A dream come true! An experience richer and lost an illusion
24.08.2012 - 29.08.2012 22 °C
Still partly in (a good) shock by the news that we got our Tibet permit last night, we find our selves, 24 hours later, all packed up heading to the North train station of Chengdu to catch the train to Lhasa!
We had to tell the agency beforehand if we wanted to go by train or plane, since the train is a lot cheaper we decided on train (we were also told that apparently you have more chance of getting the permit if you enter by train). The train ride is supposed to be fenomenal as well, so not a hard choice. We decide on the plane back, since at the time of requesting the permit we didn't have the extension of our Chinese visa yet, and the expiry date was September first. Since the train takes 44 hours from Chengdu to Lhasa, (it's 3360km by train) getting the train back to Chengdu would have given us one day to et to Hongkong from Chengdu.
When we get to the train its super crowded! We wait a little while and after the regular passport and security checks, 20min later we board the train. We booked a so called soft sleeper compartment, the most expensive ticket there is, but the hard beds were all sold out already when we got to Chengdu and you really don't want a seat for 44 hours. We did 22 which is manageable for nice, but not two nights in a row. The soft sleep tickets cost € 130 /$ 175 so really for first class and 44 hours its not that bad. Set up is the same as the Russian train, 4 bed closed off compartments, this time there is a magazine in Chinese and English, a thermos for hot water, slippers for us to wear while in the train and even some flowers on the table.
When you buy a train ticket in China, you have to buy it with your passport, so they print your passport number on your ticket, probably so can't sell them further and make money off of it. It's quite a good system, since you can return your ticket at the station or a ticket office, until the day you go and get 95% of your money back. So when you enter the station there is a big gate with a lot of rail station people checking tickets and passports. So only people with tickets can enter the train station. Then, later when you actually board the train, they check your ticket and passport again, so you really cant just get onto a train and tag along. Once in our compartment we met our two Chinese roomies. No English, but at least nice people. Soon after the train personnel comes to ask for our permit. We only got a copy from the agency but it should do. It's funny, the first page is the actual permit with a big stamp, it looks very official, the second page is a list of the people that requested this visa. Since the rule right now is that you can only travel to Tibet in groups of 4-5 from the same nationality, this is of course what we had to do to. So there is five Dutch names and passport numbers on there, and the other three people "don't exist" is what they told us. They just use them to get us in. If they would ask us any questions about it, we have to say they went by plane.. But luckily all is good, no questions asked and since we left at night we went to sleep pretty soon after we left Chengdu. We're really n the way now!!
The next morning where quite a ways north already and at 15.00 we reach Lanzhou, where we've transferred numerous times already. A short stop here and two hours later we stop again. We have to switch trains. It's funny because the lady that manages our compartment doesn't speak a word of English, so she gets someone else from the train to come in to our room, to tell us that we have to switch trains and the train will be on the track across from where we arrive. And it is. Again we have to show are passport, ticket and permit and again, no questions asked. This new train is a lot more luxurious then the other one. Every bed has their own bed light, tv, electrical charging plug, sound control system, oxygen supply and air conditioning. Now we're talking but soon it seems nothing at all is working, not even the bed light. Bummer! We eat some of our own brought noodles, we looove noodles (not anymore :s), but its cheap and easy train food, so maybe the last time, out of a box that is. Soon after the scenery outside is stunning! Sand dunes again, green fields and blue sky, and not much later a beautiful sunset!
Next morning we get woken by our roomies, apparently there is something amazing to see outside. I get up, it's 7.30, and the excitement is the sun rising.. Not in a special way.. You almost want to tell them politely this happens every morning (they might have just nap ever seen it before) and I'm not too amused I'm awake now, especially since Jolijn was smart enough to ignore the roomies and turn around and is sound asleep again. But soon, the landscapes gets very interesting again, from green fields with cattle (yes we haven't seen much construction since yesterday evening, it's amazing), to lakes and mountains even! Then there is mountains with a little snow on top, and the further we get, the more beautiful this train ride becomes. This last part of this train ride is called the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the highest railway in the world. Almost 1000km of the tracks run higher then 4000mt altitude. It s only been operating since 2006. The highest point we reach by train is 5072mt, with snow capped mountains on both sides, in the middle of summer, it's quite a nice view! We are surprised there is not more snow to be seen, but apparently it's quite warm here at higher elevations, compared to the Alps or the Rockies. We pass Namco (Namtso) lake, apparently the highest salt water lake in the world (we thought that it was Titicaca), at 4718mt. Is it ever beautiful! We are very lucky with the weather too, because even though there is some clouds, the scenery is stunning and the weather make the colors of the landscape stand out beautifully. Slowly we get back to civilization, when we see more little 'villages' and when we pass some trains with big tanks andnother army equipment, we realize we must be getting close. Shortly after we pass a whole army base and 15 min later at 16.15 we roll into the Lhasa area. Lots of industrial sites first, then when we cross a river we get our first glimpse of the Potala Palace in the city center. The fact that we can see it already, shows the size of it. Lhasa is situated at 3650mt and is surrounded by mountains, although it doesn't feel like you're up that high.
The railway station of Lhasa is enormous and very modern, probably because it's not very old yet. Our guide is supposed to waiting for us on the other side of the square, but before we get there we have to get through the police control. We show our passport and the permit, he wants the original. We tell him that our guide on the other side of the square has our original permit and we get directed over to an area where more people are waiting. It's infested with policemen and army people here. Patiently (it seems to be the secret), we wait. There is about 10 others (all Chinese, we are the only two white people on the whole station) and we all get summoned to follow the police officer. Luckily we soon see a man that's holding a sign with our name on it. He has two white scarfs for us, it represents good luck. The police officer talks to him, but apparently he also only has a copy of the permit. The police officer takes of with Jolijn's passport and the permit and the driver tells us we will go to the car and then we have to go to the police station. Luckily we don't have to go in, only our guide does and 10min later we are on our way to the hostel. With 24 degrees its way hotter then we ever expected.
Our guides name is Nima, a real Tibetan guy with decent English which is good, since we will see him a lot the next three days. We get to our hostel, check in and have to check our room. It's a very basic 12-dorm hostel, nothing fancy, a little dirty, but nothing different then we've seen lately, so it s fine. but apparently our guide doesn't think it's find. When we get back to the reception we get a different key from a different room that we have to go look at. It's a private twin room and Nima tells us we can have this room for the same money. He thinks it's better, our stuff will be safer and we can sleep better. Okay.. Paying ¥55 a night (€6.80) instead of the regular ¥280 is always nice..
Nima gives us 30 minutes to freshen up, we can not shower, we don't understand why but it will make us sick he says, so we don't. The conditions of the bathroom and showers and very very poor in this hostel, you can't flush the toilets because there is not enough pressure at this altitude. Instead, there is a big barrel with a plastic bucket that you have to fill and throw in the toilet after you have been. You can imagine the smell..
Nima takes us out for supper, he asks used we want Tibet, chinese or western food. Of course, adventurous as we are, we say Tibetan and he takes us to a place, that we wouldn't have even found ourselves. It seems liked we were going into some ones home in an apartment building, but instead there is this little tiny restaurant, probably in a two bedroom apartment. Very funny. We order Tibetan noodles and sweet tea. Sweet tea comes in a thermos, the noodles in an individual bowl. Add chopsticks and very spicy chili and you're complete. Off course everyone is staring at us, but they are all very friendly, we get a very spicy potato wedge from our neighbor girls, and apparently the look (or the red ness on my face) makes her apologize and refill our cups of tea very fast. It's funny. People here really like and can handle spicy food! The food is good though, we really enjoyed it and the damage for three persons? ¥19.. (€ 2.35). Next to all the Chinese signs we have seen the last few weeks, here we also see signs that look like Arabic, but when we ask Nima its Tibetan. hey have their own dialect and written language. While we are walking through the streets of Lhasa we notice the insane amount of police and army people. Its infested! Literally on every corner of the street there is a police station where at least 5 policemen are sitting, besides that there is army people just walking on the streets with guns, shields and sticks. They do all seem friendly to us, but we feel bad for the people that live here. Nima tells us its been a really bad year for him as a guide, since there is barely any tourists, so not enough work. He also tells us how quickly everything is changing, new rules arise daily with no particular reason or explanation, admission prices rise insanely (apparently the Potala Palace entrance fee was ¥ 100 up until July 1st, now its ¥200; and it used to be free..) amazed by all these weird new impressions we get, he guides us back through the busy streets tour hostel, we have to have a good sleep because we have to be downstairs at 7am tomorrow morning.
But first... After Nima dropped us off at the hostel, we decide to go for a beer at a bar behind the hostel. We say Nihao and the lady asks us something in Chinese. We make a drinking motion, and she grabs another customer from her chair who speaks English. We tell her that we would like to drink something. Tea, water or beer? Beer please. The owner sits us down in two chairs and seconds later we get our beers. You never guess what brand.. Budweiser.... SERIOUSLY?? I could have imagined a lot of beers if they would not serve Tibetan beer, but American beer in Tibet? ....
It's still dark when we wake p at 6.30. We meet Nima downstairs at 7 and take a cab to the ticket office of the Potala palace. Still dark when we arrive, there is a huge line up already and even Nima seems to be a little shocked by this. The ticket office doesn't even open till 8 and there is 150-200 people already in line when we arrive. Apparently there is only a certain amount of tickets available each day, since it's a Unesco World heritage site now, it's protected by rules like that. The amount used to be 1200 but now, in the high season, it's 3500 people per day. A lot! We have to come personally to buy tickets because they are issued (like the train tickets) on passport number. Luckily for us, Nima knows someone in line and has us sit at the entrance while he sneaks in, way in the front of the line. At 9.30 we have our tickets and it's time for breakfast. Of course, Tibetan noodles and sweet tea. They don't seem to eat anything else, but we're fine since its soo cheap and delicious.
We then take the public transport bus to the Drepung monastery, 10km south west of the city. We're shocked by the amount of police and army people once we get there. And it doesn't stop there, there is cameras on poles and attached to the monastery an literally every angle. There is not a spot where you can stay out of sight of the camera.. Very weird feeling. The monastery itself is beautiful! Buddhists are very decorative in there temples and monasteries. Everywhere you look there is something, totally different than our 'boring' churches. The colors are amazing but it's so full that sometimes it looks very unorganized. Of course photos are prohibited, but we've seen that before in Xiahe etc, you don't take pictures because it's their sanctuary. Well, here it's a little different, you can take pictures, if you pay.. Depending on the importance of the room were in, price varies from ¥5-¥20 per picture. Now we all of a sudden feel turned of.. Here its not even about sacred anymore, it s about money! When we ask our guide, he explains that the government is the one earning all this money, it seems the monastery gets it, but in reality they only get a little bit. Also, the influence of the police and army we see all around probably also gives a good sketch of the influence the government has in these "holy" places.
Another thing is that before big statues etc there are always boxes to drop money into. The average believer here, walks around with a beed necklace in one hand and a pack of small bills in the other, to make sacrifices to the statues, their Gods. Totally opposite of what we have been taught with our Christian background. It's funny though, cuz Nima tells us that Buddists believe that if you do good in this life, you will come back as a richer person in your next life. Otherwise, if you steal, kill or do something else bad, you will be less fortunate in your next life. So, most Tibetan people try to do good, it just seems that everything else around them doesn't..
Like in the rest of China, very little English is spoken here. Some munks nod their head when we enter, some give us a smile but there is also a lot that don't even seem to notice/care. Like in the rest of China we are still celebrities, everybody wants to take pictures with us and at this point were far past done with this.. Even outside in public places in Lhasa, even on monastery squares, it doesn't matter where you look there is always a lens or a video camera pointed at you. After almost 4 weeks it's really not fun anymore and we can only imagine how horrible it must be for celebrities to be in the spotlights the whole time..
We stroll around Barkhor street, a very busy but well known market area in Lhasa. We get to a square where we will visit a temple. Jokhang temple is situated in the heart of the city, very surprising to us, there is a temple in a busy place like this. First we have to go to a security booth before we can enter the square. Our bag goes through the scanner, as do we, it's liken the airport. After we're cleared, we enter the square. Soon we notice on the rooftops on all sides of the square , there is a tent with a military person sitting underneath it. There is a big police station on the square, as is a big police van halfway on the other side. Then we see 5 marching soldiers with guns walking there rounds on the square. It's hard not to notice but no one seems to really care. One of the things Nima told us on day one is that is illegal to take photos or film the police and military, but of course we have to show you what this is really like, so we did it sneakily..
The Jokhang temple is beautiful!! When your inside you don't even notice that you're in the middle of the city, until you make it to the rooftop, what a view! Here we get our first decent sight of the Potala palace! And is it ever big! It's nice to see the city from a higher viewpoint, it's interesting to see all that is happening below, yet see all the mountains around the city. Only a few monks are still living in this temple, the Chinese government is apparently the one who decided if you can be a monk or not, even if you think it is your calling. Of course they don't want too many and it is really hard at the moment to be ale to be a monk. Nima is worried about this, especially because the easiest job to get is join the police/army. And since the job opportunities are very low at the moment, a lot of young people do join the police/army.
After another round of to sweet tea in apparently the most popular tea house in town (the looks of it would make our moms say, please don't go in there), but the tea was in fact delicious again. It's been a long day with a lot of information, so we decide to call it a night. When we ask about the shower again, Nima's first response is no, but then he looks at us and asks us if we had any headache, nausea etc and we didn't so then he said; you are strong women, maybe. He's terrified we will get sick, but little does he know what we have already done and eaten the last two-three months.. So we decide to choose ourselves and have a shower when we get to the hostel. After two days of train and a full day in a city, a shower kinda sounds like a good idea
Next morning we can sleep in till 9.30. Nima comes to get us at 10. Before he gets there we decide to get some breakfast, which here means some packaged biscuits, if else it'll be noodles and we really don't want to eat noodles three times a day.. Nima told us yesterday to go to the market because it's cheaper, but we discover if you just ask a price and you get a vague Chinese answer, you say okay, start picking the biscuits you want and if the price is higher then the price on the market, just walk away and they'll give it to you for cheaper, that's how we do it . We walk to the Potala Palace which is only a 15 min walk from our hostel, but with Nima's pace 10. We walk fast, but he runs, only he hides it very well because it seems like he ps walking at a normal pace.. The whole way there we are just passing people on the sidewalk and some people's mouths are almost touching the pavement when they see us pass by. Only little children and the tuktuk drivers who are our age, happily shout 'Hello!'. Nice as we are, we say hello back with the nicest smile we can produce our entrance tickets for the Potala Palace are for 11.00 and when we get there its just getting in line. Of course there is a green dressed person watching the line, and he is probably not the only one, but for now the only visible one. After a security check we get to the courtyard. Wow!! All of a sudden we are overwhelmed by the reality that we are standing in the courtyard of Potala Palace, a beautiful building, which was build by monks and various Dalai Lama's and they can't enjoy and live here anymore because the Chinese government chased them away. It's sad and kind of pathetic to see how they are controlling what they don't believe in, it's like the song " it's all about the money".
The Palace itself is gorgeous! Even though we have to rush through it to see it all in an hour, it's very amazing to see all the beauty they've created. The stupa's (tombs where old Dalai Lamas are buried in), are decorated with kilograms of gold, and the one of the fifth Dalai Lama is about 10meters high. It's very impressive. Also to see all the Buddhists pray in front of it.
Off course here there is a no picture policy, so unfortunately we can't not show you what we can't describe with words. You really have to see it for yourself.
We eat noodles for lunch with sweet tea (tea with a lot of milk and sugar), spot some wildlife, a gazelle, on the hill where Potala Palace is build on, our first wildlife in China! and take the public bus to the Sera monastery. This monastery is located on the north east side of the city. It's very pretty like all the other, but here we are able to witness the monks have debates together, outside in the courtyard. Its quite the sights, of course the courtyard is closed when we get there and minutes before the debating is supposed to start, the police officers open the gates and take their place. Apparently this is quite a touristic site, because there is lots of visitors and while everyone finds a spot, the police is commanding people to stay on the sides, they can't enter the courtyard. Three third of the monks sit down on a cushion and every single one of them has a monk that has a higher rank then they do and where they are having this debate with. They debate about Buddhist scriptures. As they are debating they clap their hands, sometimes push the partner to win the virtue of the Buddha. It's very interesting to see as they are really in to it, it almost seems they don't even notice the tourists and the policemen.
Another interesting day in Lhasa. We have sweet tea and noodles again with Nima before he drops us of at the hostel. In the evening we decide to walk to the Potala square, to see the Potala Palace once more by night. The walk there is good, before we enter the square we have to go to security but the view at nighttime is stunning! Just as I found the right spot for a picture, while sitting on the ground, a military guy runs onto me and waves his arms. I get up, have no idea what he is saying, but he walks away. At exactly 10 minutes to nine loud music comes out of the speakers and a fountain show starts on the other side of the square. Pretty nice but nothing new. While all the attention is on the fountains, I think I found the perfect spot to capture the Potala Palace once more. As I'm on the ground, 2 military guys come running up and tell me to get up. When I ask why I can not sit on the ground I get a Chinese answer... It's just pathetic, they tell you to do something and you just have to obey because they say so, even if there is no reason. As they walk away I see them run off to a different guy who's bag is on the square as he's taking a photograph, and yes he has to take his bag of the ground.. Yet there is a few 100people standing here and that is okay? When we ask Nima the next day what the whole sitting on the square deal was about, he has no idea. He finds it weird.. We're almost glad were getting out of this communist f*** place. I'm sure the Tibetan plateaus and highlands are amazing, but Lhasa itself is not a great place to be.
Next morning we wake up, check out, and Nima and the driver bring us to the airport which is 65 km outside of the city. It's still dry, scenery is nice, just hilly, sand and construction of the newest train tracks towards the south west of Tibet. We wonder what this place will look like in 10 years..