Why and How
My friend M had wanted to go to Tibet for years, and finally had time for a real trip. Not 5-6 days in Lhasa, but three weeks - enough to visit both Nyingtri (林芝, Linzhi) to the east and Ngari (阿里, Ali) to the west. I had never visited Tibet before and couldn't pass over this opportunity, even though Tibet wasn't on top of the list of places I'd like to go this year.
[First, about the name of places. I will generally use the common English translation of the Tibetan name, followed in parentheses the name in simplified Chinese and the pinyin in Chinese; except when noted. Will also include elevation in meters and feet.]
Besides myself, M had also recruited our friend D, as well as M's friend K. To travel outside Lhasa, 4 is the magic number as that's how many can fit in a Toyota Landcruiser along with a driver, a guide and luggage. It is also how many that will fit in a soft-sleeper cabin on a Chinese train.
Unfortunately for my three companions from Hong Kong, I do not carry the "Home Return Permit" issued by the Chinese government to HK citizens. Consequently, for me to enter Tibet, I need to obtain the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit through a travel agent, and have to use their guide and service while in Tibet. It adds a little bit to the cost, plus the time and hassle to obtain the actual permit before boarding the plane to Tibet.
M did all the research on the tour companies and decided on one called Find China (发现中国) that is run by a Cantonese person named Wu in Lhasa, and which caters mostly to Taiwanese tourists to Tibet (who also require TTB permits). We find that Wu responds to inquiries quickly and clearly, and he can be reached way into the night by email and MSN. We were corresponding with him in Chinese, but his English is supposed to be good enough for foreigners to use him. firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com
Our original, general itinerary was this:
6/5 Fly into Lhasa from Guangzhou
6/9-6/11 Lhasa - Ngingtri - Lhasa
6/12-6/24 Lhasa - Shigatse - Mt Everest - Mt Kailash - Guge - Ngari - Nam-Tso - Lhasa
6/25-6/26 Train to Xining
6/27 Fly out from Xining back to Shenzhen and transfer to Hong Kong
Find China would charge us 22,000RMB total, which include:
- Tibetan tour guide and driver, a Toyota Landcruiser, gasoline and tolls for the two trips out of Lhasa 6/9-6/11 and 6/12-6/24;
- All travel permits, including courier fees;
- Pickup at Lhasa airport on 6/5 and drop off at train station on 6/25.
We didn't have to pay for accommodation or meals for the driver and guide, but in most cases we invited them to join us for meals anyways and we paid for them. Explicitly NOT included are the entrance fees to the parks and scenic areas - which can really add up. For example, park fees at the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon is 270RMB/person; and at Mt Everest it is 150RMB per person + 400RMB/vehicle. That's over 2,000RMB for the 4 of us already at those two.
After chatting with other travelers, we found that it was a very reasonable price. It wouldn't have been much cheaper even if I didn't need to get the TTB permit.
So, M deposited 50% of the cost to Find China's bank account (30% to be paid after we'd arrived in Lhasa, and remaining 20% at the end of trip), and I scanned my passport and Chinese visa to them. M booked our plane tickets for 6/5 from Guangzhou to Lhasa on China Southern (1,840RMB each), and we started preparing for things we would need there. I bought the Lonely Planet guide and started to read a bit on Tibetan Buddhism.
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Why and How