2005.09.28 Shigatse, Tibet
Still making my way across Tibet. At this point of the trip it's just Nisagul and I--Tiffany turned around and went back to Urumqi shortly after her encounter with the police in Ali.
It turned out that Tiffany's time at the police station went fairly well. The police in Ali are friendly and light on foreigners caught without proper papers. All the same, her work visa was cancelled and she was obliged to pay 420 yuan to replace it. The replacement was a tourist visa of only 20 days validity. That did allow a final jaunt within Tibet: she had just enough time to continue one stop further east with us, as far as sacred Mt. Kailash. She's currently at my Urumqi flat, readying herself to return to the U.S..
After visiting the mountain we parted ways. Tiffany found a bus heading back to Ali. Nisagul and I strolled down to the roadside to try to hitch a lift. While waiting by the side of the road we were joined by another foreign traveler, a Korean man in his forties who spoke nothing but Korean. He was the first of several people we wound up traveling with over the next week. At one point there were eight of us heading east together. Travel anywhere often involves meeting others making a similar journey, but I was surprised by the nature of our new companions: the majority of people we encountered were young, Chinese backpackers.
While I have met young Chinese traveling on the cheap before (notably Joyce) it struck me how similar local backpackers here are to those who hail from the West. The superficial accoutrements are nearly identical: an MP3 player, a pair of blue jeans, a pair of hiking boots, and a North Face brand jacket. The standard route most of them are taking is from Xinjiang to Tibet, south to Nepal, with a flight home from Kathmandu.
Clearly they are the wealthy and elite of China's twenty-somethings. They all hail from the prosperous cities back east: Beijing, Shanghai, and especially, Shenzhen. It's been a lot of fun to have new companions to connect with, and to see a more positive Chinese perspective of regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Most ethnic Chinese have little interest in or respect for minority cultures, but the travelers we have met have all been young, curious, and open. I've been particularly impressed with Lu Jun, a muscular Beijinger with long hair and caustic sense of humor. Lu knows an immense amount about Tibetan history and is trying to teach himself the language. His primary interest is Buddhism, both Han as well as Tibetan. This isn't his first time backpacking around Tibet.
Nisagul and I are side-by-side at an Internet cafe (or Internet bar, as they're referred to across China) in Shigatse. The last of our road companions is also with us--other backpackers have all gone ahead or taken a different route--a Shanghaier by the name of Wang Lei. The three of us are sharing a room at the Gang-Gyan Orchard Hotel, a pleasant place located just across the street from the Tashilhunpo Monastery. We plan to visit the monastery and palace tomorrow. I have seen the site before, when visiting this region in 1997. Still, I think it's time for a refresher--I remember little other than that Tashilunpo is the location of the palace of the Panchen Lama.
Our next stop will be Gyantse, which is supposed to be a largely Tibetan city. (Both Shigatse and Lhasa are heavily Chinese in both population and city layout.) Nisagul needs to return to Urumqi before the second week of October, but I plan to linger. I think I'll take a week just getting to know Lhasa, then hope to take a side trip to Yadong. I doubt I'll be able to get permission to travel there; I am fascinated by Yadong for nothing more than it's location. It's a little bit of Tibet that dips south into the Indian sub-continent. The borders with Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan are all just a few hours' walk from the city of Yadong. Today we tried to get an Alien Travel Permit allowing me to visit the region but were told that would require authority from Lhasa. I'm sure the answer will be "foreigners are not allowed to visit Yadong" when I enquire up there, but it's always worth a try.