Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nam Tso

On the way back to Lhasa from Ganden I met some people planning on going to Nam Tso. Nam Tso is one of Tibet's holiest lakes and premier tourist sights. However, it is a four hour drive from Lhasa, and since there are no buses going there tourists have to hire a car. Zoe had already been there and Jasmine and Jared weren't sure if they would go, so I figured I ought to see if it was possible to go with these people.
They had actually already gotten a group together, but there was some uncertainty over whether everyone would actually go, or how many people could go. One of the people I met on the bus from Ganden was a German guy who worked in Changchun. Like Thomas, he had worked in China for a couple of years and was tired of it. I also met a Swedish couple who were taking a long break from work and a French man who spoke almost no English- he was perhaps the only caucasian I met on this trip who did not speak near-fluent English. After getting back to Lhasa we ran into a fifth person from their group, an American named Chris. Chris later told us that he had been travelling for five years straight. He spent most of his time in Asia, especially in China, Nepal and India. Before he began this trip he had worked for four years in the States, and before that had travelled for another four years. He was able to afford this partly because he spent most of his time in India, where he claimed he only needed to spend $30 a day.
The German man, the Swedish couple, Chris and I spent much of our evening checking out the various tourist agencies and trying to hunt down the other people who had said that they wanted to come along. Dealing with these agencies reminded me of why I generally avoided going on tours- comparing all the deals and trying to figure out which one is the most honest is invariably a pain in the ass. On top of that some of the agencies we went to didn't even think going to Nam Tso would be possible because of heavy snows at the pass we would have to go over. (Ironically, before the road to Nam Tso got paved cars could go even when it snowed; now when it snows cars can't get enough traction going up the pass just before the lake.) The German man and I were afraid that some of the travel agents were trying to rip us off by giving us an overly optimistic story that would be disproven only after driving for three hours, after which they would demand payment from us anyway.
In the morning we finally found the other five people in their group and chose an agent. In addition to the people I had already met there was another, very quite American, a couple of Dutch people and a British couple who taught English in Taiwan.
Our experience with the travel agent was weird to say the least. Since we had so many people they got us a large passenger van that could easily fit 12 people, but they insisted that they could only take 10 of us. The reason, they explained, was that there might be a problem with the traction if we had too many people and ran into snow. I volunteered to not go, since I was a little wary of getting ripped off, and very tired to boot- we had met at 7 to make sure that we had enough time to choose an agent and leave on the same day. But when I started heading back to my hotel the driver called me back and asked me where I was going.
"There's too many people so I'm not going," I told him.
"Oh... well, it won't be a big problem, you can come."
I was a little confused. "Won't there be too many people?" I asked.
"No, it won't be a problem." he said.
I'm not sure why he changed his mind so suddenly- perhaps he thought it would be good to have at least one person he could communicate with come along, since he didn't speak any English. A few of the others could speak some Chinese, but I seemed to be the best and had thus far been entrusted with a lot of the communicating with the travel agents. Either way, after we all got in the van the driver tried to raise the price from the agreed-upon 100 kuai per person to 150 kuai. I started getting out of the and, realizing that none of us, including myself, were that desperate to have me along, he said "OK, OK, 100 kuai." I got in and we set off.
When we had about another hour to go the driver suddenly turned to me.
"I know the guy at the ticket booth," he said. "I can get you in for free. But you will have to give me the money for the tickets now."
Of course that sounded good to me, but I didn't think it seemed right for me to get in for free while everyone else paid the 80 kuai entrance fee. I told the others what he said and suggested that we just split the savings among ourselves. They didn't like the idea anyway, because the driver wanted to collect the ticket money and get the tickets himself. We were all already a little paranoid after they had changed their minds about how many people could go, tried to jack up the price, and heard some travel agents tell us that it was impossible to go to Nam Tso. In addition, the driver's insistence that we had to pay so soon before arriving at Nam Tso didn't jibe with what some people had heard from people who had already been there. However, when the driver told us he could actually get two free tickets, rather than just one, we all finally agreed to his proposal.
After another half hour we reached the Kong La pass. This was the highest point on my trip- we went up to an altitude of 5,190 meters, and while I didn't feel any problems from the altitude I felt every one of those meters in the weather. It was shockingly bright, and the wind blew hard for the entire time we were at the pass. I was better dressed here than at Ganden but the wind cut through my extra layers anyway. To one side were snow-smothered mountains, while to the other was the massive deep-blue Nam Tso, set against the white and tan mountains and fields.
Upon arriving at the shores of the lake the driver announced that we would leave after only forty minutes. We were pretty pissed about this since we had been promised four hours, but the driver said there might be a snow storm. There was nothing we could do but agree. We spent our time wandering the beaches and taking in the beautiful, ocean-like waters of the lake. We all agreed that going there was worth it, despite the hassles we had gone through to get there.
On the way back to Lhasa we got more weirdness from the driver. When we passed through a town we asked if we could stop, and he said OK. However, he just kept driving, until we reached a random bridge in the middle of no where and stopped.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Didn't you want to stop?"
"Not here! Let's just keep going."
When we got back to Lhasa the travel agency manager again tried to get us to pay 150 kuai per person. I got a bit angry, but the driver quickly told him that we had all already agreed to 100 per person.
To top the day off I went with the Swedish couple- who were quite friendly and maybe the only people I met who were my age- for yak steaks, finished off with lassis. For me, right then, Lhasa felt like the most luxurious place in the world.

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