Sneaking into Tibet illegally

Backpacking in Tibet

Lake Manasarovar, Western Tibet

Backpacking in Tibet is probably at the top of  many backpackers’  to do list as one of the major dream destinations. I snuck into Tibet illegally through the mountains with my American companion Valerie from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in September 2000 and hitchhiked trucks through the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s highest plateau that’s greater than Western Europe, for three weeks. During this time, we hid through several Chinese police checkpoints without getting arrested. This was a stressful yet a rewarding trip, which left us with unforgettable memories.

 

Tibet: A land of mountains and devout pilgrims

Tibet is a country of a beautiful land with a vast arid landscape and an open expansive sky. You travel for miles and the scenery doesn’t change much. And, it is a land of temples, shrines and devout pilgrims, who make days and sometimes weeks long arduous pilgrimages from their hometowns to their favorite stupas and shrines to make their kora (a prayer done by circling religious sites).

Tibetan Monastery

Tibetan Monastery

When we traveled there, it was very hard to enter Tibet from China as an independent traveler. The only way to enter legally was through a town called Golmud. Chinese would put all the backpackers on a bus and would allow them enter Tibet only in groups, after paying expensive fees, so that they could keep an eye on them. And, after all, most areas other than Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse were off limits to foreigners, even when they traveled in groups.

Western Tibet, where we traveled illegally for almost two weeks, was off limits to foreigners and was very rugged with almost no roads and very long travel distances. You would consider yourself lucky to find a truck on the same day (it usually took 2-3 days) to the next town, which is probably not bigger than 15-20 houses, and it would usually take at least one day of very uncomfortable travel. And, I have always wondered how the truck drivers could find the road and not get lost, as it was nothing more than a vast open space with no physical road most of the time. The Tibetans we met in the west were very simple people, who were not used to seeing foreigners as much as the locals we met in other parts of the country, and they lived in very modest conditions.

My Backpacking Experience in Tibet

We wanted to backpack in Tibet, however, the idea of sneaking into Tibet illegally came up, while we were staying in a Kyrgyz village near the Kyrgyzstan border in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. A French cyclist we randomly met and stayed together for one night introduced this idea to us. Although it sounded dangerous for different reasons, we liked the idea of shortening the travel distance to our next destination Nepal and after all, we were there for adventure!

A couple of days later, we were at a truck stop in Yecheng (Kargilik) to look for a vehicle that would take us through the mountains into Western Tibet. After a four hours of wait and some serious haggling, someone agreed to drive us to Ali, the first town on the Tibetan side. Other than getting arrested by the Chinese authorities, one factor that made the first leg of our trip dangerous was the risk of altitude sickness – we had to drive up to 5,000 meters (16,404ft) from where we were (1,300 meters/4,265ft) on the same day and cross a pass with an altitude of 5,170 meters (16,961ft) before arriving in Ali (Altitude sickness may be fatal without proper acclimatization before continuing to higher altitudes).

Traveling on truck in Western Tibet

Traveling on a truck in Western Tibet – I was very happy to find a truck after a long wait out in the cold

After an incredibly long and uncomfortable 45 hour trip, our driver dropped us off a few kilometers before the Chinese police checkpoint outside of Ali, as he didn’t want to take the risk. We were tired, dizzy, hungry, and without any food. More importantly, we had to bypass the Chinese police checkpoint ahead of us to enter Ali. We bypassed the checkpoint by following a different route around the hills and got a cab on the outskirts of town.  We hid in the cab and told the driver to take us to the other side of Ali, so that we could avoid being seen by the police and continue traveling to the next town. After we got off the cab, we waited in a restaurant until it got dark and then walked around hiding our faces to look for another truck to continue to the next town. There was nothing unfortunately and we had to wait for the morning to hitchhike to the next town. There was only one hotel in Ali and we knew that once we checked in, they would report us and the police would come to our room. So, we waited until 11:00 pm – we knew that the police wouldn’t be working after a certain time at night – and checked in. And then, we left the room at 6:00 am, before the police came to our room, and walked a few kilometers outside of town with the hopes of finding a truck to take us to the next town.

Hitchhiking in western Tibet

Hitchhiking in western Tibet – we ended up waiting here for two days

We spent the next two weeks mostly traveling on trucks in freezing temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees with brief stopovers in small towns and stayed in primitive accommodations that didn’t even have running water. We tried not to spend more than one day in each town, unless we had to, as there was nothing to see and do. In a few cases, we were stuck in some towns either because we couldn’t find a truck or our truck was broken. And, during the two weeks that we spent traveling through western Tibet, we managed to get through several Chinese police checkpoints either by bypassing them (getting out of the truck and then hitchhiking again after walking around the checkpoint) or hiding under the stuff that they carry on the back of the truck, if the driver would be willing to take the risk of having us.

It was in Lhasa for the first time in two weeks that we could finally find hot water to shower and walk around without the fear of getting arrested. Almost all foreigners we saw in Lhasa got there by taking high end tours. Since we didn’t want to afford buying an expensive tour with a driver and an SUV, we decided to continue our trip to the Nepalese border by taking public transportation. Getting to Shigatse and Gyantse by bus after spending a couple of days in Lhasa was a piece of cake. Traveling in this part of Tibet was indeed much easier. There was public transportation and the roads were much better. Also, the people seemed nicer and more used to foreigners.

Mount Everest

Mount Everest – Tibet

Everything seemed great and life was much easier until we decided to go off-beaten-path again to visit the Rongbuk Monastery (4,980m/16,340ft), the world’s highest monastery, and the Mt. Everest base camp . It was almost impossible again to get a ride once we got out of the main highway. Sadly, none of the tourist groups in fancy SUVs, what we mostly saw on the way, bothered giving us a ride, and it took us much longer than expected to get in and out of  there. On the way out, we started walking and ended up walking quite  a distance, until one truck gave us a ride only for part of the way.  And, fortunately, we managed to cross the border to Nepal towards the end of the last day of my visa. Big relief!

10 Comments

  1. pauli says:

    Wow! Such a great adventure!
    I’m also going there in the late July,2013,
    but I’m not as brave as you.
    by the way, nice pictures also!

  2. Ash says:

    When you headed toward the Nepal border, did you go through a Chinese checkpost? If so, did they stamp you out and did they ask you for any documents or anything?

  3. Mustafa Dogru says:

    Hi Ash, I don’t think I did. But, I was there some years ago and things might have changed. Good luck!

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