07 December 2007

Keep your fingers crossed

Friends, I have to apologize for the rather atrabilious tone of my recent posts. But you can understand how, heaped atop the melancholia of long term, independent travel, sudden illnesses compounded with minor frustrations and irksome disappointments can deflect the momentum of an otherwise positive experience into the shady pits of despair. Now, that is all past, because I have miraculously obtained a train ticket to Lhasa, Tibet. Oh, it wasn't easy, friends, but I have it now, in, as my 10th grade biology teacher would say, my hot little phalanges.

The story so far...

Despite being told in Kashgar that the road from Hotan to Charklik is terrible and the road beyond to Golmud impassible, I barrelled ahead anyway, convinced of my redoubtable, unflappable mettle. This much you know. Five hours further journey from my aborted attempt to cross into Western Tibet brought me to the oasis city of Hotan, once a mighty Silk Road kingdom and now the last outpost of urbanity before the wastes of the Taklamakan and Qinghai plateau. Look at a map of China. It's the most populous country on Earth, right? See that big, blank spot in the middle, where no people live? I was going to travel through there! Discouraged by people (Uighurs, even!) who bristled at the thought of such a journey in winter, by Lonely Planet descriptions of 17-hour bus journeys over horrendous, often washed-out roads, and by the possibility of having to pay exorbitant sums to make the trip, or to have to wait days in ignorance, or to reach Charklik only to have to turn back--all this put me off the venture. "What for?" I mused to myself, searching for the justification only I would ever care about. And that's the extended version of why I bought that 24-hour cross-desert bus ticket...


I happened to run into Abdul (or something.. real name forthcoming), and he changed everything. Interesting guy. Uighur, he studied English in Pakistan and Canada. I was sent to him by the Hotan CITS (Chinese International Travel Service), the organization with offices everywhere in China that's supposed to help foreigners get around. Naturally, nobody spoke English, the international language, but they were able to figure out what I wanted through rudiments and gestures and asked Abdul, a curator at the gorgeous new Hotan museum (they have mummies! Indo-European mummies!) to arrange a tour of local attractions. These consist of numerous ancient cities, which I uncharacteristically skipped (too expensive to get there and, according to Abdul, there's absolutely nothing to see), and working silk and carpet factories. We had a nice chat en route to the carpet factory, where local workers earn about $100/month (!) laboriously weaving lovely carpets by hand. I explained to Abdul that in America, I make about $1400/month as a graduate student, and I myself am woefully poor there, though I played down the woe part. At the silk factory, a dearth of tourists in winter meant a dearth of workers demonstrating how the famous Atlas silk is made. It was neat to learn about, anyway, since I never knew before that the cocoons of silk worms, having fed on the cuttings of mulberry trees, are thrown into a vat and boiled before the precious silk thread is worked out of them and then spun into the finest clothes in the world. And this was the secret so closely guarded by China for so long, the secret that created the Silk Road to begin with, allowing Europe to drain its meager wealth to buy fancy dresses useless against the cold--until the Italians figured out how to do it. I bought a hat for $8.

But I digress.. the reason my chance meeting with Abdul was so fortuitous was that he informed me of how cheap flights are from Hotan back to Urumqi. My travel guide suggests they aren't cheap at all. So, "how cheap?" I inquired. Well, if you buy them a few days in advance, sometimes as low as 600-800 yuan. Hmm, I thought, that's still rather more expensive than my 335 yuan bus ticket. But the yuan is 7.5 to the dollar, and it's really not *that* much more expensive, meal stops and such factored in. He made a call to a travel agent, and miraculously, there were tickets available for 530 yuan for a flight that afternoon! Not wanting to spend another night in my SLH, an entire day on the cross-desert bus, or several days in the eastern Xinjiang wilds, I told Abdul to take me to the travel agent and step on it. Now, I realize internal flights are cheating when you're traveling as I am, but I was really in dire straits, friends, and close to mental collapse. So please, just don't tell anyone, ok?

By the time we got to the travel agent, the 530 yuan tickets had sold out, but 650 yuan ones were still available. I relented to that, naturally, and a new plan formed in my demented brain. I would fly to Urumqi and immediately take a train first to Lanzhou and then to Lhasa, assuming berths were available on both trains on such short notice (almost never) and assuming I could buy a ticket to Lhasa without a permit (increasingly possible). To be safe, I emailed my Urumqi friend Tracy and begged her to buy the train tickets for me (since a Chinese will not be refused entry to Tibet). As it turned out, she had another friend get them, and he was only able to get a spot for a Monday departure. Monday! You saw me swear on this blog, and that was why. Stubbornly, undeterred, I went to the train station myself the next morning and demanded in the strongest possible terms the ticket lady sell me a ticket to Lhasa. I insist, you see, that the usual nature of things not apply to me. Of course, she didn't speak English, but did manage to scrounge up an expensive soft sleeper for me to Lanzhou, once the world's most polluted city, whence I could then buy a ticket to Lhasa, if available, highly unlikely. Well. I took it and ran back to my hostel to get my pack, sailed back again to the train station, called Tracy to apologize for not staying to visit her again and for wasting her time getting a train ticket I now wouldn't need, boarded the train, and shared a compartment for 24 hours with a young couple and their relentlessly hyperactive little boy, who was funny and cute, but who I also wanted to kill (after hour 12; up until then, I only wanted to maim). I offered him oranges and his father offered me some small, green peppers. Sensing trouble, I accepted one and just bit off the tip. When I picked my head up off the floor, I graciously declined further offers, with the exception of the beers he bought and then opened against a footrest.

All night on the train to Lanzhou, I prayed and prostrated to the travel gods, begging them to look kindly on me and grant me passage to Tibet. There may be no greater request to make of them, and I knew if they granted my request, I would owe them big time. Clearly, my obsecrations did not fall on deaf ears. When I nervously entered the ticket hall in Lanzhou, I feared the worst: "Where's your Tibet Travel Permit" or "There's nothing available until next Friday, soft sleeper only, 1000 yuan". Instead, she circled "hard sleeper, middle berth" on my little note (even though I can't speak Pudonghua, I can write Chinese characters, so I write notes with them to buy train tickets), departing 15:21 today. Amazing! Not only a ticket, not only today, not only without a permit, but a middle berth hard sleeper, gold standard of backpacker travel in China! People sit on the bottom berth, you see, and the top berth is too close to the ceiling and the loudspeakers. I remain in suspense, however, because I might still be stopped before boarding the train or thrown off en route when I am discovered permitless. I've read that nearly everyone makes it to Lhasa without incident, however, so I am hopeful, and when I get there, I will be even more thrilled that I PULLED IT OFF, which gives me more joy than could visits to a thousand ancient cities or a million mountain valleys. Pray for me anyway, my friends. Pray to the travel gods or whatever other gods you hold in esteem. Tomorrow evening, after another interminable journey--30 hours on, reaching 5000 meters+, the highest railway in the world--I hope to write here again, from Tibet, of my success.

1 comment:

Jhenn said...

Wow I thought $100 sounded good for them! Before Japan I was making probably $600 or less a month (yes as a college graduate). Now it's 0 living at home! Don't think ebay counts.

Hope you're in Tibet not abusing any poor silk worms!