the display. It’s not sharp, but it’s a one-off!

Potala Palace lightning strike

Potala Palace lightning strike

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:19 Archived in China Tagged photography tibet lhasa potala Comments (2)

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