5 mins

Getting to Tibet in three difficult steps

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, discovers getting a travel permit for Tibet is the easy part

Panda (Marie Javins)

"What do you mean there aren't any train tickets to Tibet for the entire first half of the month?"

"There are seats."

"But no sleepers?"

The young travel agent at the hostel in Chengdu, China sadly shook her head.

"You can buy two seats together," she offered.

I thought back to the seats on last night's train from Kunming to Chengdu. And then I thought about curling up on them like a cat for the 44-hour journey from Chengdu to Lhasa, and realised I was too tall for two. I’d need three.

"How much per seat?"


So that would be 1,500 yuan, or $235 US, plus food, and the pleasure of experiencing charming toilets, no doubt.

"The plane is 1,650 yuan," she added helpfully. And on the plane, you don't have to buy food for three days, I added in my head.

I wanted to believe in the abilities of this earnest young woman, but I was confused since I’d booked ahead with specific travel dates and wire-transferred my payment.

"You should fly. Also, you should book some hotels. Most of them are already sold out."

Uh-oh. I had not considered the number of Chinese tourists that would be competing for available hotel rooms in Tibet in August. I’d only thought about how few foreigners there would be since the border just opened.

So I had a driver, car, and guide, but no train ticket or hotel rooms. Well, we’d work it out. I had the most important thing – a travel permit.

In years past, foreign tourists had found ways around the permits and mandated guides, but nowadays that was almost impossible. I’d been travelling alone on trains and buses for months and wasn’t looking forward to being babysat.

At least I’d been assured of the services of a Tibetan driver and a Tibetan guide. That was a necessity for me – I’d been going around and around on the ethics of visiting Tibet in my head for years, and concluded that patronising local businesses was the right way to handle this journey. I do feel it’s important to keep outsiders present as much as possible. Preferably with multiple recording devices.

I headed into the hostel bar to read up on Lhasa hotels. A young blonde woman approached me.

"Do you have iTunes on your laptop? I'm desperate for movies. I can't get on a train or bus without them!"

Who am I to question how people spend their bus time? I resisted the urge to smugly point her to the lodge's huge shelf of free books, and instead suggested she try the teenagers at the front desk. They had movies on their iPods and computers, and no clue about copyright laws.

Chinese teens were surprising me. Not because they are better or worse than other teens, but because they were the same, which challenged my preconceptions. I’d wrongly assumed that internet and entertainment censorship meant that Chinese teens would be somewhat sheltered from worldwide pop culture. But getting around censors is relatively easy, so everyone in this lodge had been on Facebook, which is blocked in China, and everyone could pick and choose any pop culture item they felt like downloading. Plus, the young people of China are backpacking around Asia, learning about other cultures – their influences are as global as those of young people from societies with open internet.

I'd met a 27-year-old Chinese backpacker in Chiang Mai whose perfect California accent fooled me – I'd assumed he was from the US West Coast but he'd been from Shanghai and had an American teacher of English – and he'd laughed when I told him that people in the US were worried about China.

"But we're told it's the US that is the problem! That the US is in charge of the world and that the US can make us do anything. All US, all the time, and that we should all learn English."

We had a hearty shared laugh about our respective bogeymen.

I finished up my hotel research, and read a bit online about the train. Some people thought the train from Beijing to Tibet was harmful to Tibetan culture (though the plane seems to me to be just as accessible), and had a friend tell me how bored he was on the 44-hour journey “in a sealed capsule.” I read a New Yorker article that said there had been plenty of available berths on a sold-out train. But I was too chicken to risk begging for an onboard upgrade on this long a journey. What if I couldn’t get upgraded and had to spend 44 hours sitting upright in a middle seat?

I returned to the travel agent.

"Book the plane for me. And let’s call some hotels.”

She called several places I’d found in my guidebook or online.

They were all booked.

"It is high season," she shrugged. "Many Chinese are there."

"So there are no hotel rooms in Lhasa?"

"There will be rooms."

I sat flummoxed and counted to ten.

I... am... not... going... to... snap... at... this... young... woman.

"Well, how about you tell me where there are rooms then."

"There are many rooms. What standard would you like?"

I laughed. I was staying in a backpackers lodge. That she happened to work in. Still, she was just doing her job.

"Please tell me, where would YOU stay in Lhasa?"

"Where I would stay will be sold out."

"Please understand that I do not know anything about hotels in Lhasa. I am relying on you to give me information about hotels in Lhasa. Where would you stay if it wasn't sold out?"

"Cool Yak."

"Can you please call Cool Yak?"

She did. Booked solid.

She whipped out a map and showed me other hotels, then called them as I politely asked her to call each one she’d point to.


"Do you want to stay at Yak?"

"I thought you just called them."

"Not Cool Yak. Yak."

"What is Yak?"

"It is a big hotel. Maybe the tour operator can get us a room there."

Finally, we were getting somewhere. The tour operator could book the room! Why had this not happened this morning?

She sent an email.

"It will be okay. They will find you a room."

My head was spinning. I had to get out of this hostel, see something that made sense. “Making sense” did not include the fake Apple Store I was curious about, the one I’d spotted through the rain during the taxi ride to the hostel.


The coolest tourist attraction in Chengdu has got to be this.


And so I went to see pandas. And they were furry and lumbering and lazy. And adorable.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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