Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sneaking into Tibet

Heading over to the bus station the next morning I still felt a little dissatisfied with my plan to just head back to Ganzi- sneaking into the Tibetan Autonomous Region sounded like a lot of fun. But I knew that if I did go into the TAR it wouldn't be easy.
Visitng Tibet the "proper" way required getting a permit from the Tibetan Tourism Bureau, which could only be acquired through travel agencies in Beijing, Chengdu, Xining or Golmud in Qinghai or Zhongdian in Yunnan, and then there were only certain routes and modes of transportation you could take from those places into Tibet. Even if I had the permit the only legal way I could enter Tibet through Derge was if I was on a seven day long travel agency-organized land cruiser trip with a tour guide that originated in Chengdu and went all the way into Lhasa.
The problem of sneaking into Tibet was compounded by the fact that I would have to sneak through eastern Tibet, all of which is restricted to foreigners. To enter eastern Tibet foreigners require 4 additional permits, including a military permit. There permits could only be gotten through travel agencies in Lhasa, Chengdu or Zhongdian, and for the entire trip you would need to be accompanied by a guide and have your own transport. Foreigners are not permitted to take public tranbsport in Eastern Tibet. Part of the reason for these restrictions- which once covered most of China- is that eastern Tibet has a very large military presence. There are 200,000 Chinese troops stationed in Tibet, many of them in the east, to monitor the disputed border with India. Most areas near the border are totally forbidden to foreigners. I also suspect that part of the reason foreigners are restricted is that the Khampas of eastern Tibet are so rebellious, and that in the past the CIA supported their rebellions. However, despite the daunting-sounding restrictions, the penalty for getting caught was not high- at most detention for a day and a $60 fine, before getting sent back.
Avoiding getting caught would require some physical hardship. I would probably have to hitch with trucks and avoid large towns, and it was unlikely that I would get to see many sights along the road. Parts of the northern Sichuan-Tibet highway, which I had been followeing so far, passed through the high, frigid Changtang Plateau of northern Tibet. It was only early October but even then the Changtang was certainly far too frigid for me, since I didn't have a winter coat. It was already pretty cold in Derge. The Southern Highway had its own problems. To get there I'd have to take a little-used road that had few cars, and even if I did get there I would have to pass through a series of military towns, where the police were particularly wary of foreigners. Such a journey would cover over eight hundred miles and pass about six mountain ranges and four of Asia's largest rivers. As much as I wanted to see Lhasa, I was in no mood for such a long journey into unknown territory, especially given that it might all end with a fine and a return ticket to Derge. More and more foreigners were successfully completing the trip, but people were still getting caught and a lot of drivers were still unwilling to take foreigners. Given all this, I was sure that going back to Ganzi was the best plan. So instead of heading towards the road to the the TAR, where I would have tried to hitch a ride with a truck, I went to the bus station.
However, on the way to the bus station one of the many cars that idled around the bus station trying to entice passengers away from the buses drove up and asked me if I wanted to go to Jomda, the first town into the TAR. I asked the driver if it was OK.
"Yeah, why not?" he told me with a smile.
I had heard that drivers would get fined $250 and lose their liscence if they got caught with a foreigner, so I figured if this driver wasn't afraid, what the heck- I shouldn't be either.
So I got in the car (with 6 other passengers- it was tight) and we headed toward the border. There was supposed to be a checkpont right across the river, and I felt a little nervous as we got close to the bridge. There was nothing there. I got to Jomda without any problems.
In Jomda I was a little anxious- I had heard that the local police had questioned the very few westerners who had passed through before- but no one bothered me. Every time I stepped outside I attracted a huge crowd, the biggest I've ever attracted in China, but no cops seemed to notice. Just after getting there I met a couple of Chinese girls named Zoe and Jasmine and a Taiwanese guy named Jared who had just taken the bus into Jomda and who themselves had just met. They were also going to Lhasa, albeit at much less risk than me (at least assuming the police didn't recognize Jared as Taiwanese, which was not likely). In addition, they were also in a rush to get there, and were also going to swing down to the southern highway to avoid the cold of the north. Travelling with them seemed better than going on my own, so I asked them if I could travel with them. They said of course.
After lunch we tried to find a car to take us to Chamdo, the next town over and traditionally eastern Tibet's political and economic center. Administrative centers tend to be more strictly controlled than other cities and I had heard that foreigners without permits shouldn't try to stay there, but the Chinese wanted to since the hotels there would be better than those in smaller towns. I figured it was better to take the risk, if it meant I would have travel companions.
We got into Chamdo around midnight, and immediately had trouble finding a place that wasn't too expensive, wasn't full and was willing to let me stay. The last place we checked was the guesthouse by the bus station, whose manager told us that the police searched the hotel for foreigners every morning. Zoe and Jasmine told her that I could get up early to avoid them, but the manager wasn't swayed. "It's not worth the trouble," she told us.
By this point it was 1 AM, and we were afraid that we'd be unable to find any place willing to take me. I was exhausted, and it seemed like I might not have any option but turn myself in to the cops. I didn't want to give up after just one day. Luckily we found some shopkeepers who said they knew a place that would take me above a small restaurant. The restuarant had already closed, and they had to bang on the restaurant's door for about ten minutes before the owner came out and let me in. It was probably the nastiest, dirtiest and smelliest place I have ever stayed in China. The bed was at least an inch too short for me. At $1.25 a night it was in my opinion seriously overpriced, but seeing that it might have be the only place in Chamdo willing to accept me I didn't want to risk bargaining.
Jared was very concerned about the place's fire safety- it seemed unlikely that we'd make it out alive if there was a fire in the rickety, mostly-wooden building. I was too tired to care about that sort of thing though, and was bothered more by the sound of rats behind the walls and the toilet stench that permeated the place. I figured that I had taken bigger risks so far during this trip than sleep in a place without a good fire exit. The bedsheets were extremely dirty and stained with god-knows-what, so I slept in my sleeping bag and put a shirt over the pillow to protect my head. Jared generously agreed to stay there with me, although he could have stayed in the slightly nicer place by the bus station with Zoe and Jasmine. In the end I didn't feel too bad though- the bus station guesthouse turned out to be little better.
The next day we ran into another problem. We were going to take a bus down to the southern highway but the driver refused to let me board. I would have preferred to take a car, but with only four of us it was too expensive. Zoe and Jasmine argued with the driver for a while, until he finally agreed to pick me up if I waited for the bus in a village several miles outside of town. "If the cops catch you, don't tell them I told you to wait for me there," he told me before I left. The cops didn't catch me, and the bus picked me up without any problems.
The trip went pretty smoothly, though the driver called out "hide the foreigner!" several times as we passed police stations and checkpoints. Jared, who sat between me and the window, would close the curtain, and I pulled my hat over my face and hid my hands and pretended to sleep, in case a cop came on the bus. It felt pretty absurd, but it was all I could do. The driver was probably taking something of a risk in letting me on his bus, and I felt I had to do whatever was necessary to give him peace of mind. When I wasn't hiding my face from the cops I watched the stunning scenery, which included two mountain passes and the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which eventually flows to the east through Vietnam, and the Salween, which flows south through Myanmar. At one point we made a seemingly endless descent of over a kilometer, down innumerable switchbacks.
In Pasho we again had trouble finding a hotel that would take me, and Zoe and Jasmine yet again had to argue with someone for my sake. Finally they got the bus station hotel manager to relent, probably because the small town we were in was not as stringent as the regional center of Chamdo. Again, I got a warning, this time from the hotel manager: don't leave the bus station compound where the hotel was located. I was feeling more secure, however, and went out with the other three for dinner anyway. No one bothered us.
Most of the towns between Pasho and Lhasa had reputations for being dangerous for foreigners in the eastern TAR without permits. I hoped we could finish the trip in one more day, in a long, 500 mile haul. My companions- who of course weren't worried about getting caught- weren't quite as keen to pull such a long haul. Luckily on the bus to Pasho we had met two other Chinese guys who were. Hiring a car was faster than taking the bus and with six people not much more expensive, and my companions knew that it was less risky for me, so we agreed to hire a car together with the other two Chinese guys. Our next destination was Pomi, a little over a hundred miles away. We left at 7 am, before the sun had risen. On the way there we passed the pretty Rawok Lake, where we stopped for breakfast at a noodle shop that was covered in traveller's graffiti. I left my own message for the cops.
We got to Pomi around noon. There was a fair number of soldiers there, and my travel companions would move to try to make it harder for them to see me when they passed by. We quickly found another car and headed out with another two people without even having lunch. The scenery along this next stretch felt a little weird after the high passes and grasslands I had spent most of the last two weeks travelling through. We were near the Brahmaputra River, which flows through Tibet before cutting a deep gorge through the southeastern part of the plateau and spilling into the lowlands of India and Bangladesh. The road dipped suddenly on this part of the route, taking me below an altitude of three thousand meters for the first time in weeks. Suddenly we were driving through thick, humid subtropical forests, though after a couple of hours we suddenly began rising and the forests again thinned out and became more alpine. Around seven o'clock we arrived at the most dangerous town for me: Bayi.
Bayi literally means 8-1, which refers to the date the Chinese army was founded. It felt unnaturally clean and slick after all the rough and dirty towns I had passed through since leaving Chengdu. Its police have a certain notoreity for their hostility to western travellers, though to be fair I have heard that the situation has eased up quite a bit since the raiload opened. Despite that, and in spite of the cheery insistence of the Chinese girls that I wouldn't have a problem since China wants to attract western tourists, I didn't want to spend any more time there than necessary. Luckily, I again wasn't the only one who wanted to move out as quickly as possible. The other four Chinese all wanted to get to Lhasa that day, which if we left immediately was just doable. We still had about 250 miles to go, but the roads were all good and there were few passes. In five or six hours we could be in Lhasa, and I would be home free.
Once we had a car lined up, and we had pulled out of Bayi (again without eating anything, except some oreos). I was ecstatic- Bayi was the last obstacle; afterwards no one would care. The police never checked permits for foreigners already in Tibet; they only checked when you were getting on your plane, train or bus.
Unfortunately, before we were more than an hour out of Bayi, we ran into a very large problem. We were stopped at a checkpoint and the cop there refused to let us go on. Apparently our driver had already made a trip to Lhasa and back that day, and according to regulations he could not do another trip on the same day, especially that late at night. One of the guys we picked up in Pomi insisted that we needed to get there that night because he had a plane ticket for the next day, and most of the others were pretty eager to get the trip overwith as well. Several of them got out to argue with the cop. Jared also pointed out that it would probably be harder for me to get through if we stayed in Bayi for the night- assuming I could find a place willing to take me.
The arguing went on for a long time. Luckily it was dark by then so the cops couldn't see me, but several times one of them came over with a flashlight and looked in. Every time this happened Jared quickly pushed my head down below the seat and tried to cover me up with a backpack. The driver's boss came and joined the argument, and when that didn't work the driver called then the boss's boss. I'm not sure what exactly happened- I think Zoe and Jasmine really wanted to wait for the next day, and the two Chinese guys we just met were also inclined to stay, though less insistent- I think they also realized that it would be harder for me if we didn't finish the trip. The police kept saying "rules are rules," and seemed unlikely to give in, but eventually a compromise was reached. We all paid extra money and a new car and driver came over. I'm not sure if they all agreed to the deal with me in mind, or if everyone actually really did just want to get the trip overwith. When the new van came I put on two hats to cover my hair as well as my face. One of the Chinese guys guided me over to the new van, which was luckily in the shadows, when the cops weren't looking. Once I got in he immediately pushed my head down, and I spent another 20 minutes crouching as the final details were worked out. Again the cops came over, but they still didn't notice me, and finally we were off. It was around 9:30, and we didn't get to Lhasa until 3 the next morning.

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