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Penny-wise Lhasa Diary

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/12/07; December 7, 2001.]

Tourist Who Knows Price of Everything in Vain Quest for Value on World's Roof

By T. Digby, Shanghai Star. 2001-12-06

The Potala Palace

ENVY the backpackers. They have little money but lots of time. I have little money and little time.

They can take the K282, which leaves Shanghai Railway Station at 7:48pm and arrives at Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, 39 hours and 17 minutes later, at 11:05am. They may choose the hard seat, or, if "splurging" (to use backpackerese), treat themselves to the hard sleeper.

I have only six days, and must be back in Shanghai on Tuesday morning. There is no alternative to flying. The ticket to Chengdu is 960 yuan ($115) one-way. I get this discounted (group) fare from BeautyTour@China.com (Tel: 6213-1627). No agency will go lower.


The rather austere China Southwest Airlines, which has a monopoly on domestic flights into Lhasa, serves no beer or liquor on board.

On arrival at Chengdu airport, I take the airport bus (10 yuan) to the China Southwest Airlines office on Renmin Nanlu.

I walk to the Traffic Hotel at 77 Jinjiang Lu, next to the Xinnanmen bus station, securing a dormitory bed for 40 yuan ($4.80).

I approach one of the travel agencies downstairs to book my monopoly Lhasa tour (mandatory for all Tibet-bound tourists). There are six agencies operating in the vicinity of the hotel, and all offer the same 2,700-yuan ($325) deal.

The assistant tells me that the monopoly "Four-day Lhasa City Tour" includes a one-way flight from Chengdu to Lhasa; transfers from Chengdu to Chengdu Airport, from Lhasa airport to Lhasa, and back from Lhasa to Lhasa airport; three nights in a dormitory bed at the Snowland Hotel; and two days of sightseeing with guide (entry fees not included). She explains that I must buy my own ticket out of Lhasa, but may leave the Tibet Autonomous Region whenever I wish.

The agency takes a Xerox of the photo and visa pages of my passport, and faxes them to the authorities. I wait half an hour. When permission comes th rough, I pay, and a receipt is handed to me. I am told to wait at the entrance to the hotel at 4:50am for transport.


The transfer to the airport proceeds as planned. A guide is waiting; I hand over the receipt, and he gives me my air ticket and Tibet Travel Permit. I note with satisfaction that I am not asked to pay airport tax - it seems to be included in the tour price.

On arrival at Lhasa airport, my first act is to buy an oxygen canister. This costs 45 yuan ($5.40), much higher than the downtown Lhasa market price, which ranges from 18 to 25 yuan. But I am sure I will need it, and many more canisters besides.

I board the bus and chat to other tourists, who tell me they have never seen their Tibet Travel Permits. As a result of some administrative error, I have been issued with the actual permit. I proudly produce it, to admiring glances. But within a few minutes the guide cottons on. I surrender it, with regret, for it is an attractive document gilded by many important-looking red stamps in both Tibetan and Chinese.

As the bus makes its one-and-a-quarter-hour journey to the city, I begin to find it difficult to breathe and experience dizziness and nausea. Naturally, I have neglected to take out travel insurance.

Regular oxygen infusions from my canister prevent me from fainting, but a fellow passenger is not so lucky when we stop for a yak photo-op. I give him some of my oxygen. He recovers but begins vomiting.

Watching us writhing, a woman of my own nationality sitting at the front of the bus remarks that an average of two foreigners a year die of altitude sickness in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Sickbag in hand, I thank her for the information.

On arrival at the Snowland Hotel, I am shown to the dormitory I am to share with five others. My headache worsening, I throw myself onto the bed.

Before closing my eyes I catch sight of a notice posted on the dormitory door. It advises that if guests wish to appropriate any article they find there, they must pay. Among the listed items are: thermos flask (priced at 140 yuan), pair of teacups (30 yuan), water closet (450 yuan), washbasin (300 yuan), bathtub (750 yuan).

Although tempted, I decide not to purchase the water closet, as the maximum check-in baggage allowance for China Southwest Airlines is 20kg.


The Lhasa City Tour begins one and a half hours late, at 10:30am. In the morning we are taken to the Potala Palace, and in the afternoon to Sera Monastery. Later the guide takes us to a souvenir shop run by a friend of his. This is helpful: there are so many trinket pedlars in the Barkhor that it is difficult to make an informed choice, and these well-qualified, professional guides know the best shops.

The tour finishes at about four, so there is time to book my flight. I do this at the China Southwest Airlines office. There are direct flights to Shanghai from Lhasa every Monday and Friday at 1:45pm. The price is 2,310 yuan ($278) one-way.


The tour, which starts only one hour late this morning, takes us to the Norbulingka (Summer Palace); in the afternoon, we go to the Jokhang Temple. As a bonus, we are taken to a carpet factory owned by a cousin of the guide. I do welcome these shopping opportunities.

At 4:00pm, I proceed to the TPFITMRCTTB (Tibet Plateau Foreign Independent Travellers Management and Reception Centre of the Tibet Tourism Bureau) on the second floor of the Snowland, and present my air ticket in order to receive a voucher for the airport bus.

The clerk indicates regret: as a matter of TPFITMRCTTB policy, the voucher can only be issued the day before the flight. I reply that I am headed for Ganden Monastery and will be returning well after the reception centre closes. He adjudges that my request is egregious, and that to issue the voucher early would be highly irregular.

What might be described as a frank and fair exchange of views follows, after which the clerk reluctantly agrees to enter into consultations on the matter with a number of his colleagues. Eventually he escorts me to another office one floor up, where more senior officials confer before vouchsafing the voucher.

The airport bus talisman snug in my pocket, I cross the road to the Pentoc Hotel for a cup of coffee. But my guidebook warns: "Although the Pentoc is probably the best place to stay in Lhasa, it is rumoured to be run by Christian missionaries." I wonder why this counts as an objection. Perhaps the author prefers his hoteliers to be proselytising Lamaist missionaries.

I reflect that it is sometimes difficult to understand the complexities of the Western mind. Many Occidentals have rejected their own religion, a sure sign that they are losing confidence in their culture as a whole.

For dinner, I repair to Tibet Lhasa Kitchen at No. 3, Minchi Khang East Road, for a very passable Nepalese dinner. The latrines are bespattered and foul.


I report at 6:00am at Barkhor Square for the pilgrim bus to Ganden Monastery. This is not part of the TPFITMRCTTB tour but is arranged on my own initiative.

It is very cold during the two-and-a-half-hour journey (32 yuan round trip). The bus climbs to 4,500 metres along precarious tracks with sheer drops.

I am fearful as I look down. I think about death. For all that life can be hateful, for all the suffering, the petty slights, the lost hopes and dreams, the times I have been overcharged by travel agents or bested when bargaining in garment shops, I consider that, when all is said and done, I quite like this life.


I hand over my voucher to the driver of the bus outside the China Southwest Airlines office at 10:00am. The voucher is accepted in lieu of payment without demur. The bus leaves at 10:30am.

I board the aircraft a few hours later. The flight to Shanghai has two stops: at Xining and Xi'an.


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