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Get around in Tibet

Posted by in on 5-27-13

Bus

Central Tibet has a good public bus network, although foreigners are not allowed to use an intercity bus currently.

 Jeep

Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.

Your driver will likely be an indiginous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He’ll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he’ll often be treated like a king), and he’ll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. 4500 RMB will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.

Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, etc should be written on the itinerary. Payment should never be made in advance. Many foreigners, especially pro-Tibetan ones, are so trusting of Tibetan drivers that they hand over their money in advance but never get to see their drivers again. These drivers operate in rings and will approach their targets in hostels and speak against the Chinese government to gain support and sympathy from tourists who then lower their guard, and have their trip ruined. Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets, will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the same scam happens one more time.

 Hitchhike

Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around the country for someone who is flexible and has a lot of time. It can, however, mean you end up getting stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this probably means hanging around truck stops, as the distances are far too long to walk, and finding water would be a major problem. Trucks often break down though and it can take a long time before the journey continues. Hitchhiking in general is not free and a small fee is expected. In central and eastern Tibet, there’s more water and villages, and so walking becomes a more reasonable option. In short, hitching may or may not get you to your destination any quicker, but at least it offers a change of scenery. Payment is usually expected after you arrive at your destination. Charging money for lifts is illegal for the driver and having a non-Asian face in the car may raise the suspicion of the authorities at tolls and check points.

 Hitchhiking from Lhasa to Mount Everest

According to Free Tibet it’s advised not to hitch-hike as heavy fines may be given to drivers found giving lifts to tourists, thus the organization considers Westerners hitching as an activity that may potentially endanger Tibetans. A few travelers choose to ignore the travel permit requirement and continue to travel south of Shigatse which is the limit for traveling without a permit. This is very adventurous but can be done if the traveler is willing, in a worse case scenario, to risk imprisonment. It is a good advise to check with foreigners who live in Lhasa to point out the location of road check points and get tips on safety. Take enough food (snacks) and cigarettes (for truck drivers) and only go on this trip after you have adjusted to the high altitude.

From Lhasa to Shigatse you can take a public bus. A travel permit is not required for buying a bus ticket. Have an overnight in Shigatse. It is impossible to buy a ticket at the ticket counter (in Shigatse) without a travel permit, but sometimes it works fine to show up before the bus leaves and buy the ticket in the bus. Keep a low profile while seated in the bus. Before departure the conductor checks the ticket. Hand him over the fare money plus a little tip. The bus might leave, only to stop again a few minutes later around the corner. It might happen that the official from the ticket counter who refused to sell tickets without permit shows up with your ticket in hands and wishes you a happy journey. Immediately outside Shigatse are the first check posts. Usually a very young Chinese official enters the bus. Keep a low profile or smile at him. If he asks something, just show him the tickets.

After this checkpost the journey continues on dirt roads with occasional stops at small stone huts which serve Tibetan food or noodles. You find a room with restaurant in small inns, usually there is one in every bigger village, but don’t expect any luxury. Many times the only shower facility consists of a bucket of water.

Further south there are no public buses one can use, but truckdrivers can be asked to get a ride. A fee is usually negotiated before the ride. Truckdrivers won’t take a traveler through checkpoints. It is wise to walk or hitch to a checkpoint, then walk around it, out of sight of the officials and try to get another ride from the other side. Sometimes a ride on a local transport, e.g. tractor up to the checkpoint can be arranged.

Around Mount Everest is a huge Everest National Park. Park tickets have to be bought before arriving at the National Park Checkpoint. Towards Everest there are hardly any local transports and no trucks, but numerous jeeps coming from Nepal all go to Mount Everest. Tourists usually pay a high price for this tour and are very reluctant to take on a free guest. The driver and tourist guide might refuse to take you in without a travel permit. Some gift money to the Tibetan driver plus a bold lie to the mostly Chinese tourguide might work. Once the jeep stops at the National Park Checkpoint, all passengers have to leave the car and pass through the checkpoint where car documents, park tickets and passport with travel permits are checked. If you have already traveled that far without a travel permit, the moment of surprise might add to your luck and the young Chinese officials might let you pass. Again keep a low profile, have a big smile and some money which changes hands might work. If not, be prepared for a long walk around of the check post.

From there it is a direct way to Mount Everest over stunning 5500 meter passes. When you arrive at the tiny monastery which serves as a very simple hotel and restaurant be prepared for a wonderful sight of Mount Everest at sunrise – if you are lucky. Everest can be shrouded in clouds for many weeks. Only continue to the base camp when you have adjusted to the high altitude. If you want to continue from Base Camp 1 to Camp 2, paying some fee is unavoidable.

Getting back from Mount Everest to Lhasa usually is less of a hassle. When stopped tell that you are heading to Lhasa. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a ride in a tourbus which returns empty to Lhasa having unloaded the tourists at the Nepalese border.

If you decide to hitchhike to Mount Kailash be prepared for an even harder journey. Villages are more remote and it is a long journey sometimes taking up to 2 or 3 weeks to Kashkar.

 Bicycle

There are a surprising number of tourists traveling Tibet by bicycle, both foreigners and Chinese. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops scattered around often enough so that you don’t need to carry more than a day’s worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded trucks. 26 inch wheels would be preferable as 700c (ISO 622) are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle (assuming you want it to get you past the check point 30 km outside of town). Cyclists have reported that distances cited in the Lonely Planet guidebooks can be quite inaccurate so be very well-prepared.

 Maps

Good road maps of Tibet are common in China, but only in Chinese. These are of limited use even for people literate in Chinese as the Chinese names are very different from the ones used by the Tibetans. They are useful for reading road signs, even for people with low literacy in Chinese.

The Star publications map is probably the best. Amnye Machen Institute[6] publishes an excellent map of similar scale and detail but with the Tibetan names, with a version written in Latin script and one in the Tibetan. It makes a useful companion. Tibetmap.com has a free downloadable set of maps covering much of Tibet with detail almost good enough to use for independent trekking.

If you understand the Cyrillic alphabet, the Soviet military produced good topographic maps in a range of scales from 1:2,500,000 down to 1:10,000. Coverage was virtually world-wide, although many areas were not mapped at the more detailed scales. The maps originally were classified, but were released to the larger world following the breakup of the USSR in 1991. These maps can be dated, particularly where infrastructure has been actively developed since 1991 or there have been major political changes, but representation of topography remains valid.

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