Monday, May 01, 2006

Tibet 2006 - Part 1 - Shanghai to Chengdu to Lhasa

Tibet Clockwise - 2006

The Chinese celebrate May 1 (Labor Day or International Workers Day) with a weeklong public holiday from May 1 to May 7. Sun-Ling and I decided to go to Tibet. Here’s the story.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

We both left work early on Sunday, April 30 for an 8:00 pm flight to Chengdu. The flight left on time and we arrived in Chengdu about 10:45. Working on Sunday?

Golden Weeks: In order to squeeze in a 7-day holiday, a so-called Golden week, with a minimum of missed working days, the Chinese execute the following scenario: Work 7 days in a row, Monday through Sunday, and then have 7 days off, Monday through Sunday, and return to work on Monday for the usual 5-day work week. Got it?

Sun-Ling eating dinner at the airport.
Sun-Ling @ Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) - 2006

The modern stylings of the Shanghai Pudong airport.
Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG)

We had previously arranged for a Chengdu airport pickup and one night’s accommodation at Sims Cozy Guesthouse. Yes, it’s actually called Sims Cozy Guesthouse. Conveniently, Sims has an onsite travel agency run by a guy named Bill and we had booked our travel permits and air tickets with Bill. More about that later.

The flight to Chengdu was uneventful, the airport pickup was smooth, and we were at Sims by 10:45PM. After checking in, we paid Bill for our roundtrip air tickets to Lhasa and he gave us the tickets for the Chengdu to Lhasa leg. The return tickets would have to be picked up from a travel agent in Lhasa. Don’t ask.

By midnight we were in bed and hoping to get some sleep as our ride to the airport would leave at 4:30AM for our 6:20AM flight.

Non-Chinese citizens require a permit to enter Tibet and are also required to be on an official tour. Sims and Bill arrange permits for what I call a “fake” tour. Our tour had 23 people for A Many 1 departure to Tibet; however, we were all on separate flights and would never see each other once in Tibet. Get it? A tour that exists only as a list of names on a permit.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Up at 4:00Am for the 4:30AM drive to the airport which is about 50kms outside of town. We are picked up at Sims right at 4:30 by a driver and our “guide”. At the airport, our “guide” shows the “permit” as we check in, shows it again when we go through security, and then that’s it, we never see the “guide” nor of the other members of our “tour’. Neat. The permit cost us 50 USD each.

The plane left on time at 6:20 and it was an uneventful flight to Lhasa except that the scenery out the window is spectacular. About 15 minutes after takeoff, you start seeing the ridges, peaks, and valleys of Tibetan plateau. The sun was just rising and the view from the airplane was spectacular.

You can make out a river valley running left to right in the middle of this photo.
View of Tibetan plateau from airplane - May 2006

View of Tibetan plateau from airplane - May 2006

The Lhasa airport is located about 90kms outside town. The air temperature was just above freezing when we landed at 8:10AM. The CAAC bus ride from the airport to town was 25Y each and took about 90 minutes. The drive in from the airport was very cool. Lots of prayer flags, locals in native costumes, and teams of yaks plowing the fields. We crossed one long bridge over a mostly dry river basin and went through one long tunnel. As we entered Lhasa my first impression was of a bright, clean, and lively city. Many pilgrims were circling the Potala.

Arrival near the east end of the Potala Palace.
Lhasa, Tibet Potala Palace - May 2006

We were dropped off right at the east end of the Potala Palace and immediately took a taxi (10 Yuan) to the Snowlands Hotel where we found that we had made a big mistake – our reservation was actually at some other Snowlands Hotel in another province. Whoops. And although the Snowlands had a few rooms, there were none with bath en suite, only some “common” rooms. The common rooms were not so good and the Snowlands is in the middle of a renovation so we walked across the street to the Pentoc Hotel and got a room for 60Y, about 8 USD.

Money: Chinese currency, RMB or Yuan, is used in Tibet. 8 Yuan = $1 US OR 80 RMB = 10 USD.

The Pentoc has an interesting history. Previously it was associated with a Pentecostal Missionary (that’s how you get Pentoc I suppose). Currently it seems to be associated with the nearby, 4-star Shangbala hotel and also it seems to be only half the previous size. The room keys are attached to a 5 inch wooden cross or it could be the “T” in Tibet. Who knows?

By 10:37 AM we were established in the Pentoc just off Mentseekhang Lam. The room was furnished with twin beds, a TV, a wash basin, a night stand, a trashcan, a clothes tree, and 2 tea cups. No closet, no sink. The shared shower and toilet were relatively close but up and down a short flight of stairs respectively.

The plan was to rest for the whole day and start sight seeing on the 2nd. The altitude of 3700 meters or 12000 ft makes all activity, physical and mental, a test for the newly arrived. Also, we were tired from the lack of sleep in Chengdu.

I had a headache, downed a handful of Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), and slept most of the afternoon. Sun-Ling did not acclimatize well, threw up twice during the afternoon, and said she felt like she was going to die. She took some Chinese medicine for altitude sickness, but did not feel better.

Around 8:00 PM we walked the 20 meters to the Shangbala and had a Chinese style dinner of 3 dishes for 70 Y. Then took brief stroll, bought a 1.5L bottle of Nongfu spring water for 5Y, then to bed.

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