May 10-11, 2009

Our first stop after Tibet was in Golmud.  Take a look at a map and you’ll see that this town is in the middle of nowhere.  From what we’ve read, Golmud is one of the places to which prisoners and political exiles are relocated.  So why did we stop here?

First off, when we booked our Tibet tour in Kathmandu we suspected that the tour agency (or some other middle man) was charging huge fees to book our onward travel, so we figured we’d limit their commission by getting the cheapest train ticket possible – a hard seater to the first stop outside Tibet, Golmud.  And we were right.  The tour agency charged $90 for each ticket, whereas the actual price, as we later learned, is roughly $20.

The second reason had to do with extending our visa.  Once we left Tibet we had one week to find an immigration office to extend our visa so we could continue traveling in China.  From what we heard it’s easier to get an extension in a small town than in a large city, so we figured we’d take our chances in Golmud, which is about as small as they come.

The Town

Golmud turned out to be less of a desolate place than we expected.  Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t want to live there.  But there were a few commercial centers and parks, and in some places there was a definite feel of community.

At our first lunch in Golmud there was a group of guys in the next table over.  One of them spoke a bit of English and was nice enough to help us order food (the menu was all Chinese).  We started chatting and learned that he and his lunch-mates are employees of a construction company, in Golmud for a few months to work on some project, and he’s the accountant.  Tourists are not a common site in Golmud so Pnina and I were a curiosity to them, and they aimed to impress.  First they brought over some shots of rice-wine (very stiff), and then they surprised us by picking up the tab for our lunch.  Wow!  This was just the first of many awesome encounters Pnina and I had with local people in China.

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Dinner was considerably more complicated – this time we didn’t have a local translator.  We pulled out our phrase book but of course when we tried to say the words (“vegetables”, “rice”) they had no idea what we were talking about – Chinese pronunciation is just impossible to westerners like us.  All the waitresses gathered to try too figure out what we wanted, and in the end we thought we’d succeeded in ordering two dishes, but I guess not because we ended up getting three dishes 🙂 This kind of thing happened over and over in China.  If we tried to say something like “soup – NO!”, shaking our heads vigorously, we would inevitably get soup.  🙂

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This was the center of Golmud.  We noticed it’s popular in China to use collections of potted flowers to make big arrangements in public spaces.  It was fun to wander through the department stores and pick up random snacks in the supermarket.

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Near the center there was a park with a small pond where people hired paddle boats.  We found a group of older people playing music and performing a simple dance.  This also turned out to be a common thing in China – older people gathering in parks to play music and dance.  We really liked the social vibe.  We heard that many people in China (especially government employees) retire at a pretty early age, e.g. 50.

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Extending our Visa

OK, so our main goal in Golmud was to extend our visa.  It took a little while to find the appropriate police office, and when we did we learned that we’d have to come back the next day (it was Sunday).  Before sending us away, the officer told us that he may not be able to extend our visa at all, and if he can then it would be for at most 1 month and cost 940 RMB (about $135).  The issue, he explained, is that while it’s relatively straight-forward to extend an individual traveler’s visa, ours was a group visa and extending those is complicated, or at least he’d never done it before.  Of course a group visa was the only thing Pnina and I could have because China does not allow independent travelers from Nepal to enter Tibet.

CRAP!  What a monkey-wrench!

If Pnina and I had started our trip in China and arranged our visa from the US, we’d be able to get a 1-year multiple entry visa for $130.  So for this joker to offer us just one month for an even higher price is complete bullshit.  We started to investigate whether it would be possible for us to spend our remaining week rushing to some other country (Mongolia?  Kazakhstan?) so as to get a new visa at a fair price.  But the trouble is that Golmud is just so remote – it would take us multiple days and more money to go by train to any other country, and then more time and money getting back to China.  It was definitely less hassle to just pay the $135 and get the 1-month extension, even if it was a rip-off.

But getting just one month itself presented some problems…

Pnina and I recently learned that our friend, Emmy, was planning to get married in Japan on July 11, and since we were “in the neighborhood” we really wanted to take a detour and attend the ceremony.  It would have been awesome if we could take our sweet time going across China to Shanghai, then take a ferry across to Japan, then come back to Shanghai in time to catch a huge solar eclipse on July 22.  But this would require far more than a month plus double-entry rights, which we were sure not to get.

These problems weighed on us all night.  On Monday we went back to the police station to see what can be done.  The good news was that the officer, Patrick, was able to give us the extension to our group visa, but as he warned it was only one month and indeed it cost 940 yuan.  At the time this seemed like a shitty deal, but we later learned that we were considerably lucky.  We contacted another guy from our Tibet tour group who tried to extend his visa in Beijing, and he was flat out refused; he was forced to fly out of the country and back again.  Scouring the internet we see that other people tend to have the same issue – they just can’t extend their visa coming out of Tibet.  We kind of wish that the tour agency in Kathmandu had warned us about these complications before we signed on to the tour, but of course their only goal was to get our money and get on with their lives.  Bastards.  The moral is that it’s better to do this trip in reverse, e.g. finish traveling in China first, then go to Tibet, then move on.

Long story short, we ponied over the money and got our stinkin’ 1-month extension.  With this limited time we decided to alter our itinerary and skip Shanghai.  Instead we decided to head south along western China and go overland to Laos.  As for Japan, we discovered that the cheapest way to reach Japan is by flight from Bangkok – it’s cheaper even than flying from Shanghai, even though it’s much further away (makes no sense to us, but then the airline industry rarely does).  So, after Laos we headed to Bangkok only to fly to Japan.  More on all that later…

One more thing to mention.  Pnina and I had to hang around in the police station for a while before we got our visa.  The issue, Patrick said, is that he didn’t have the correct permissions in their computer system to issue the visa extension, and it took a while for the IT guys to straighten things out.  While we waited, we struck up a conversation with Patrick.  He said that he got a degree in English and at first he moved out to Golmud to be a tour guide in Tibet.  One day the police ran into an issue with certain travelers and had a tough time communicating with them; they called Patrick to serve as translator, and he did such a bang-up job that they recruited him into the force.  Seeing as Patrick was a guide in Tibet and we just came from there, it makes sense for him to wonder what we thought about it.  Still, it was a bit jarring when he turned to us and shot the following question: “do you think Tibet should be independent?”  Wow!  It wasn’t clear if he was testing us, but Pnina and I didn’t take too many chances.  What did we say?  We said that, well, we only spent a week in Tibet so we’re sure we don’t have a complete picture.  Also, we’re aware that the situation is never black-and-white because, for example, we come from Israel and there’s a similar issue where Israel is viewed as “occupying” Palestinian territories (note to the reader – we feel kind of crummy playing this card because, while it’s true that there are guilty parties on both sides, we definitely don’t like Israel’s policies towards settlements in the West Bank).   We also said that it’s clear China is investing lots of money in Tibet, and that, as one piece of evidence, the roads are so much better than in Nepal and India.  Patrick was pretty interested in this point because, he said, people often compare China and India.  He said that the mayor of Bombay recently visited Shanghai and was impressed by the tall buildings and rich lifestyle enjoyed by so many people there.  He was obviously very proud of China.

So anyhow, our answers did the trick because we eventually got our visa.  But we kept going back to our discussion with Patrick and asking ourselves – where would we prefer to live, India or China?  At first we leaned heavily towards China.  Why?  Because yes the government is repressive but at least they have some basic infrastructure down (electricity, water, sewage), and they don’t have the rampant in-the-open corruption that is such a staple in India.  Except later we learned that there’s plenty of corruption in China as well.  So now we’re not really sure.

Pnina with Patrick – the officer who gave us the 1-month visa extension:

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Internet Censorship

The whole time we were in China we were unable to view or edit our blog.  There was no problem in viewing the main wordpress page (www.wordpress.com), but it appeared that all actual blogs were blocked, including this one (honeysun.wordpress.com).  We noticed that this wasn’t strictly a WordPress issue; blogs hosted on certain other services were also blocked (including Blogger) though some blog sites were OK (e.g. Travel Pod).  If you tried to access any of the blocked pages you didn’t get any kind of obvious “this page not allowed” message.  Instead your browser spun and spun, and eventually you got some standard “no reply” error, which might cause you to believe that there is no censorship at all but rather that the problem lies with the server hosting the page.

Censorship revealed itself in other ways too.  If you did a Google search for images, you’d find that a  lot of the image icons were broken.  In some cases it made Google’s image search nearly useless.

It’s possible that we could have used some proxy to get around this firewall, but we didn’t bother to investigate our options.  Instead we just did our blog writing offline and waited for Laos to upload new posts.

Bonus Shot

This is a big hotel/resort building in Golmud.  The photos on the side of the building must advertise the services available inside.  We found the massage photo (center, bottom) a little surprising.  The masseuse girl may as well be out of her dress altogether.

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