My Failed Tibet Trip: Permits, Solo Travel, Getting Stuck in Xining, and the Amdo Route from Xining To Chengdu
Cold, tired, and hungry, I finally dropped my bags and plonked myself down on the bed; all I had to do now was go out for food and then shower & sleep, before getting up next day to take the world’s highest train across the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa. I was finally about to take the one trip I’d always wanted to do above all others, to Tingri, Shekar, Everest North Base Camp and the Rongbuk Monastery – the monastery where my Great-Grandfather (EF Norton) and his companions had made offerings over 90 years earlier for a successful first ascent of the world’s highest mountain. Famously, the mountain did not grant their wish – the 1922 expedition ended in tragedy with the deaths of 7 porters in an avalanche, and the 1924 expedition saw Mallory & Irvine disappear off the mountain and into legend. Did they make it? Possibly. But without knowing the answer to that question, Norton’s 1924 high point remained the world altitude record for almost three decades, and the Great Couloir he climbed on the north face is still referred to as the Norton Couloir to this day. I’d grown up with this story, in houses with his paintings of Tibet hanging on the walls, and it’s fair to say it left me with a burning desire to go there myself! So here I finally was in Xining, on the edge of Tibet, about to take that trip.
There was one thing to do before going out for food though – quickly check my emails to confirm everything was still cool with my Tibet Travel Permit. The TTP is a special document required by all non-Chinese citizens wishing to visit Tibet – I’m not going to get into all the political and historical issues that swirl around the status of Tibet here, but suffice it to say that Tibet is a very sensitive issue for the Chinese government and they exercise very tight control over who visits, how they get there, and what their movements are once they’re there. For a really solid and ever up-to-date explanation of how the TTP works and how to get one, see the outstanding Land of Snows website, travel regulations page here; in a nutshell, you have to join a guided group tour by private vehicle with a licensed tour operator who will obtain the TTP for you, for that specific tour on those specific dates, with them meeting you off your specified flight or train in Lhasa (or at the Nepal border if you start from Kathmandu, though that’s not presently possible following the 2015 earthquake. Update: the new border post was finally reported open in September 2017) and waving you off again at the end (you can’t enter Tibet any other way, in any other place).
So I opened my email, saw there was one from my tour operator, clicked on it… and felt my heart sink like a stone.
I’d arrived in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, a full three hours earlier, having hauled ass for a few days overland (as is my wont) from Taiwan by ferry and then by train via Wuhan and Xi’an. I was intending to just check in to any old cheap hotel near the station to crash for the night, having not booked ahead as I’d found myself stuck without wifi in Xi’an. Xining’s a big city, so I knew I’d be able to find something – or so I thought…
Xining is actually the Tibetan Plateau’s largest city – in addition to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) itself, most of the modern day province of Qinghai, plus the western half of Sichuan and little corners of Yunnan and Gansu provinces, were all historically Tibet. Sitting at 2,400m on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Xining has long been the meeting point of Han China, Tibet, and the Muslim regions to the west (Gansu & Xinjiang); this mix is reflected in the Chinese dragons adorning the minarets of some of the city’s mosques, the Tibetan cowboys and red-robed monks rubbing elbows with white-capped Hui Chinese (Chinese Muslims) in Han Chinese eateries, and the combinations of Chinese, Tibetan, and Arabic scripts in use on shop signs around town. Tensions also exist; I’ve never seen a train station so heavily-patrolled by such heavily-armed police and military, some guys toting heavy automatic assault rifles while others leaned on enormous spiked staves (no shit – full-blown Medieval weaponry is still in use in China!)
Exiting the station, the cold November air at first felt crisp and refreshing; due to the altitude, Xining experiences some pretty frigid temperatures in winter and they were already kicking in, my breath clouding in the evening air.
Xining Station stands at the back of a wide open space, itself separated from the city’s main central area by the Huangshui river, and the subway was still under construction (it’s slated to enter service in 2021), so I took a lungful of the crisp air, shouldered my pack, and set off towards the main thoroughfares of Jianguo Dajie and Dongguan Dajie.
I figured I’d find plenty of hotels there, and indeed I wasn’t wrong; the problem turned out to be finding one that would actually take me. Now, the situation in China that only some hotels take foreigners is nothing new (on previous visits I’d stayed at a number of hotels that I doubt registered it properly, most obviously the hotel-slash-brothel we stayed at in Chongqing), but this was the first time I’d actually encountered it myself (though I would do so again just a couple of weeks later in Guizhou).
(see note below for a bit more on Chinese hotels and foreigners)
Time and again I walked into a hotel and was asked for my ID; upon showing my passport (rather than a Chinese national ID), I received apologetic smiles or annoyed frowns and was turned away. Nobody spoke any English and my spoken Chinese is pretty crap, so it was hard to work out what was going on or ask where I could possibly go. I just kept on walking to the next hotel, toes and fingers numb in the cold, shoulders aching, stomach rumbling, and getting more and more pissed off.
Most of these hotels were run by Hui Chinese families, and a number of them kept saying the same thing to me – I didn’t understand, but kept hearing the word 穆斯林, Musilin (Muslim) again and again. At first I thought they might be telling me I couldn’t stay because I wasn’t Muslim, which sounded like bullshit, but eventually I asked one lady (who seemed especially keen to help) to write down what she was saying (my written Chinese is way ahead of my spoken Chinese, owing to familiarity with the characters as a Japanese speaker). Turns out they were all trying to tell me the name of a hotel I could actually go to, the Xining Muslim Mansion (西宁穆斯林大厦, Xining Musilin Dasha); now I’d realised what was going on and was armed with a hotel name and address, I was a bit less pissed off – I knew what I had to do and just had to get on with finding the place.
Easier said than done though, and in fact I never did – I wandered around and eventually went in another hotel to show them the address and hopefully get directions; and lo and behold, this guy spoke excellent English! He said there weren’t many places in the city where I’d be able to stay, but luckily one of the others was literally just round the corner. It was a 4 star hotel and way out of my budget (at least it had a piano in the bar which they let me play), but no way I was walking around any more so I thanked the guy profusely and went round the corner to check in.
Had I booked ahead, I’d have found there are actually a couple of hostels listed in Xining, along with plenty of hotel options (including multiple branches of 7Days Inn and Jinjiang Inn, which are decent budget hotel options). If only I’d been able to get online! Or, perhaps I should say, if only I’d booked ahead! I simply hadn’t anticipated that I’d have any difficulties finding somewhere near the station, so when I was without internet in Xi’an I hadn’t prioritised going to a cafe to make a reservation for Xining.
So, anyway, there I was a short time later, sat on the bed in a hotel I really didn’t want to stay in in a city I didn’t really want to be in, with a cracking view of one of Xining’s many mosques, reading this email with the crushing news that my Tibet trip was off.
The other people making up my tour group were apparently all travelling as a group already, and they’d cancelled their Tibet trip at the last minute. That left only me, but the minimum tour size was two – if I still wanted to go, they said I’d just have to pay (almost) double.
I then spent most of the evening and the next morning writing emails to my tour company to try and agree a compromise fee for doing the tour as a single traveller (they came down a bit, but not enough for me to be able to afford it), and also sending emails to a bunch of other tour agencies to see if I could possibly work out any alternative, such as using my existing TTP to board the train and then paying some sort of supplement to switch to a tour with another operator, or some such.
But of course, the red tape-bound and glacial wheels of Chinese bureaucracy don’t allow for any flexibility when visiting Tibet; your TTP is for specific dates, for a specific tour, with a specific operator. If anything doesn’t work out with any of the above, you need a completely new permit – and the TTP takes several weeks to arrange, which is longer than I had left on my Chinese visa anyway.
What a load of fucking bullshit. And what a load of bullshit that the tour company wouldn’t run the tour without such a hefty single surcharge – I understand why, of course, and that perhaps their margins are super-tight – but one of the other companies I’d considered while originally researching, and then emailed again in desperation from Xining (who really tried to find a solution for me, and have thus won my business for whenever I do finally make it to Lhasa), told me they always guarantee tours will run as booked once confirmed, even if cancellations leave only one guest. Of course, with good old hindsight, as a solo traveller I should’ve checked such policies before booking anything; that realisation came too late for me, but at least I can pass it on to you (see below for tips on booking solo trips to Tibet).
I ended up booking another night at the hotel, went to the station and rescheduled my Lhasa train for the following day (in hope more than expectation), and spent the rest of the day trying to work something out. But all to no avail; following in my Great-Grandfather’s footsteps to Tingri, Shekar, and Rongbuk, was going to have to wait.
In the end, I settled for the next best thing I could do from there – a trip through the Amdo Tibetan region to Chengdu, i.e. through the Tibetan prefectures of the modern day provinces of Qinghai, southwest Gansu, and north Sichuan. As the TTP is only required for the TAR, you can travel freely through Qinghai and the Tibetan parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan as you please (except during the occasional period of unrest, when the authorities close roads). And so I ended up travelling through the Amdo region from Xining to Chengdu.
Amdo is the historical name for the northeast portion of the Tibetan Plateau, essentially the main bulk of the modern Qinghai Province plus a corner of Gansu and a big chunk of Sichuan provinces (Tibet historically had three regions – Amdo, U-Tsang, and Kham. U-Tsang roughly equates to what is now the TAR, and Kham is the southeast portion of the plateau, composed (in terms of modern administrative entities) of parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, plus a corner of TAR).
I followed the Amdo route described on Land Of Snows here (do check that page out – the pictures are much better than mine!), travelling by bus to Rebkong (Tongren), Labrang (Xiahe), Taktsang Lhamo (Langmusi), and Songpan, before finally reaching Chengdu. The monasteries in Rebkong and Labrang were pretty amazing, and as they’re fairly sizeable towns things were still largely open as usual despite the season (it was off-season, so there were very few tourists, Chinese or international). As in Xining, the population in the towns is a blend of Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Hui Chinese, seemingly with Han running most hotels, Hui mostly running restaurants and stores, and Tibetans working for the monasteries or as farmers and cowboys. Outside the towns, the population is entirely Tibetan, leather-skinned nomads in leather jackets and cowboy hats or traditional Tibetan wear flagging the bus down as we drove across soaring high altitude grasslands, the old men reciting incantations and clicking prayer beads as the bus negotiated an icy series of hairpins… no idea if it was simply the correct time of day to be saying those particular prayers, or if they were doing their bit to keep the bus on the road!
But to be honest, as fascinating as the towns and monasteries were, and as spectacular as the scenery was, it was a pretty lonely and tough bit of solo travel; I was often communicating in broken Mandarin with Tibetans whose Chinese was little better than my own, and the only real conversations I had in 10 days were with a Tibetan guy who spoke great English (and took the opportunity to complain bitterly about the government), a German girl I bumped into in a restaurant, and a Hui Chinese waitress in Langmusi who’d studied English at university in Lanzhou.
The highway kissed 4,000m at the highest point between Langmusi and Songpan, and in Langmusi itself I was sleeping at 3,300m. I didn’t suffer any adverse altitude effects, but damn was it cold! As it was off season, Langmusi was virtually shut down; I lugged my bag around a series of shuttered hotels and hostels (getting the absolute shit scared out of me by a Tibetan mastiff behind one of them as I looked for the staff – thank god it was on a short and solid chain, or I reckon it’d have had my head! I seem to look like a tasty morsel to aggressive dogs), finally checking into a place with no running water or heating, and an utterly foul outhouse toilet across the yard. Visiting that toilet at night was not fun! Thankfully my bed was equipped with an electric blanket; I also slept fully clothed in 3 layers, gloves and a beanie, and I still absolutely froze my balls off. They’re hardy people alright, living up there on the Roof of the World.
And for some, life is very hard indeed; elderly Tibetan beggars are sadly a common sight in the Amdo region. I’ll never forget the sight of one old woman begging on the frozen ground outside Zoige bus station (where we pulled in between Langmusi and Songpan), bitterly cold at 3,500m and it wasn’t even yet December. Living rough must of course be a harsh life wherever it happens, but doing it up there I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to survive.
The Langmusi part of the route really was a rather odd experience overall, with everything closed up, giant dogs (and their barking at night), wretched beggars, and harsh conditions; the one person I was really able to talk to, the waitress in the restaurant I ate dinner at, showed great interest in the copy of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun I was reading, which gave me a good excuse to linger in their warm restaurant nursing some hot tea long after I’d finished my meal! Walking back into town from the monastery that afternoon I’d detoured along the river, a river which at an altitude of 3,300m should have consisted of the clearest mountain water but was in fact full of a staggering number of Red Bull cans. Not beer cans, not water bottles, just huge quantities of Red Bull cans. Why there’s so much of it being consumed up there, I have no idea; perhaps it’s tourists bringing it all up, perhaps it’s a local favourite. Either way, whoever’s responsible for dealing with the empties is doing a seriously shitty job.
To be fair though, having said all that, Langmusi did also seem like a place that would have a nice vibe to it in the warmer months, and with everything open and the outdoors being bearable enough to explore (the horseback trips are recommended by Land of Snows) – and preferably a hotel with running water and functioning toilets! – I think it’d be an awesome place to visit for a couple of days, the state of the river notwithstanding.
My final stop in Amdo was Songpan, more of a Chinese mountain town than a Tibetan town – if you’ve ever done the usual Yunnan backpacker trail it’ll probably remind you a bit of Shangrila or Dali:
It’s a picturesque place alright, the city walls surrounding a lovely-looking old town (though how old the present structures actually are, I have no idea) with mountains visible in the distance. There are also lots of butcher shops with yak cock & balls hanging up out front!
From Songpan a 6-hour bus ride gets you down to Chengdu with some great scenery on the way, but the day I did it it took me from the clean air of the Tibetan Plateau to this unspeakably grim foulness:
More on the ‘Airpocalypse’ here
(As outlined on the Land of Snows page, instead of going straight from Songpan to Chengdu there’s an amazing looking nature reserve (Jiuzhaigou) you can detour via, if you have the time and budget for it – note the entry fees are remarkably steep)
So, after the frustration of my failed trip to Lhasa & Everest, I unexpectedly ended up in Chengdu (not for the first time) via the beautiful Amdo region; I have to say, at that point I was severely over China. Amdo was amazing to see, but it wasn’t what I’d gone all that way to see and it really wasn’t the most enjoyable bit of travel I’ve ever done. Arriving in Chengdu in that horrendous smog, I was really thinking “just get me out of this fucking country,” and started searching for flights to Bangkok (the vague plan had been to go to Nepal from Tibet, and then perhaps try overlanding to Thailand through India & Myanmar). In the end though, being me, I ended up overlanding it all the way to Bangkok from Chengdu (well, from Japan actually!) – I had the thought of trying to get to Myanmar through Yunnan, but (while possible) that turned out to be too time-consuming and expensive to arrange (and would require a 2-entry Chinese visa and some serious backtracking), and I’d done the usual Yunnan route before, so instead I ended up having this neat little stop in Chongqing, this frustrating run through Guizhou to Yunnan, and then finally testing out (successfully) the possibility of getting from Xishuangbanna (southern Yunnan) to Thailand in one day via Laos thanks to the new 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. It was all a bit of a waste of time and money to be honest, and I felt better as soon as I crossed the border out of China; and being stamped into Thailand a few hours later by a smiling and jovial border guard felt great.
I haven’t been back to China since then, but I know I will – there are still some footsteps for me to follow in Tibet…
Hints and tips for booking a trip to Tibet as a solo traveller
First of all, get the most up to date information you can – there is no better resource than the outstanding Land Of Snows, whose owner Lobsang takes the time to personally respond to all requests for advice and information. The site is kept bang up to date, and that’s where you can read what the present state of play is with the TTP, and also with the Nepal border (closed since the 2015 earthquake and still not yet open to non-locals. Update: the new border was reported open in September 2017)
Make sure to book your tour at least a month or so in advance, to allow plenty of time for the permit to be processed.
If you’re travelling alone, you’re vulnerable to the sort of situation I ran into if someone else cancels – the best way of avoiding this is to book a tour with one of the larger companies (I’d gone with a smaller one, and obviously came to regret it) which guarantees the tour will run even if the other guests all cancel, and try to join a tour with a decent number already booked. I agree with the position taken by Land of Snows that it’s better to book with a Tibetan-owned (rather than Han Chinese-owned) operator to make sure the profit stays locally in Tibet – so with that in mind, I suggest solo travellers book with one of the larger operators recommended by Land of Snows.
I’m not going to name the company I had trouble with, but I will recommend the other company that impressed me with their attempts to help while I was stuck in Xining, and with whom I’ll be booking next time I attempt to visit Tibet; they’re called Explore Tibet, and are a fully Tibetan-owned & operated company recommended by Lobsang of Land of Snows. They’re one of the larger fully-local operators and have a policy of always running tours once booked, even if cancellations leave only one traveller, which makes them a safe bet if you’re travelling solo and want to avoid the kind of issues I experienced. They were also very quick & easy to communicate with while I was making my initial enquiries, and especially while I was firing off desperate emails from that hotel room in Xining!
Note on “No Foreigners Allowed” Hotels in China
Prior to the early-2000s, hotels in China were required to have a specific permit in order to accept foreign guests. This permit no longer exists, but it seems the belief in its existence persists – perhaps encouraged by lazy or corrupt individuals in local law enforcement positions who prefer to see foreigners funnelled to a smaller number of pricier establishments. In the space of a couple of weeks I came up against it in Xining (as above) and then Guizhou (as here), though I’d never encountered it on previous trips despite staying in some pretty shoddy spots (possibly including some sort of brothel in Chongqing); it made me wonder if there was a crackdown underway, though it could have simply been down to the locales in question. Xining is home to many Tibetans and Muslims, at times restive populations, and so is a somewhat sensitive area for the authorities and perhaps the smaller hotels there genuinely aren’t allowed to take foreigners without permission. No such security concerns exist in Guizhou though, but as it’s one of the least visited corners of China it could simply be that local hotel management really don’t know otherwise, and local law enforcement is either lazy or incompetent (and they actually got involved when I was there, escorting me to a big mid-range hotel when I was trying to check in to a small budget hotel).
Reading up on the situation though, it seems that for the vast majority of hotels in China it’s perfectly legal for them to take foreign guests – so long as they register them in the system, which in many cases is the issue as they either don’t realise they can actually do that, or just don’t know how to do it.
For more on this, check out these reports here (lower half of the post) and here (the whole post!) by a long-distance cyclist with fluent Mandarin and a history of fighting (and winning) battles over being allowed to stay at small hotels in Chinese backwaters. She even wrote this ‘how to’ guide for registering yourself on the system if the hotel staff don’t know how! Something she’s apparently done many times, proving that if you know what you’re doing, speak fluent Mandarin, read Chinese characters well, are very persistent, and have the patience of a saint / stubbornness of a mule, you can probably manage to stay at most hotels in China!
Remember to get a VPN service before arriving in China; I always use Express VPN, which you can sign up for by clicking the banner above. If you’re wondering what a VPN is and why you need one in China, check out my post on the Great Firewall.
Any comments or questions on visiting Tibet, or on the Amdo region? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
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