Saturday, September 10, 2005

Into Tibet......Illegally

Yup, it's true. I'm pleased to announce that we have done our part to undermine the system and promote corruption. It's to help all our fellow backpackers of the future. I am also worth more now because now I am "smuggled goods". Heh heh. But I'll get to that in a sec.
First, from Dunhuang we caught a sleeper bus 11hrs south to Golmud. We got absolutely no sleep on this bus as the roads were so bumpy (but the stars were great). But we did meet a Japanese backpacker named Daisuke. As a quick side note I just want to say that although Japanese backpackers tend to do their own thing we get along great with them. Having had all the students for years and knowing a few phrases and songs, not to mention our card game gives us a lot in common.
Golmud is a nothing town in the middle of nowhere but again we can see that the Chinese government is throwing tons of money into the farflung reaches of their country as it was very nice looking. More important to us, it has the distinction of being our cheapest stay so far on this trip at $1.25 a bed (my personal record is $0.75 in Laos though). The only reason anyone goes to Golmud is because it is the launch pad to Tibet by road.
Tibet is a messed up thing here in China because in order to get there you must have a special permit. There are also only a few ways for foreigners to get in. Most go by air from Chengdu or by road from Golmud. For the Chinese a bus ticket from Golmud to Lhasa is 180Y (~$22US) for the 24-30hr ride. For foreigners with a permit it is 1700Y (~$210US) on the same bus. It doesn't take an economics major to realize this leaves a ton of room for a transportation black market, especially considering there is nobody checking permits once you get past the checkpoints on the road and are in Tibet. In Chengdu there is no such black market as it's much easier to control aircraft so basically the majority of people going to Golmud go illegally as this black market is very well established now.
It still cost us 660Y (~$82) each but most of that supposedly goes to bribing the police at the different checkpoints along the way. I'm still not convince that they actually bribed the guys. We took off (5 of us in 2 cars, Daisuke came with us) under the cover of 5am darkness and sped out of town and through the first checkpoint with our heads down hiding behind tinted windows. The rest of the ride and checkpoints went well and we have made it to Lhasa without problems.
Our other worry on that road of course was altitude sickness. Tibet is a plateau, with most of it sitting between 4000-5000m (13000-17000ft). Obviously oxygen becomes an issue. We had to pass over a couple of passes with the highest point on the road being 5300m (~17500). I am happy to announce that none of us had any major problems.
Minor altitude sickness is still really wierd though. It's like just coming out of surgery. You're constantly yawning, your heart is beating really fast (my resting heart rate went up to ~90/min from my usual 60), you've got a headache in the front of your head and in the base of your skull lurks the evil lightheadedness. And you can't really move around because you are too tired. The whole time you are just sitting there wondering if you are still sane and how long before you pass out. You don't know if it'll get worse or better or even how high you are to estimate if you are doing well or not. We were fine but it's not really something I'd like to do many times again....
After 20 hrs on the road we made it to Lhasa at 1am. The hotel we had planned was full so at 1:30am we had Bre bang on doors to wake people up and give us a room. This morning we are still feeling wrecked. Mostly just lethargic but that is understandable as we are still at 3700m (12000ft). It is sunny but down to a freezing 22C today. If the altitude doesn't kill me the cold surely will....
From what we've seen very briefly today, Lhasa is really cool. I can't wait to get out and see it but that will be a few days off I think. We will probably be here for about a week with a few days to acclimatize and then a few to sight-see. We also have to pick up our Nepal visas here.
Hope all is well out there....
Ammon

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