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China's Open Door To Tibet

August 17, 1986|DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writer

LHASA, Tibet — A medley of Chinese and foreign songs--including a syrupy version of "Swanee River" in English and Chinese--played on the sound system of our sleek Japanese-made bus as we rolled through the barren semi-desert of western China toward Tibet.

With the fabled Kunlun Mountains of Taoist legend looming before us, our driver stopped to give rides to three burgundy-robed Tibetan monks hitchhiking our way. A pilgrim seated behind us softly chanted a prayer. Chinese passengers traveling to the "Roof of the World" on work assignments munched sunflower seeds or settled in to sleep away the hours.

Only a few weeks before, Peking had dropped the last of its restrictions on travel to Lhasa. Now anyone with a Chinese visa could hop onto a bus or plane to this ancient Tibetan city, which for centuries was one of the world's most inaccessible cultural centers.

The opening of Tibet, a historic event in itself, also dramatizes the transformation in recent years of all of China to a place where anyone with endurance and patience can travel independently, rubbing elbows literally and figuratively with ordinary Chinese citizens.

On a month-long journey from Hong Kong through China and across the Himalayas to Nepal, my wife and I traveled 3,600 miles by plane, train, bus, truck, van and foot. We usually stopped at hotels whose quality ranged from good to Spartan, but we also passed several nights in Chinese or Tibetan homes.

Hitchhiking through the countryside east of Lhasa, we stayed with road maintenance workers, with fishermen camped by the turquoise waters of the Yarlung Zangbo River and with the Communist Party leader of a small Tibetan village. We were dinner guests of a Tibetan truck driver and his wife, and of army officers whose men had given us a ride.

Our ability to speak Chinese enriched such encounters and helped make them frequent. But we met dozens of people unable to speak Chinese who were traveling on their own and enjoying similar experiences.

Peking's move dropping all barriers against travel to Lhasa was part of a decision implemented Feb. 1 that raised to 244 the number of "open" cities and areas in China. That is more than double the 107 places that foreigners already could visit without special travel permits.

Although permits are still required for some remote areas, almost everywhere a foreign tourist might want to go is either in the general vicinity of an open city or on a route between one open city and another.

In practice, it is up to police to tell foreigners if they have entered a restricted area. But as long as travelers don't linger too long, authorities rarely raise objections. Although most foreign travelers to Tibet fly to Lhasa, usually from Chengdu in neighboring Sichuan Province, we wanted to enter the region by land.

Our route took us by train from Hong Kong (where visas for independent travel in China are easily obtained) to Canton, then by air to the Silk Road city of Lanzhou, the real kickoff point for our Tibetan adventure. From Lanzhou we traveled by train to Xining and Golmud, where we caught one of the buses that depart daily for the 720-mile, two-day trip to Lhasa.

A half-day's journey southwest from Golmud took the bus over 15,869-foot Kunlun Pass onto the barren highlands of the Tibetan plateau, although this area is part of Qinghai Province rather than what the Chinese call the Tibet Autonomous Region.

As we rode along, a sharp early April wind sometimes blew light snow, and sometimes small dust storms, across the two lanes of asphalt that broke the high desert. At one point, storm-gray clouds sat on the ground off to one side. But much of the time we traveled under blue sky and a fierce sun that burned into all it struck, despite the chill in the air.

After passing the night with other passengers in a barracks-style hotel in a small town about 15,500 feet above sea level, we left before dawn for 17,388-foot Tanggula Pass.

Crossing Tanggula can be dangerous, because it is the highest pass on any of the overland routes to Lhasa. We intentionally traveled slowly from Lanzhou, giving our bodies a week to adjust to the rising altitude, and as an added precaution were taking Diomox, a medicine for prevention of altitude sickness.

We made it over with nothing worse than moderate headaches. But travelers in poor health or those who come up too quickly from the lowlands face grave risks.

Altitude Problems

Any tourist considering overland travel to Tibet should talk seriously with a physician about altitude sickness and its prevention. An elderly Tibetan woman on our bus, who apparently had been at low elevations and also suffered from heart trouble, was stricken with altitude sickness. After we reached Lhasa we were told that she had died.

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