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on the West side of China lies Tibet. An enormous and controversial province that is the home of the Tibetan people and has been controlled by China for something like 2000 of the last 3000 years.

Look. I’m not a historian. Check it out on wikipedia if you’re interested.

One of the goals of our trip had been to go to Lhasa by the new high-speed and high-altitude train that opened in 2006. The train reaches an altitude of 15,000 feet, crossing a plateau of permafrost and is a marvel of modern engineering taking only 48 hours to reach Lhasa from Beijing.

Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and site of numerous uprisings, the home of Tibetan culture and history and close to massive mountains – much bigger than anything we have in the lower 48. It promised to show a different side of Asia in people and culture.

Getting to Tibet as a foreigner is a bit of headache. Even though it is a part of China, it is heavily controlled and foreigners need a special permit that can only be arranged by a travel agency that also has a connection in Tibet. And while it used to be true that foreginers could just sign up for a tour to get the permit and then go their own way once they got into Lhasa, that is no longer true. Many “sites” like the Potala Palace will not let you in without a guide and if you are caught outside of Lhasa without a guide, you can get into a lot of trouble. There are numerous reports of foreigners being verbally and physically harassed by the police.

Yes, Tibet is still very volatile for China.

Of course, this isn’t really spelled out in too many places. The Lonely Planet’s information is out of date and of course when a TA tells you this, you think they are just trying to get more money out of you. We don’t like tours. We didn’t want a tour/guide. But in the end, it is almost your only option (there are reports online of foreigners sneaking in but we’re a little too risk adverse for that)

We had heard from travelers that there were numerous places to arrange trips from Lijiang, but this turned out not to be the case. Almost nobody in Lijiang could arrange travel and the one place we did find that would help us wanted 18,000 yuan (roughly $3,000 USD) for the three of us for a 4 day trip.

So I headed online to a few places I had heard about through LP’s message boards but again, they were all pretty expensive and I spent hours trying to figure out what we really needed and what was the “upsell”. Did we really need a car? Should a guide cost 1000 or 1600 yuan for 3 days?

Many TAs told us flights did not exist to Lhasa from Shangrilia, made even more confusing by the fact that Shangrila’s airport is called Diqing. Others told us the flight left on different days. Even I went online and found flights that would exist on one day but not the next.

When we finally confirmed flights on the 19th did in fact, exist and found a travel agent that seemed honest and knowledgeable, the flights on the 19th sold out. We’d have to go on the 21st, which means we’d arrive in Beijing, where we were meeting Mrs Chow, later than expected. We finally bit the bullet and decided that was OK.

When we first started this, we though we would be able to get airline tickets, permits and hotel in Lhasa for around 1600-2000 yuan per person, but with the requirements of a guide a inclusion of train tickets back to X’ian, we were now looking at about 4000 yuan per person! And I was having this nagging feeling that we were rushing it. I was reading reports of police on all street corners of Lhasa and us going all the way there and not getting out of the city, but at the same time, when would we ever be this close to Tibet? When would we have this chance again?

It hurt, but we decided to go for it. We told the TA that we were in and I was ready to give my credit card.

And then he informed me that he didn’t take credit cards or paypal, both mentioned on his website as acceptable forms of payment. He wanted us to wire the money to his private bank account. To make matters worse, I was arranging this all online and via phone. Steven Chen was located in Chengdu.


How do we know he is legit? How could we trust him. We would need to go to a Chinese bank with a fistful of cash and have them wire the money. I was angry but determined to find a way to determined whether he was legit or not. We had come so far. I searched online for other reports of him but didn’t find much. I posted on lonelyplanet.com but didn’t get much back. Steven sent us his business license and Mr Chow and I even went to the local police for help but there wasn’t much they could do.

In the end, we gave Steven an ultimatum that we would only pay by credit card.

We didn’t hear back.

At that point, as determined as we were, we needed to put Tibet out of our mind. We were spending our days trying to figure this out and the stress was causing us to not enjoy the place we were. We cleared out mind of TIbet and moved on and signed up for a trek of Leaping Tiger Gorge for the next day.

We went to sleep and woke up the next day to an email from Steven saying how we could pay through paypal using our credit card. We had an hour to do that AND scan our passports and email the images to him before we left for LTG so he could get the permits in order.

We rushed around, packed, and tried to find a place to scan our passports but everything was closed and we had no time. It was one more shot in the arm and again we failed. We never heard from Steven again. No more follow-up emails on when he could expect payment or similar and I’m guessing he just gave up. I’m an optimist in I believe Steven was legit but it wasn’t worth the risk.

We tried again in Shangrilia to arrange travel but the cost from here was even more (about $640 per person) and by this point it was easier to just say no.

It sucks. The whole experience was very frustrating and even since I’ve had similar experiences, but I guess that is just the cost of doing business here. Nothing is quick and nothing is straight-forward.

In the end, we’ve decided that to do this trip right, you’d really want to venture out into the rural Tibet and maybe make your way to Nepal and trek around there as well. We would have been shorting ourselves and spending a lot of money to do it. One day we’ll come back, maybe with a couple kids, and do it that way. And hopefully Tibet won’t be as volatile as it is today…


One Response

  1. thanks for the post – not really what we wanted to hear! but very useful as we approach China


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