My Travel To Tibet
by Unknown Explorer
Tibet has always fascinated me as a place that cannot be reached. Any serious traveler you met in China wanted to go there. Almost everyone I met at the time failed. I'll tell you right here in the beginning that the first time I tried I failed too. I did not make it to Lhasa, only to Zhongdian, the Northwestern edge of Yunnan province.
It was the winter of 1987 and I had been traveling in Southern China for a whole month. The winter up North was cold and boring, the array of bright autumn colors blending into a gray mass that covered Beijing with depressing uniformity. All foreign students headed South, mostly to the sunny island of Hainan where you could lie on the warm sand of the beach and drink coconut juice right out of the coconuts all day long.
The second most favored destination was Yunnan province, the land of eternal Spring. If I recall correctly, Kunming, the capital of the province, was the highest city in the world with a population over 4 million. South of Kunming, a couple days of exhausting bus ride away, at the Northern tip of the Golden Triangle, lay the region of Xishuangbanna (Hsi-shuang-banna). The place was amazing: tropical forests on the upper Mekong River, pineapple plantations and water buffalos everywhere. The best part of the scenery, however, was that the peoples of these areas, the Bai, the Dai, the Tai, the Wa etc all wore their traditional national dresses. This was in sharp contrast with the rest of China where a population of over one billion managed to squeeze themselves into half a dozen of "designs" -- mainly gray or green military uniforms. The other nice thing was that nobody around here spoke good Mandarin anymore and we, after having studied in Beijing for 6 months, felt rather impressed with how good our Chinese was in comparison to these Chinese citizens.
I spent about two weeks in tropical Xishuangbanna, traveling from village to village, sleeping on 50-cent mattresses and consuming large quantities of fresh pineapples on wooden sticks. Then, I took the same exhausting bus ride up to Kunming and boarded an all night bus up North to the city of Dali. The seats in the supposedly high-class Hungarian bus were incredibly uncomfortable which prevented anyone from sleeping. So after watching the pitch-black night outside the window for ten something hours, we finally arrived and were allowed to get out.
Dali was an amazing city. On the Western side of it stood a set of high mountains that separated China from Burma. On the Eastern side there was a huge lake called Erhai (Ear Sea) which received its name from its shape. At one point Dali was an important cultural and political center, capital of the Southern kingdom of Nanzhao. In 1987, this was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
I stayed in Dali for a few days, visiting the places one must visit, cycling around the 70 mile perimeter of the lake, eating good Bai food, and meeting new friends. During this time, I ran into a very friendly German girl who studied Chinese in the same school in Northern China as I did. It was during our talks with her that the idea of hitchhiking to Tibet came up.
To go to Tibet is very different from going to Arizona or New Mexico. You do not simply go to the train station, buy a ticket and then get off in Lhasa. There are numerous obstacles on this adventure. There is no train, for example. There are only five roads that go there, each one is extremely dangerous, leading through gigantic mountains and deserts. But that is not all. Beside the natural obstacles, there are man-made hindrances too.
The Chinese government has always been touchy about foreigners going to Tibet and witnessing the ongoing process of aggressive colonization. So for the most time, foreigners were not allowed to travel in these regions. At the time, however, a few sites, including Lhasa and Shigatse were sometimes open for visitors. This meant that foreigners could go only to these places and nowhere else. But from time to time, for various reasons, even these cities were closed.
At any given time, there were rumors that Tibet was closed or open. But nobody knew for sure, including the officials who were in charge of such things. So the common answer to any such question was, just in case, that Tibet was closed. End of story. This meant that we had to avoid public transport and rely solely on hitchhiking.
There were five different routes to Lhasa. One, the most common one, was from Golmud in Qinghai province. Golmud was the last train station North of Tibet and was a two-day bus ride away from Lhasa. The second road was from the South, from Nepal, through the Himalayas. This took about a week. The third road was from the West, from Pakistan and Xinjiang. This lead through high mountains and extreme deserts and took weeks. This was considered a very dangerous road. The fourth road was from the East, through the mountains and dense forests of Sichuan province. They said that this route would take about two weeks. The fifth road was from Yunnan, creeping up beside the Burmese border and approaching the wholly city from the Southeast. This was the place we were when we decided to give it a try.
First, we took buses as we moved north into more and more remote areas. If I thought I was away from home in Beijing, the places we were visiting felt like the other side of the moon. But the scenery was something I have never seen before. I remember sitting on a bus and watching the plateau we rode on stretching far into the distance, all the way into a range of high mountains. A few hours later we reached the mountain range and began climbing in zigzags. Eventually, we crossed the mountain range, just to get to an identical plateau, only much higher than the previous one. This way we went from plateau to plateau, higher and higher, as if climbing stairs in a giant's palace.
After a couple of days of bus ride, we reached the town of Zhongdian. On the map it seemed a major city but in reality we hardly saw any people at all. We stayed overnight and early in the morning walked outside the city to hitch a ride with a truck or bus. We reached the edge of the city, walked behind a hill and suddenly the road ended...! There was no asphalt from there on, only dirt road. We felt we reached the end of man's world.
We waited around for a someone to give us a ride but nobody came. We sat down by the road and built a small fire, waiting. Before noon, a bus came by but did not stop. And then nothing. Then we saw a group of yaks that were climbing the hill we sat on. I have only seen these huge black hairy buffalos in pictures and in a distance from the window of the bus during the previous few days. But now they were here, heading straight for us. We sat there, motionless, scared of the big animals. They walked straight through us on both sides, paying no attention whatsoever to us crouching in the dirt.
Then we were, once again, alone with the dirt road and the mountains around us. In the afternoon it became clear that we were not going to get any farther and all we could do is turn back. But going back was not easy either. We were days away from any place we were even allowed to be at. We want to walk through the entire city to start hitching on the Southern edge of it, so we made a shortcut.
After an hour or so of walking, we were blocked by a military garrison that stretched far into both directions. Walking around it seemed a major waste of time and, since we did not see anyone around, we climbed through the brick wall, ran through the garrison, and climbed out through the other wall. I remember being nervous because catching us two foreigners inside a military establishment in a foreigners-off city by the Burmese border sounded like trouble. But there was nobody, so we climbed and ran. The only people we saw were a couple of soldiers half a mile away and they either did not see us or did not pay attention to us. And obviously they did not even dream of us being foreigners.
So this is how my first attempt to visit Tibet ended. We went back South, visited the Tiger Leap gorges and eventually reached Kunming. Even a few weeks later the whole trip to Zhongdian already seemed surreal.