rkkwan's 3-week adventure in Tibet 6/10

Jul 17th, 2010, 03:14 PM
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rkkwan's 3-week adventure in Tibet 6/10

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. [email protected] & [email protected]

Our original, general itinerary was this:
6/5 Fly into Lhasa from Guangzhou
6/6-8 Lhasa
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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Jul 17th, 2010, 04:00 PM
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Fly or Train? Or by road?

Here's a common question for those planning to travel to Lhasa. How to get in and how to get out. We were not interested in going to Nepal on this trip, so we never considered the road to/from Kathmandu option. But we did consider all the other options - train, fly or by road into and out of Tibet.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway (青藏铁路) opened in 2006, and is the highest railway in the world. It is a trip and adventure by itself, with some of the most amazing scenery one can see by train anywhere in the world, so we would definitely want to try it if feasible. But there are a few problems when trying to ride the train into Tibet:

1. Tickets are hard to come by for the summer peak period. The ticket office in Xining, Qinghai is notoriously corrupt and I have heard of fees (read: bribe) up to 1,000RMB to get a ticket from there to Lhasa. We could have started elsewhere, like Guangzhou (near Hong Kong), but that'd mean 54 hours (2 nights) on the train, which can be tiring.

2. There are about 4-5 daily trains from Xining to Lhasa, but three of them start from somewhere else. One from Beijing, one from either Chengdu or Chongqing, and one from either Guangzhou or Shanghai. By the time the train gets to Xining, the beddings have been used by someone the night before, and the cleanliness of the bathrooms highly suspect.

3. Despite some hypotheses that riding the train into Tibet helps with altitude sickness when compared to flying in, I have heard plenty of reports of mild to moderate discomforts from those who had rode the train in. Not hard to figure out why - after passing Golmud, the railway rises very quickly to about 4,500m/14,700ft and stayed there for many hours, peaking out at the Tanggula Pass (唐古拉山口) at 5,072m/16,640ft. Which is a good 1,500m or 5,000ft above Lhasa. Why would one want to pay a good fee to some agent to secure a ticket and then possibly suffer through it?

Because of these concerns, we decided early on that we would not try to train in. But if possible, we'd like to train out from Lhasa.

Now, going in by road via Sichuan or Yunnan is also possible, and popular. In particular, traveling the G318 from Chengdu up to Lhasa had always been a dream for me. But there were also two problems with it:

1. Time. It'd be quite a rush to get from Chengdu to Lhasa in a week, and we'd also want to stop for various sights. That means we wouldn't have enough time for Ngari.

2. Permits. The G318 passed through many "sensitive" areas in western Sichuan and eastern Tibets, with tonnes of checkpoints. It'd take quite a bit of effort to secure all the required permits for me the foreigner, and also if we got into any trouble at one of the checkpoints, that'd mean our whole trip would be in vain.

Consequently, we decided to fly in, and leave the options open for the way out. If we could get the tickets, we'd train out; if not, we would fly out. We just need to get back to Hong Kong by 6/27. And I told M, D and K to bring their passports too, just in case the only way out of Tibet would be through Nepal.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 04:00 PM
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I've been looking forward to your report, Ray. We've been doing a lot of reading and viewing of movies and documentaries on Tibetan Buddhism in preparation for our upcoming Sikkim trip.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 05:29 PM
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Glad to see this get started! Thanks very much for explaining the reasoning behind your route choices. I've read that the overland route by road from Kunming is very trying even without checkpoints - would Chengdu be less stressful aside from the bureaucracy?
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Jul 17th, 2010, 05:40 PM
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Altitude Sickness

Naturally, the number one concern for any visitor to Tibet is altitude sickness. It can be dangerous, and can easily ruin our trip if one or more of us have moderate to severe issues. My parents and my uncle and aunt visited Lhasa 20 years ago for 5 days, and all of them suffered various degrees of altitude sickness. [Their group leader and a tour member even ended up in the hospital.] We certainly would take the issue seriously.

Earlier this year M and K went to Hailuogou Glacier Park (海螺沟冰川公园) in Sichuan. I don't know how high they actually went, but the base of the glacier is at around 3,000m/10,000ft and where they overnighted should be lower. Still, K reported some mild discomfort like headache up there. So, she knew she had to be extra careful. M was mostly okay with that trip.

Meanwhile 2 years ago, D went to Yunnan and visited the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), where the cable car went up to over 4,500m/14,650ft. She did not report problem there, but she also didn't stay there for long. But during that same trip, they went over a mountain pass to view the Meili Snow Mountain (梅里雪山). While the elevation was lower, they were caught in some snow storm, and she did have some headaches and other symptoms.

My previous "high point" in life was Mauna Kea in Hawai'i (4,207m/13,804ft) which I drove to top in a Ford Explorer last October. I didn't have any problem at all, but I also didn't stay there for long. Nor during my trip to Colorado also last October where I found eight 10,000 passes to cross, plus Pike's Peak (though I couldn't get to the top due to high winds).

As precaution, M went to see her doctor in Hong Kong and got a prescription for Diamox (acetazolamide) 250mg as a precaution for her and myself. She used the prescription twice (things are lax in HK) to get 60 pills (HK$2 or $3 per; or US$0.25 or $0.4). K, on the other hand, started to take extracts of rhodiola rosea (Roseroot, 红景天), the most common Chinese remedy for altitude sickness, about a week before the trip.

We understood that each individual's response would be different, and we were not going to take any chances. We were going to remind each other not to hurry or get excited for the first couple of days there, and we did not plan any itinerary. No shower, no hair-washing, no alcohol, plenty of fluids are a must during that time.

But most importantly, we understood the danger, and that we were willing to abandon or alter part or all of the trip if necessary. If we had to go to a clinic or hospital, fine. If we had to fly out, so be it. It's not the end of the world. Visitors get into trouble (or even lose their lives) when they refuse to get help because they think they are healthy or can bear; and/or when they are not flexible with their itinerary.

For our trip, we would first stay in Lhasa (3,500m/11,500ft) for a few days. After that, we would head east to Nyingtri, which is lower at around 3,000m/9,800ft where we'd spend two nights. Then back to Lhasa before deciding if we could go to the west, where it is significantly higher. First overnight at Shigatse is about 3,850m/12,600ft, and then to the Mt. Everest Base Camp, overnighting in a tent at about 5,100m/16,700ft. After that, it's a whole week at 4,500m/14,700ft or above - and days of travel from a hospital in Lhasa.

I'd save the results in the main trip report below, but to summarize, M, D and I had zero to a little problem, while K had to go to a clinic once and then the People's Hospital in Lhasa another time from mild to moderate altitude sickness. Apparently, the rhodiola rosea extract didn't work for her. But she was cleared by the doctor for the rest of the trip and completed the journey mostly fine. I brought all my Diamox home, and we didn't use or even buy any bottled oxygen.

Let me emphasis again to those planning travel to Tibet. Your experience in Colorado or the Swiss Alps or Mauna Kea have little relevance for Tibet, because most likely you didn't stay at over 3,000m/10,000ft for hours. The symptoms for altitude sickness usually do not start until 4-6 hours after staying up at those altitudes. That is also why and how some visitors get into trouble in Tibet. They feel fine after flying into Lhasa, and think it's okay to roam around immediately. Then they start to have problems that night...
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Jul 17th, 2010, 05:54 PM
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thursdaysd - G318 from Chengdu may be just as trying, as coming up from Yunnan, and also known for its scenery. Can't say for sure, as I've not done either.

Anyways, it is 714km from Dali, Yunnan to get to Markam where G214 and G318 meet. Chengdu to Markam on G318 is actually longer, at 924km. Either way, it is another 1,220km to get to Lhasa on G318.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 06:14 PM
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Thanks for taking the time to provide all the details.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 06:31 PM
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Thanks Ray - plane plus train is looking more attractive...
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Jul 17th, 2010, 07:26 PM
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Stuff we brought

All 4 of us have traveled in China before, including rural areas with primitive facility, so we were quite prepared. Perhaps a bit too well. And even I brought some stuff that I usually won't.

- Diamox (acetazolamide) 250mg, as already described above

- Sunblock. The sun is incredibly strong up in the high altitude. I used a SPF 50+ one bought in Hong Kong and applied it several times a day. No sunburn, but I definitely got a lot darker.

- Pillow case and sheets. A better alternative would be a very light sleeping bag, which M brought for herself. Quite necessary at some of the places we stayed overnight - the tents at Everest Base Camp and Nam-Tso, as well as a couple of "hostels" in Ngari.

- Glucose powder and vitamin-C tablets. Glucose helped with altitude sickness for some of us, and I drop a Redoxon vitamin-C tablet in my water bottle everyday. There are oranges, but very expensive.

- Water bottle and my own chopsticks. While one can buy bottled water everywhere, it is very nice to have a big Nalgene bottle. I used it for my Redoxon everyday. A cup or a big bottle cap would also be nice as there are no cups or glasses provided at many of the "hostels". And I brought my own chopsticks - while it wasn't really necessary, it was better for the environment than using the disposable ones at restaurants. Of course, if you prefer to use a knife, fork and spoon, you have to bring your own!

- Hand sanitizer. No need to explain. I have never put so much alcohol on my hands before.

- Dry shampoo. My friends brought a couple of cans, and they seem to work quite well. The remaining got confiscated by by security at the Lhasa train station as it's flammable substance. I shaved my head so I didn't have to worry about cleaning my hair.

- Dried prunes. Now, this is something I wish I didn't bring. Some people who had gone to Ngari commented that there was few fresh vegetables and fruits out there, which was why I bought two big bags of prunes. Turned out that information was old, as we could find Sichuan restaurants serving vegetables even in the tiniest village (along the main highway, that is). And with the condition of some of the bathrooms out there, prunes are the last thing I would want to eat anyways.

My friends also brought quite a bit of snacks, but basically one can buy anything and everything in Lhasa, unless you have to get specific brands of stuff. All kinds of snacks and drinks, even good hiking equipment. It is really not an issue. Scarves are nice to have, and also widely available in Lhasa - to wrap around the head or face against the elements; or face masks. And along the way, name-brand cup noodles can be purchased everywhere, so there is no worry about being hungry.

All four of us are keen photographers, and since Tibet is not a place I would visit very often, I brought most of my photo equipment. In fact, I bought an used Canon 5D just before this trip as a 2nd and backup camera. Since all 4 of us use Canon dSLR, we were also able to swap lenses, etc.

Me: 5D, 7D; 17-55/2.8IS, 35/1.4L & 70-200/4L IS, Sigma 8-16.
M: 550D (T2i), Tokina 11-16, Sigma 18-200OS.
D: 40D, 15-85, 50/1.4
K: 300D, 18-55

Turned out it was very fortunate we had an extra body, as D's 40D broke early in the trip. She ended up using the 5D with the 35/1.4L mostly, while K used her 15-85 for most of the trip. D also brought a tripod - which we shot some moon and star photos at night.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 08:12 PM
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way toooo much prep... glad you did it and i can read all about it... thanks
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Jul 17th, 2010, 08:14 PM
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Oh, I almost forgot. I also bought a few other things in Hong Kong for this trip:

- Protective filters for my lenses. I usually don't use filters on my lenses except for the "vacuum cleaner" 17-55; but I was warned that not only is it dusty in Tibet, but everything is also covered in a layer of yak butter - chairs, tables, people, everything. Well, turned out that was an exaggeration, and I think I would be fine w/o the filters.

- An Imation 500GB portable hard disk. The hard drive on my Dell netbook was filling up quickly, so I added some storage.

- A no-name cheapo GPS from some guy on Yahoo's HK auction site. My Nokia 5800 phone already has GPS, but the database for China is in pinyin. Got that GPS for just over HK$300 (US$40) with maps of China, Taiwan, Macau and HK. I didn't find it particularly useful, and I ended up using my phone to record location more.

Day 0: 6/4/10

All three friends of mine had to work that day, so I crossed into China first and met them at the Shenzhen train station. Immigration line was okay at Lowu. Our flight to Lhasa would leave Guangzhou (CAN) the next morning, and we needed to overnight in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, we missed the last direct train to the main Guangzhou train station, and could only get to Guangzhou East by the fairly fast CRH train (these are highspeed train set, but limited to 200km/h or 124MPH on this route) and then transfer by subway. It was a huge hassle.

At the Guangzhou station, we met the agent (or perhaps a relative) of Find China's Mr Wu, to pick up my Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit. M and I had been worrying about it for a whole week, but they did get it issued in time in Tibet, and they couriered it down to Guangzhou for me. It was two pieces of paper. One is the permit itself, rubber-stamped; and a page that list the names of persons in the group - which would just be me.

We stayed at the V8 Hotel (微八) next to the Guangzhou station. It is extremely crappy. Don't ever stay there. But at least the A/C work (more or less), and there's free ethernet. Main reason we stay there is because the airport bus departs right in front of the V8 at the China Southern Pearl Hotel owned by that airline. Very convenient. We had a late supper at Mr. Lee California Beef Noodle King (李先生加州牛肉面大王) next door. It's a chain with like 380 stores across China.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 08:20 PM
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Bob - Yeah, I know. It's like going to camp, and I don't like camping. I like staying at 4* hotels and just buy whatever I need during a trip.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 08:47 PM
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Day 1: 6/5/10

Adapted from my flight report posted earlier in the airline forum:

CZ3463 CAN-CKG-LXA A319 B-6209

We took the 6:45a bus (16RMB) and arrived CAN at 7:15a. First time I used the new Baiyuan Airport in Guangzhou. Flew out of the old one many times in the 80's, but never since. New airport is modern and its layout makes sense. One of the nicer airports in China I've been to. We had breakfast at the Oak Tree Cafe 风雅老树 there.

Predictably, our flight to Tibet got special treatment through security, with its own separate lane. Much more thorough than the regular checkpoints, and they needed to jot down info and make photocopies of my passport and Tibet permit. Some of K's creams and our cans of sardines were confiscated.

But what's stupid is that after that "special" security, we were dropped back at the regular gate areas. No one ever checked ID again; and same thing at Chongqing during our layover. So, what's the point? If the Dalai Lama (or a terrorist) wants to get into Tibet, all he needs to do is buy a separate plane ticket from Guangzhou (or Chongqing) that day, and then switch the boarding pass with me after getting through security. [Well, the Dalai Lama has to sneak into China first.] The whole separate check is basically pointless.

Our flight made a stop in Chongqing. Another new airport for me. Flew out of the old airport in 1986 following a trip to the 3 Gorges. Also, back then Chongqing was part of Sichuan. Now it is an independent municipality.

Well, Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA, 拉萨贡嘎机场) is one of the highest civilian airports in the world, at 11,710ft/3,570m. I was checking the barometer on my Casio watch through the flight, and found that cabin pressure was normal through most of the flight, at around 7,000ft equivalent. Then , starting around 20 minutes from touchdown, instead of increasing cabin pressure in normal flights, cabin pressure was decreased in several steps, until it matched the outside pressure at touchdown.

I noticed that the airlines that serve LXA - Air China and China Southern - basically just turn the plane around with the same crew. With such short layovers, the crew won't have altitude problem, and they don't need to be acclimatized.

Located in the Yarlung Tsangpo (雅鲁藏布江) Valley south of Lhasa, LXA was about 100km from Lhasa until 3 years ago. Since 2 new bridges and a new tunnel were completed, the distance was cut to about 60km. About the same as Lanzhou, which I visited just 2 weeks prior. Those were two of the Chinese airports furthest from city centers.

Anyways, outside the terminal, a Tibetan held a sign with my English name on it. I think that was the very first time in my life I was picked up at an airport this way.
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Jul 17th, 2010, 08:50 PM
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Wow, thanks for starting this TR with so much details, can't wait for the next chapter.
Shanghainese is offline  
Jul 17th, 2010, 09:49 PM
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Really appreciate the detail. BTW - "Pillow case and sheets" - I bought a Dreamsack nearly ten years ago, and still love it: http://www.dreamsack.com/store/dream...el/dreamsacks/ Lightweight and doesn't take much space.
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Jul 18th, 2010, 04:30 AM
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Tay-great start. The information on altitude sickness was particularly interesting. Promtly begun, no penalty.
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Jul 18th, 2010, 04:31 AM
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Thanks for this great report Ray - we'd love to visit Tibet too & this is great information & love the detail (having travelled all around China many times & Having done our 3 mth tour from Harbin to Sanya - not too much detail wanted on toilets though please!).
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Jul 18th, 2010, 06:58 AM
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thursdaysd - That Dreamsack looks like something I can absolutely recommend for a trip like mine.

janev - I will definitely describe the toilets in detail, just for you! Seriously, that is pretty important information, in my opinion. To many travelers, that is the #2 concern (after altitude sickness), and comes before the cleanliness of the bedding.
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Jul 18th, 2010, 10:40 AM
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LXA to Lhasa

The driver who picked us up at the airport is a Tibetan named Danba Ciren (单巴次仁). Very good and experienced driver. In fact, for those who can visit Tibet without requiring a TTB permit and guide, they can simply hire him to drive outside Lhasa. M remembers reading recommendations on him and seeing his picture on some travel blogs or forums.

The vehicle is a Toyota Landcruiser, of course. That is the official 4-wheeler in Tibet. Once outside Lhasa or Shigatse, you don't see many other types of cars, except for a few Mitsubishi Pajeros. And you don't want to travel outside Lhasa with any other type of cars, as mechanics know to fix Landcruisers and there are parts available. Not so with other vehicles.

While the drive from the airport was only about 60km now, with the new bridges (over the Yarlung Tsangpo and Lhasa rivers) and tunnel; we stopped twice for rests - first next to a beautiful field of Canola in bloom, and second time for pictures of a big buddha carved into the rocks next to the highway. The driver was in no hurry, and neither were we.

The highway (G318) enters Lhasa from the west, as a wide boulevard through the new town, and goes underneath the new railway. Not unlike the hundreds of cities in China these days. One difference is that there are a number of military barracks on that main road, and each has two Chinese soldier standing in front, encased in bulletproof glass on all sides. Like dolls on display in a store. I wonder with that very strong sun, what's the temperature inside... And if there's actually riots, can he shoot through the glass with his gun?

Kyi Shol Hotel (吉雪宾馆, Jixue Binguan)

We would stay at this place 3 times for a total of 7 nights. It is a small 3-storey so-called Tibetan-style guest house inside the old city with about 20 rooms total around a small courtyard. Very popular with independent travelers from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Our rooms on the ground floor (no elevators) are small, but clean with private bathrooms (shower and seated toilet), satellite TV, and free wi-fi. Breakfast is self-served on the 3rd floor (2 flights of stairs to get there!) with porridge, buns and hard-boiled eggs. There's also a semi-automatic washer (free), but no dryer. With the low humidity, our clothes dried quickly when we hanged them out in the courtyard.

Its location is fairly central, on Linguo East Road (林郭东路), which is on the eastern edge of the old city. Linguo is the Chinese pinyin for Lingkhor, the outer pilgrimage circuit around the old city. [The inner one is the famous Barkhor Circuit.] It is about 650yards (or meters) through some major alleys to get to the SE corner of the Barkhor, or about 1000yards (1km) to the Jokhang Temple. And taxis are everywhere in Lhasa - 10RMB per ride inside city center.

It is also very economical. While the usual June rate was 130RMB for a room with private baths, they gave us a discount, for only 100RMB. Hotels and guesthouses are quite plentiful in Lhasa, so the rates are very reasonable (compared to some parts of Tibet). But of course, it is still just a budget guesthouse that has thin walls and no oxygen supply (not an issue for us). The towels and beddings are very clean, but they don't change it for you each day.

[Our travel agent, Find China, has its office at the Jiangsu Ecological Garden Hotel (江苏生态园大酒店), a 4* property on an island on the Lhasa River. They told us they could get us a room there for just about 150RMB/night. We declined because of its location. But it shows you how cheap accommodations can be in Lhasa.]
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Jul 18th, 2010, 12:07 PM
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Thanks for the TR. The details are very helpful. Can't wait to see the pix.
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