Zero Point II

Milestone Marking Start
of Road to Tibet
November 27, 2010

The young guy across the noodle restaurant kept staring at me. Finally, he spoke up:

"Is your cellphone made by Apple? Is it an iPhone 3G? Can I see it?"

I was surprised. Kaghalik is remote--the nearest city of any size is Kashgar, a five-hour journey by bus. Not only did he know what make of phone I was holding, he could recognize the model from a distance.

I let him play around with the phone; we made conversation. New Chinese vocabulary item of the day: jailbreak, 逃狱 táoyù.

He asked what brought me to Kaghalik. I vaguely mentioned that I was traveling around the region.

"Are you going to Tibet?", he asked.

Kaghalik <=> Ali
Sleeper Bus
I had indeed been planning on asking around about going to Tibet--but his question shouldn't have surprised me. The road leading from Xinjiang to Tibet, GD219, begins here in Kaghalik. Though it is a historic Uyghur town, there isn't a lot else that would bring a tourist here.

I knew that getting a lift along the GD219 wouldn't be easy. A colleague of Nisagul's who also works at an Urumqi travel agency had told us that there was no longer bus service to Tibet. Even for local travelers, a travel permit is required. Additionally, for foreigners getting an Alien Travel Permit is never easy and usually costly. Still, I decided it was worth asking what a local knew about buses to Tibet.

"Sure, there's service. You could probably set off tomorrow, if you wanted."

So, Nisagul and I went out to Zero Point this morning. That's an area just east of the city where the road to Tibet begins. The area looked much the same as when we were last at Zero Point five years ago. Lots of truck yards. A military encampment. The road was still lined with dozens of dodgy "beauty salons" serving as fronts for brothels. At least the road had been paved--it was all gravel when we last came through.

We found a sleeper bus with Tibetan license plates parked in front of a cheap hotel. Signs in Chinese on the windshield gave destination and contact information:

Kaghalik <=> Ali

Departure tomorrow
Kaghalik: 13899154826
Ali: 13989972169

Dusty Road
A woman stepped out of the hotel.

"Are you going to Tibet? We operate this bus."

Nisagul did the talking. But from the start of the conversation, I knew that I wouldn't be getting on that bus. Even before the hotel worker realized that I was a foreigner, she asked whether we had travel permits. (Despite being a local, Nisagul too would need to get a travel permit issued at a government office here in Kaghalik.) When Nisagul further shared that I was a foreigner, the woman in charge of the bus explained that my Alien Travel Permit would have to come from Urumqi.

I'd given up the idea of getting any Alien Travel Permit for Tibet issued long before finding the sleeper bus. The regulations vary depending on in which city the permit is issued, but "fees" range between $100-to-$200 USD to get such permits issued. 97% of that amount is pocketed by local travel agencies who have the connections to get them issued. The actual permit does have a price, but it's only 50 yuan, about $7.50 USD.

Road Not Taken
As for Nisagul, even if she did get a permit issued from the office in town, she wouldn't be able to take the sleeper bus to Tibet. The government office is closed on weekends. Tomorrow's bus will be the last run of the year. The weather is getting too cold. The next bus to Ali after tomorrow's won't leave until sometime next spring.

I had been hoping that the woman running the hotel and bus line might be willing to sell me a ticket at a mark-up, without a permit. But, it was clear from her conversation that absolutely nobody would be let aboard that bus without the proper papers.

I could ask around about other transport options into Tibet. It would be a great trip to travel the same way we went last time, hitching a lift with a cargo truck. But, I've decided not to go down that road. Nisagul and I will instead travel on together to Hotan, where we'll part ways. From Hotan, she'll take the cross-desert sleeper bus to return to Urumqi. I'll backtrack to Kashgar then head south over the Khunjerab Pass and down into Pakistan.