2005.09.19 Ali, Tibet Tiffany's 26th Birthday

I doubt Tiffany planned to be in police custody on her 26th birthday.

Travel to and around Tibet is highly restricted. Even Nisagul, a Chinese citizen, had to request a travel permit from the police to make it out here. It's more difficult for foreigners.

Arriving into Tibet from any direction entails paying something extra. Flying into Lhasa from the few cities with air connections means paying either an inflated ticket price, a "fee" for travel to the region, or both. There is a bus running to Lhasa from the last railhead in remote Qinghai Province. Foreigners get to pay a special price to travel aboard that. Visitors arriving by road from Nepal are required to have joined a group tour and have a group visa. Those attempting to hitchhike by road from Xinjiang or Szechwan Province face several checkpoints en route, most of which are obliged to fine and send back foreign travelers, as well as fine the driver who has transported them. (We wound up walking around checkpoints and hiding in the truck various points along the journey from Kashgar.)

We are now five: in addition to myself, Nisagul and Tiffany, a Dutchman (Michel) and Japanese traveler (Taichi) joined us at the beginning of the road to Tibet. We set out to leave Ali this morning, heading to the sacred Mt. Kailash. Prospects on hitchhiking a lift with a truck were thin, so we paid a ridiculous 230 yuan per person for seats on a bus, for a ride of only 300 km.

Before setting off, a police officer came aboard the bus. I was wearing a typical Uighur cap, sitting next to Taichi. The policeman didn't look twice at us. I'm sure that rather than observing a Japanese traveler side-by-side with an American, he saw a Chinese passenger sitting next to someone from Xinjiang. Nisagul and Tiffany were seated behind the two of us, though Tiffany was wearing dark glasses and had her hair concealed beneath a headscarf. The officer walked past my seat, asking Nisagul in English for her permit. When she spoke in Mandarin and showed her Chinese identity card the officer dismissed both Nisagul and Tiffany, saying, "Oh, you two are from Xinjiang."

Michel had no such hope. The policeman asked him for his permit to travel in Tibet. When confessing that he didn't have one, the officer asked him to come to the police station and get one--he would instruct the driver to wait. After Michel left the bus, Tiffany decided to give herself up as well. There are many checkpoints down the road, so having that official Alien Travel Permit would make the rest of the journey much easier. Nisagul followed along to help interpret; Taichi and I decided to take our chances in the bus.

None of them returned in time for the noon departure. The bus was running late anyway, parcels still being tied down atop the roof rack fifteen minutes past the hour. Once that was finished, the driver asked me about the others. I told him that the foreigners had indeed bought tickets--could the bus wait until they were done with their police business? Almost on cue a police car pulled up, but only with local officers and Nisagul inside. Nisagul instructed me not to speak English and whispered that they were holding Tiffany and her passport at the station. Nisagul, the policemen, and the bus driver spoke for awhile in Chinese. It seemed like we could leave at 1:00.

Come 1:00 P.M. the police car did return--but with only Michel and Nisagul. Tiffany was still being held, so would not be able to leave. Taichi and Michel boarded the bus, I took out the bags of the three non-passengers. Tears were streaming down Nisagul's cheeks. She mentioned that they'd revised her travel permit to allow only ten days, rather than the two months initially issued when we began the journey. I'm sure it was a hard experience for her. Additionally frustrating is the lack of another bus for two days, as well as the 50% penalty we will have to pay on the unused tickets.

There were several cops around. I'm surprised I didn't attract more attention, given my large backpack with rolled-up camping mat attached. My features do look Uighur, and speaking in that language with Nisagul probably reinforced the illusion. I told Nisagul I'd meet her back at the hotel where we spent the last night. I wandered away from the bus station as casually as I could, then hopped in a taxi when out of view. I holed up in a small noodle-house across the street from the hotel, frequently glancing up to see who was coming. I finally left after a couple hours, making my way to the Internet cafe where I now write this entry.

I'm going to head back to the hotel now and see whether anybody has returned.