"Into Thin Air"

"Would you like me to wait?" asked the driver. My habit of always being early to catch a flight had landed us at the Shanghai airport 3.5 hours prior to my flight to Lhasa Tibet. I told my driver that I would be fine, thanked him for being on time, and taking me to the airport in the middle of the night. One hour prior to boarding, the ticket counter opened, and I handed my papers to the young girl dressed in a China Airlines uniform. She inspected my passport, visa, and the all-important permit to allow foreigners the right to travel in Tibet. Her fingers kept fumbling at the top left-hand corner of the papers and she spoke to me in very broken English. From what I could make out the area showed a small dark smudge of where a staple may have been. She asked for another paper that should have been attached to the ones I had. When she realized I could not converse with her she called her supervisor and I followed him to another counter. He told me that there was a page missing and that these were photocopies and not acceptable. So, there I was at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, stranded in the Shanghai airport. I had the cell phone number of the travel agent who had arranged my trip. His location was in Xian, and I had only dealt with his agency through emails. I waited as the phone rang, knowing deep down inside that it would probably not be answered. It rang for what seemed an eternity and then to my surprise a very groggy voice answered the phone. The conversation quickly turned to English as I explained my dilemma. He asked if the agent was available and I turned the phone over to him. The phone was handed back and he asked if I could catch a flight to Chengdu where one of their contacts would meet me with the correct papers. The phone was handed back to the supervisor who said he would look after me. The ticket now in hand, I ran to the gate as the flight was boarding. On arrival in Chengdu, I was greeted by a young girl who apologized for the mix-up. There was a scramble as we had to find out which airline had my reservations for the onward flight to Lhasa. It turned out it was Sichuan Airlines, and this seemingly meek young girl barged her way to the front of the line, to show them the new faxed copies she had received from Lhasa. They refused the faxed copies; she then phoned her office, but the staff at the desk would not talk to her supervisor who she had on the phone. "Here we go again," I mumbled out loud. She then confronted the staff at the supervisors`desk and began pleading with them to no avail. On to another official, and I told him that this is the arrangements I had made in Shanghai. They wanted proof of my ticket. I showed them all of my receipts but they kept insisting that they needed something else from the airline. Five minutes until the gate was closing, I decided we had better cancel the flight as it could only be done from the point of origin. She told me that if I cancelled, it would take at least two days for the original permit to arrive from Lhasa. I then put everything I had in my pockets and travel documents pouch on the counter in front of the head supervisor. Everyone seemed to shout at the same time, "That`s it!" She grabbed the cancelled ticket from the flight I was to take from Shanghai direct to Lhasa and gave it to them. They relented, gave her a boarding pass, and she started running towards security with me close behind. I shouted to her "What about my luggage?" "Take it on board with you," was her breathless reply. The last words I heard from her were "Run, Kieron run!" I arrived at the aircraft with my 40 plus pounds of luggage, and my camera gear stowed in my backpack. My shirt was soaking wet, and, between breaths, I began to apologize to the stewardess about the luggage. She simply smiled and took me to my seat. To my amazement, two petite flight attendants picked up my bag and stuffed it into the overhead bin above me. 

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                              Shanghai skyline                                    Arrival in Lhasa
All foreigners going to the Tibet Autonomous Region are required to be on an organized tour that includes travel permits, a tour guide, a private vehicle, and a driver; a travel agency will need to be used in order to travel to Tibet. If you are flying to Tibet, have the original permit mailed to you, either at home or have an agent bring it to your hotel room. l learned the hard way that photocopies are not acceptable.  

'The rules change constantly'

As an example in 2012, the Chinese Government decided that travellers would be allowed to enter Tibet only if they were part of an organized group with a minimum of 5 people of the same nationality. On March 25th, 2013 after a two-month closure, The Tibet Tourism Bureau stated that Tibet would open to foreign tourists on April 1st and the Travel Permit would allow a minimum group size of two people of the same nationality. Two days later they announced that solo travellers may obtain permits again! The policy requiring travellers to travel in a tour group, with a minimum of two people of the same nationality, had been removed.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                            Potala Palace                        Jokhang Golden Roof Dragon
Whenever the Chinese government refers to Tibet, it refers to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a province in the west of China. The extent to which it is autonomous is a matter of great debate. The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. The complex, comprising the White and Red Palaces with their ancillary buildings, is built on Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley, at an altitude of 3,700m. The Jokhang or “House of the Lord,” Temple in Lhasa is the most revered and intensely spiritual holy site in Tibet. It is the destination for pilgrims from all over the country and from different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles and also support gilded birds, bells and a variety of other figures. It is from the roofs that one can see the complexity of the structure, the Barkhor path below and also view the breath-taking Potala Palace in the distance.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                            Prayer Flags                                 Prayer Wheels

A prayer flag is a colourful panel or rectangular cloth often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding countryside or for other purposes. Unknown in other branches of Buddhism, prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bön, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally, they are woodblock-printed with texts and images. Tibetan prayer wheels (called Mani wheels by the Tibetans) are devices for spreading spiritual blessings and well being. Rolls of thin paper, imprinted with many, many copies of the mantra (prayer) Om Mani Padme Hum, printed in an ancient Indian script or in Tibetan script, are wound around an axle in a protective container and spun around and around. Typically, larger decorative versions of the syllables of the mantra are also carved on the outside cover of the wheel.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                             Yamdrok Lake                                  Coral Lake
For Tibetans, Yamdrok Lake is the largest and most important of the three holy lakes. It is believed that Yamdrok Lake is the female Guardian of Buddhism in Tibet and that the lake will bless and protect them. The Yamdrok Yumtso Lake has some beautiful and vivid names like Coral Lake or Green Jade Lake. The name Coral Lake is derived from its irregular shape. This lake has many short streams winding into the nearby mountains and it appears much like coral.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                        Karola Pass 5,100 m                           Prayer Flags and local
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                      Tashi Lhunpo Monastery                           Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

During the lifetime of the 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, there were more than 3,000 monks in the Monastery and by 1959 there were 5,000, with another 2,000 monks affiliated to the monastery living outside Tibet. The Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966-80 both wreaked destruction on Tibet's monastic institutions, which lost many precious scriptures, statues and images. Many monks were killed or imprisoned and only 250 were able to follow the Dalai Lama into exile. Brightly clad pilgrims from all over Tibet trudge around the sacred circuit outside the monastery, muttering mantras and spinning the large brass prayer wheels as they pass. I walked the circuit and the effects of the altitude were becoming apparent. I had trouble sleeping that night and the following morning I finished my last bottle of water...

The 290 km drive back to Lhasa turned into one of the worst days of the trip. After about 15 minutes on the road, I reached into the cardboard box that my guide had kept the bottled water in. There was nothing but empty bottles! Bottled water is something that your guide or tour company usually supplies. Another hard lesson learned, make sure you have an adequate supply of water, especially at altitude. There would be no place to purchase water until our arrival. Wrapped in a blanket, the final leg of our return journey to Lhasa took us through one last high pass (Karo La Pass) at an altitude of 5,010m or 16,400ft. I was in severe distress with a pulsating headache, nausea and chills. My blood pressure taken at the Lhasa clinic topped out at 170/100 with a high pulse rate. They told my guide that I required an I.V. for dehydration. He told me that he felt the conditions were not sanitary and he was sending the doctor to my hotel room. The young Chinese doctor entered the room with his small black bag and removed a syringe from the packaging. He told me that I would require a shot in the rump for nausea, and to help me sleep. He also administered two units of I.V. and one of glucose, over a four hour period. He stayed with me the whole time. I slept the rest of the day, and through the night. The following day I felt much better and eager to continue.

Two days later I was on a flight to Kathmandu for a short visit in Nepal before spending two weeks in "The Land of the Thunder Dragon", Bhutan. On my return to China, through Kathmandu, I had to land in Lhasa again. I was under the impression, and also told, that I would be in transit. My Chinese visa was for a double-entry so no worries, or so I thought...
Myself, and three others, were ordered into the immigration office. We were told that we were in China illegally. One of the gentlemen became very angry and started arguing with the officials. They removed him from the room and asked me to come forward. I explained to them that my visa was for a double-entry and that I would only be in transit as the onward flight was to Chengdu. The requested documentation of my onward flight back to Canada and kept my passport. If you arrive in Nepal with a Chinese visa already in your passport, you will NOT be able to use it. If you plan to enter Tibet from Nepal, you must get your Tibet visa from the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. Whether you already have a Chinese visa or not. A Tibet visa is compulsory for all tourists entering Tibet from Nepal. They then proceeded to grant me the visa on the spot and documented it in my passport. So now I had a visa to sit in transit; good news! again, or so I thought...
As the plane left Lhasa I looked around for the gentleman who had been removed from the room, he was not on the onward flight to Chengdu. I spent a few days at the Bifengxia Panda Base a giant panda breeding facility in Ya'an, Sichuan, before my return to Canada from Shanghai.
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                 Giant Panda                                   Future Uncertain
At the ticket counter in Shanghai leaving for home, I gave them my passport to check-in. It seemed to take a long time for them to check my bags. Finally, an immigration officer appeared and told me to follow him to security. My passport was handed over to the young lady in charge who told me I was in the country illegally. "Not again," I said to myself. They asked me why my passport had not been stamped when I entered China through Nepal. I tried to explain what had happened but the explanation did not seem to register with her. She told me that I would be detained and that they would have to forward this to their superiors. Over an hour had passed and my international flight would be boarding in less than thirty minutes. I told her the reason for the mix-up was due to them not having any ladies in charge at the Lhasa airport. She relayed this answer to her colleague in Chinese, and they both tried to hide their amusement. I asked her if there was going to be a problem with this as my flight would soon be leaving. She said I must promise that I would not try and re-enter China on this visa. I told her that she could just cancel it, as it expires in two months. She said that was not possible and that they would soon be finished with all the paperwork. Finally, I was released, and, while boarding I was pulled aside again by the same immigration officer who originally detained me. He made me promise to him that I would not enter China again using this visa!!



Vanishing Cultures Photography
Sometimes it is difficult to learn things the hard way! I always try and purchase something from the local people and it is usually an article of unique clothing or jewelry. Prayer Flags and Prayer Wheels were abundant to purchase.
Priya Balan(non-registered)
The images you got are beautiful especially the prayer wheels , the monastery, the lake and ofcourse the Panda. That's sad that you had to suffer and get sick because of lack of water. Water is really important! I hope when you go next time everything is smooth. Did you ever buy momentos?
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