Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Blip in the Plan

"What do you mean there aren't any train tickets to Tibet for the entire first half of August?"

"There are seats."

"But no sleepers?"

The young travel agent at the hostel in Chengdu, China sadly shook her head.

"You can buy two seats together," she offered.

I thought back to the seats on last night's train from Kunming to Chengdu. Two of those wouldn't do much for me. I'd need three and I'd still be curled up like a cat for the two nights of the 44-hour journey.

"How much per seat?"


So that would be 1,500 yuan, or $235 US, plus food, and the pleasure of experiencing charming toilets, no doubt.

"The plane is 1,650 yuan," she added helpfully. And on the plane, you don't have to buy food for three days, I added in my head.

The train booking system in China seems to have escaped the notice of whoever was in charge of getting the country up to date. As near as I could tell, all seats went on sale no earlier than ten days ahead of time and what this young, timid travel agent was telling me seemed to be that Tibet sleepers were in such high demand that she couldn't possibly have acquired one though I'd sent her full payment and instructions to get me the sleeper ticket for whichever day it was available a week ago. Was she saying there were scalpers, middlemen? Or was she saying Chinese tourists were snapping up the tickets so fast that she hadn't had a chance to get any?

I wanted to believe in the abilities of this earnest young woman, but in my head, she was working the phones, calling everyone who had anything to do with ticket-acquisition. In reality, she was smiling nervously at a confused, annoyed foreigner.

Was I being unfair having expecting some kind of action here? Was action completely impossible?

"Who can I call? Is there a railway official? I want to explain to a tourism official that I am writing for a magazine blog and that the story is better if I take a train than if I fly. There were many sleepers available on my last train and it was also sold out. Do you think that could happen on this train?"

(Did I mention I've been writing for the UK's Wanderlust website? I probably neglected to. Click the link for the regular weekly column.)

"There is no guarantee. And there is no one to call."

I sat back and considered my situation. It seemed I'd paid for my trip and rushed up to Chengdu only to have to fly to Lhasa when I could have flown as easily from Bangkok to Kathmandu. How much money had I spent coming to China when I could have gone overland from Nepal?

"You should fly. Also, you should book some hotels. Most of them are already sold out."


I stared now, too stunned to even respond. So I had booked and paid for a tour to Tibet, as was compulsory by the Chinese governmental overseers, and yet I had no ticket to Tibet and no hotels in Tibet.

I mumbled something and took my leave. This was too mind-numbing. I had to read the "tour" paperwork again and form an approach that might actually spur this young woman into taking some sort of action that might actually have results.

When I got back up to my tiny room, I re-read the itinerary.

Oh yeah. That's why I'd initially booked with Intrepid rather than going independently. The "tour" didn't include hotels. And I'd forgotten in the flurry of rushing up here to get my permit.

Tours and permits are mandated for non-Chinese travelers, and we are required to have a driver and a guide. This pissed me off in the case of Tibet but I understood it in the case of Bhutan. The latter was trying to limit the impact of tourists on its unique culture, while generating income for local drivers and guides. The former certainly did not seem to be concerned with the preservation of Tibet (rather the opposite) or the well-being of Tibetan guides—it was up to me and my request to my travel agent to find the right team to employ—but seemed to be more concerned with keeping an eye on me.

Or maybe that wasn't fair. Maybe they were trying to keep me out of harm's way in case there was a protest. But I was pretty sure it was more about making sure I didn't do anything wrong or talk to a disgruntled Tibetan (as if I can't talk to one of those at home or in India) rather than keeping me safe.

I had to pay for the privilege of letting the mothership keep an eye on me, and hotels weren't even part of the deal.

I researched hotels—hmm, that's odd. Many Tibetan hotels websites are blocked in China, though 5.8 million Chinese tourists visited Tibet in 2010, wanna explain that one?—read up on how some people hate the train and think the easy access of Beijing to Tibet is harmful to its culture, and had a friend tell me how bored he was on the 44-hour journey in a sealed capsule. I read a New Yorker article that said there had been plenty of available berths on a sold-out train. But I couldn't risk it. I returned to the travel agent.

"Book the plane for me. And here are some hotels I'd like you to call."

I'd decided to phrase it in a way that made it clear that she was the agent, not me, and she needed to do the booking.

She called the places on my list.

They were all booked.

"It is high season," she shrugged. "Many Chinese are there."

"So there are no hotel rooms in Lhasa?"

"There will be rooms."

I sat flummoxed and counted to ten.

"Well, how about you tell me where there are rooms then."

"There are many rooms. What standard would you like?"

I guess it had escaped her notice that I was staying in a backpackers lodge. That she worked in.

"Please tell me, where would you stay in Lhasa?"

"Where I would stay will be sold out."

"Please understand that I do not know anything about hotels in Lhasa. I am relying on you to give me information about hotels in Lhasa. Where would you stay if it wasn't sold out?"

"Cool Yak."

"Can you please call Cool Yak?"

She did. Booked solid.

She whipped out a map and showed me other hotels, then called them as I pushed.


"Do you want to stay at Yak?"

"I thought you just called them."

"Not Cool Yak. Yak."

"What is Yak?"

"It is a big hotel. Maybe the tour operator can get us a room there."

Finally, we were getting somewhere. The tour operator could book the room! Now there's a plan.

She sent an email.

"It will be okay. They will find you a room."

My head was spinning. I had to get out of this hostel, see something that made sense.

So I walked over to the train station to try to find the fake Apple Store I'd spotted through the rain during the taxi ride to the hostel.

The fake Apple Store thing had been a big story the week before. I'd read that there had been five in Kunming alone.

The fake Apple Store had been the first thing I'd seen of Chengdu.

And it was a beautiful shop, completely convincing. The "geniuses" even had little iPods around their necks.

I pretended to be studying the wall of iPhone cases, holding my phone out at arm's distance against the cases. I wanted to snap a few photos of the fake Apple Store but doubted they employees would appreciate it after last week's media frenzy.

That's it. Now we know. How to tell a fake Apple Store from a real Apple Store?

The clerk tried to sell me an iPhone 4 case for my iPhone 2.

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