Lhasa. The name has a particularly mysterious and forbidden ring to it these days. Maybe it’s images of Tibetan cowboys on the high plateau or flashes of defiant monks protesting in the face of Chinese police last March.
Recently, the Chinese government reported that the situation in Tibet was “back to normal” in preparation for the arrival of the Olympic flame there. Even with the Olympic torch safely relayed through Lhasa this past weekend with an escort squadron of blue track-suited torch guards, Tibet still remains closed to foreigners.
We travelers always hope for a bite of the forbidden travel fruit. So imagine our excitement when we checked in for our flight at an empty Kathmandu, Nepal airport a few weeks ago and learned that our flight to Chengdu, China was laying over in Lhasa. We squealed like children, “Which side of the plane has the best views?” “Can we get seats on that side?” “Please! Please!”
The check-in clerk smiled. He was accustomed to giddy questions from westerners who found themselves surprisingly bound for Lhasa. “You are seated on the left side, the best side for views. Don’t worry; if you don’t like your seat you can move. The plane is not full.”
Not full? This was an understatement. Our Air China jet normally accommodated 180 people. This flight carried only 13 passengers – 8 foreigners and 5 Chinese travelers – and 5 flight attendants. The service was excellent, if a bit doting.
Dramatic Skies on the Way to Lhasa
Himalayan mountain peaks poked through the cloud cover, sending the few tourists on the plane into a shutter frenzy. As we approached Lhasa, the terrain transformed from snow-capped jagged mountains to rugged high desert plains. The snaking Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) River took on a deep aqua luster in the late morning light. Flat-roofed stone Tibetan houses were clustered along river banks and on hillsides.
We descended into the Lhasa airport without a glimpse of the town or its famous Potala Palace, the Tibetan Buddhist architectural icon that graces the walls of every Tibetan restaurant throughout Asia.
We filed out of the plane under the watchful eye of security guards and were led to passport control.
Welcome Back to China
Within minutes, Lhasa’s altitude began to affect us. Although we had just hiked over a 5,416 meter pass (Thorong La) in Nepal, our ascent there was gradual. Exiting the plane into Lhasa’s 3,700 meter rarefied air was a shock to our systems: our heads felt fuzzy, our hearts beat quickly, our faces were flush and our motions slowed. And in the aggregate, we were each triple-teamed by a broad security detail that lurked behind every empty corner and above each empty escalator.
It was clear we were being watched very closely.
With queries like, “Where are you going in China? Is this your second trip to China?” immigration questioning was relatively light. We had no intention of sneaking into Tibet hidden in the trunk of a car so we had nothing to hide. After a lengthy check of our passport details, the immigration officer offered with a smile and in remarkably good English, “I’m sorry it took so long to check your personal information. Have a nice trip.” [This was somewhat of a shock and a first – a Chinese official who speaks English! It seemed like China's pre-Olympic language and hospitality training efforts are paying off, at least in Lhasa.]
We waited with our group to be led to a security check of our belongings. Again, security personnel well-outnumbered passengers. I secretly removed her Tibetan necklace as a precaution. For us, our pass through the x-ray machine and metal detector was standard; surprisingly it didn’t feature any questions about our equipment. We had earlier worried that our laptops and cameras might draw attention to us and cast us as nosy journalists.
Another couple – Dutch tourists – were not so fortunate. We watched as they emptied the contents of their carry-on bags onto the counter. They later explained that their National Geographic magazine – a special edition on China – had been inspected page by page. All pages with abstract modernist depictions of Mao (unflattering, but ironically ones that were being featured at a gallery in Beijing) were ripped out by airport security officials.
The act was again executed with trained politeness, “Do you mind if we take this?”
Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.
We wound our way through the completely empty airport to the gate. The whole place in its antiseptic airport vastness was devoid of souls, save the copiously scattered airport personnel in heavily starched uniforms. The environment was surreal, if not vaguely post-apocalyptic. Even the souvenir stand was closed, the offering of large Tibetan carpets hastily draped over the window to obscure the other Tibetan souvenirs inside.
All 13 of us boarded the plane with our boarding passes newly issued in the names of mysterious people we didn’t know. Later, passengers flying from Lhasa to Chengdu boarded. Now where did they come from? It was as if we and our group from Kathmandu were handled in quarantine so as not to contaminate the other Chinese passengers.
Welcome to Chengdu
We shared a minivan taxi with some other foreign tourists from Chengdu airport into town. They had just spent several months in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. We chuckled as they stared out the window, their mouths agape at the wide highways, clean streets, large shopping centers, streetlights, modern cars, and organized shops and apartments.
Think of China as primitive, backward, undeveloped? Think again. Particularly compared to its neighbors in South Asia, China is almost futuristic. To truly grasp it – and how quickly it's changing – you must see it for yourself.
A few days later one of the European tourists captured it nicely, “Europe seems like the countryside compared to China.”
We laughed. This was only Chengdu, the relatively small (metropolitan area of 10-13 million) relaxed capital of Western China’s Sichuan province. More surprises were in store for them. They hadn’t yet seen Beijing or Shanghai.
One Last Surprise
The night we arrived in Chengdu, I discovered that her big backpack (checked luggage) had been forced open by airport security. When we checked it in, the bag had been secured with a lock. The security personnel broke the zipper to get inside.
While it’s common for airport security to examine checked baggage (think of the TSA in the United States), what’s telling is the reason for the search. Not a belonging was out of place except for a portfolio full of papers from our travels. Security officials were likely disappointed by what they found: restaurant business cards, receipts, maps, brochures, and other reference materials to write articles – rather than the “Free Tibet” or religious missionary materials they were likely searching for. Although nothing was taken, having our bags ripped open and personal papers rifled through to satisfy a paranoia seemed pathologically Soviet.
At any rate, you know the old saying: actions speak louder than words.