Friday, July 24, 2009

Tibet as a tourist destination

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fifth and last in the series for my blog from this trip.

Now that Lhasa can be reached by plane or by train and highways run across Tibet to the borders with Nepal and India, Tibet is significantly more accessible than ever before. There is real prospect of Tibet becoming a popular destination for the mainstream tourists around the world.

And why not?
Tibet offers spectacular natural scenery with breath taking views of mountains, glaciers, lakes and canyons. Tibet also has its share of world heritage sites, a long history and culture that intrigues most people in the West and attractive indigenous arts and crafts almost unique to Tibet.

However, as Tibet becomes a more common tourist destination, surely those that fantasize about finding Shangri-la in Tibet will object. Similarly those that come to the Tibetan plateaus in search of their personal spiritual high may get upset at finding more concrete than straw and mud, more electrical lights than yak butter lamps, more cars than donkey carts, and more tourists than believers.

In reality, Tibet is sparsely populated. There are plenty of hidden valleys waiting to be “discovered” as someone’s personal Shangri-la and lonely mountain tops for those desiring a spiritual encounter of a special kind. Driving along the highways, I noticed signs to other monasteries that we and, I suspect, most run of the mill touring groups did not visit. Perhaps those more remote holy places would offer the spiritual experience of more substance to those seeking such solace.

Furthermore, Tibet has a long ways to go before it is overrun with international travelers. Let’s start with the train system that runs on the roof of the world. Other than the ability to provide oxygen on demand, the equipment is disappointingly ordinary, not commensurate with the technological breakthrough of the railroad. Lacking are glass-domed observation cars where first class passengers can lounge, have a drink or meal and enjoy the vistas. There is nothing to suggest that this is a special ride.

The service on the train is somewhat more slovenly than regular trains that run at lower altitudes. The dining car is under capacity relative to demand and not particularly high on hygiene standards. Worst of all, the demand for soft sleeping berths exceeds supply. The shortage of soft berths can be easily rectified by adding more cars with sleeping compartments along with a computer system that would assure selling every berth along the route.

The Ministry of Railway has yet to introduce such a reservation system but has continued to rely on the archaic allocation of sleeping berths at the station of origination. For example, in order to ensure that our group of 20 would be able to board the same train departing from Xining, our travel service had to buy the tickets from Beijing, where the train originated. This meant that 5 sleeping compartments were unoccupied for the 24 hours from Beijing to Xining, accompanied only by the travel service representative who went to Beijing to buy the tickets and bring them back to Xining for us.

The other alternative was for the travel service to buy the tickets in the black market, but there would be no assurance of buying the full block to ensure that our group stays together. Since none of the 5 trains that go to Lhasa via Xining originate from Xining, it meant the necessity of buying tickets for phantom legs or dealing with huang niu, scalpers who are thriving as illegal intermediaries.

While Beijing made great strides to raise the standard of public toilets just prior to the 2008 Olympics, the improvements have not found Tibet. Except for certain hotel facilities, most public toilets are primitive and smelly. The toilets at the monasteries are particularly bad; they smell, well, to high heaven. Smelly toilets will deter many from coming to Tibet.

Lastly, Tibet is not fully prepared for tourists. In cities such as Lhasa and Xigaze, there should be tourist information centers to provide maps and suggestions of tourist related activity. We did not see any such offices. We saw plenty of soldiers and policemen guarding key intersections and major edifices. Clearly, at this point in Tibet’s development, security considerations trump tourism.

Tibet is also not everybody’s cup of tea from a physical point of view. A visit to Tibet means spending most of the time at altitudes from 12,000 to 16,000 ft. There is no way to predict who will feel severe discomfort at such heights but those who have experienced elevation sickness at lower altitudes definitely should not go to Tibet.
Colorful apartments above the nunnery shop in old Lhasa.

Debating monk at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

White yaks grazing when not working as photo stops

The receding Kharola Glacier due to global warming


SC said...

George, there was a book called 亮出你的舌头或空空荡荡 written as a series of short stories from the vantage point of a wanderer in Tibet. I read it many years ago and found it quite fascinating, although it does contain some disturbing portrayal of the Tibetan history and culture. Check it out if you have time.


George said...

To SC,

Unfortunately, those of us that tried your link, find content that we cannot read. I suspect it's in Chinese. Perhaps you can advise us as to what tools we need in order to read the contents. Thanks,

SC said...

If you have Internet Explorer, click View -> Encoding -> More -> Chinese Simplified (HZ)

If you have Firefox, click View -> Character Encoding -> Chinese Simplified

That should do it.