That is the question.
James and I started planning our trip many moons ago now, with the rough outline of an itinerary (or at least places we thought sounded cool and would try and wrap in if at all possible) probably having been solidified around January. We’ve had plenty of time to get illogically, emotionally involved with our choice of countries, to the extent that a 3 month delay in our trip didn’t necessarily cause us to change any of our destinations, just the order in which they were visited. And also meaning that some of our planned locations are being visited at rather curious times of year: which brings us onto Tibet.
Our current plan has us trotting into Tibet near the end of October after a rather lengthy connection across China from the end of the Silk Road. Fine and dandy, other than the fact that Tibet is (i) in the Northern hemisphere and (ii) very high and (iii) our plan involves high altitude trekking. Yep, five days hiking in altitudes of well over 4,000 metres and temperatures of who knows what but I’ve got to guess well below freezing at least at night time.
We must have been insane.
Still, the trip is booked and fully paid for. And let’s face it, as long as we don’t actually die of AMS and / or hypothermia, it’ll be pretty darned cool. I think. Maybe.
Enter Mr. Cameron. Yes, him of current UK prime-ministerial fame. You see, Cameron met the Dalai Lama back in the summer, which infuriated the Chinese authorities to the extent that they have been refusing all Tibetan permits to UK nationals since said meeting occurred. For the past 2 months, we’ve been on tenterhooks waiting to see whether the Chinese reversed this decision post the Chinese national holiday at the start of October. Our travel agent told us that basically, we just had to hang on tight and hope for the best and with luck, we’d know where we stood by 15 October, or a whole 7 days before we were due to enter the country. In the meantime, perhaps we’d better consider some alternatives.
Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonably hardened traveler, so it’s not without a small modicum of shame that I confess that our alternative planning had got as far as looking longingly at the website of the Banyan Tree hotel in Li-jiang; plus some pretty advanced double-think on both of our parts to persuade ourselves that the $500 a night charge at said beautiful, luxurious hotel (with private bathroom!!) was totally worth it and in complete keeping with the whole ethos of our trip. I mean, we’d always said we’d be flashpacking, and lately the flash seems to have fizzled out into an endless sea of mutton kebabs and Chinese business hotels (which, in case you’re ever after such a place, are quite possibly the perfect suicide venue; particularly the wet room style bathrooms where you shower kind of on or over the loo. Perfectly rinse clean-able). And the Banyan Tree has a spa. And white wine. And cocktails.
So we were in somewhat mixed minds when we heard 10 days before launch date that the Chinese authorities were now letting English people into Tibet. However, they still weren’t permitting anyone to cross the border from Tibet to Nepal (an essential part of our trip), so we still weren’t sure whether we were going or not. Plus only groups of five or more are currently being allowed in, whilst the plan would be that it’s just the two of us. Our travel agent told us we’d need to hold on another week before getting any kind of decision but to be honest we’d kind of written the trip off by this point. Banyan Tree here we come.
Eventually, we got our go ahead 2 days before our scheduled departure, to the amazement of all we have spoken to. Our group of five fortunately managed to get a permit in the end, although tragically the other three members fell deeply ill and were unable to make the trip, leaving just James and I as the group’s two representatives in Tibet. I’m actually writing this aboard the train between Xining and Lhasa (which is a spectacular engineering feat – almost all at over 4,000 metres and partially built on permafrost – but not in and of itself spectacular. Still, acclimatization wise every little helps), taking a short break from reading some of the material on Tibet I’ve been blithely ignoring for the last 2 months, secure in the knowledge that we’d been rescued from our own craziness by the good graces of the Chinese authorities.
Tibet looks amazing. And cold. I can’t wait to see it all from the snugness of the 5 down jackets and one sheepskin cloak I intend to purchase in Lhasa.
And hey, there’s Banyan Trees all over the place, right?
The planning begins in Xining station. The large plastic bag has our ration of instant noodles for the journey, just in case the buffet car fails us
Xining to Lhasa train. Told you it wasn’t that spectacular!