Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Day 1 – Preliminaries

4

Pre-Lhasa

The stress of the past 24 hours has been immense. While the plane ride to Hong Kong and Chengdu were incident free, my arrival at Sim’s Guesthouse brought a bombshell: trouble in Tibet. For the past six months the journey I had been planning was accessible to cyclists. Today, it appears, it is not.

Apparently two events had coincided to cause a clampdown on independent travel in Tibet. The first was an anti-Chinese protest on the Indian border, which had made the Chinese Government sensitive about similar protests in the sensitive autonomous region of Tibet. The second was the staging of the 17th Communist Party conference in Beijing, which had drawn the world’s focus to China and made conditions ripe for a high profile protest in Tibet. Paranoia in China translates immediately to restrictions in Tibet.

So where does this leave me? Well, sleepless on night one for a start.
To sum up the situation I find myself in:

  • I have a Tibet `pass’ but it’s not genuine, as these can only be issued to tour groups
  • The guesthouse I am staying at has contacts at the airport and have agreed to use them to get me a boarding pass (you can’t get one without a genuine permit)
  • There was a good chance that I would be stopped for an inspection of the pass on arrival in Tibet. Because the pass is not genuine the guesthouse won’t even allow me to carry it. I have to give it back to the person who gives me the boarding pass so it never leaves Chengdu
  • If I am stopped at the airport I can be immediately deported
  • Even if I get through the airport check there is a chance that the hotel I am staying at in Lhasa can report me to the PSB (police) as they get closed down for harbouring

Lhasa

Well so far so good. Thankfully, there were no checks at the airport and I used a `friendly’ hotel recommended to me by people at the guesthouse in Chengdu. Despite my immediate relief I am extremely nervous about whether I can do the trip that I have put a fair bit of money and planning into. The report on the ground is that they will not start issuing permits for another 10 days. Given the fact that I was going to travel without permits this shouldn’t make a difference on the surface, but the reality is that the current situation draws a lot more attention to travellers at the military checkpoints. Where I might have slipped through before I am more likely to have my passport checked in current conditions.

I am contemplating a side trip north where I will attract less scrutiny (I will be camping so no fear of hotels reporting me), but I also have to acclimatise to the altitude and the side trip would take me up to 5000m from the current 3600m in Lhasa. I have a few days to pull a plan B together if things go pear-shaped.

Back to Chengdu…

On arrival on this small Chinese city of 10 million people I headed out to the panda nature reserve. While I’m normally not one for zoos or tourist traps, this was different as it was main giant panda research breeding facility globally. The province I was in – Sichuan – is the only place in the world where pandas remain in the wild. Saw about 50 pandas – most of them sucking on a bamboo shoot (pictured)– and had a feed of Sichuan chicken at a cool little bar in town.

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