Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Texan in Tibet - Travel Documents & Government Red Tape

No pun intended on the title...

I'm no stranger to trips abroad and with over two million commercial air miles, I consider myself a well-seasoned traveler.  All those miles allowed me to book my flights for this trip in Business Class, which is invaluable on a 36-hour three-leg itinerary.  Successful travel starts with planning and though I'm known as a shoot-from-the-hip guy in most situations, I leave nothing to chance when it comes to travel; especially international travel.  These days, all international travel requires passports and visas.  I remember being able to pass to and from Canada and Mexico with just my Texas driver's license, but those days are long gone...at least legally.  Fortunately, visas are easier to acquire these days, with most countries offering on-line instant approval.  Some even offer instant visas upon arrival at their airports.

Nepal is one such country.  I can secure my visa on the spot upon arrival in the Nepalese Customs area at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.  $50USD will get me a 30-day tourist visa with expedited outbound processing when I re-enter Nepal from Tibet and again when I depart Nepal for Qatar on my return trip home.  I could also acquire a six-month visa before I depart for the same price, but for some reason having the 30-day visa issued at the airport expedites my entry back into Nepal from Tibet.  I can't imagine why that is, but that's the recommended option and the one that I'm taking.

Once in Nepal, I'll have to hand my passport over to the local fixer so he can secure a visa from the Chinese Embassy for passage into Tibet.  I'm told this can take a day or two and honestly, I'm not entirely comfortable handing over my passport in a foreign country.  I've had discussions with a few people who have visited Tibet as recently as last December and every indication is that if you want a Chinese visa without delay and with no surprises, this is how it's done.  The alternative is to ride to the border and petition the Embassy outpost there for a visa.  I've read accounts of tourists being stranded there awaiting red tape resolution that could take days due to the remote location and staff who have little to no authority to make decisions.  I'm told also to expect the Chinese to visually check every piece of luggage; unpacking each item for inspection.  For this reason, no maps or other printed information about Tibet can be brought into the country as it is considered foreign propaganda.  Photos and videos in the border area are prohibited and motorcycles must be pushed across the border line.  Do they push cars across too? Maybe that's because unlike Nepal, traffic flows on the right side of the road in Tibet.

Tibet voluntarily isolated itself during the wars and was not part of the League of Nations. This might explain why the rest of the world was quiet when the Chinese quietly occupied the Tibetan territory and labeled it as the Xizang Province of China.  Occupying Tibet gave China access to rich natural resources and allowed it to militarize the strategically important border with India.  As such, Tibet is essentially a militarized zone wherein strict rules seem to be arbitrarily enforced.  No foreigner can travel alone on Tibetan roads.  A government approved escort is required to be within eyesight of a tourist or group of tourists and there are checkpoints scattered throughout the country to enforce this rule.  The escort must carry a list of his clients and those clients must carry the name of their escort.  For this reason, I will likely find myself riding among a group of strangers that could increase and decrease in size each day.  I'm good with that.  Strangers don't remain strangers in my orbit for very long.  They may walk away thinking I'm a strange Texan, but we will  be familiar.  I'll be doing my part to promote international relations.

I'm told that despite having my Tibetan visa in hand, I should still expect a two to four-hour customs delay crossing the border and that this time includes getting my motorcycle safety and compliance-inspected by the local police department.  Smells like a shakedown to me, but I'll play the game.  I'll also have to apply for a temporary Tibetan motorcycle driver's license at the border and to do that, I have to have an international driver's license.  Fortunately, I already have that from my work at IBM.  Seems like a lot of red tape (no pun intended), but If my career travel experience has taught me nothing else, it's to be patient and to find a way to embrace the suck.  I've waited almost two years to take this trip.  A few hours delay into an exotic country that was totally off limits to foreigners as recently as 35 years ago will be a walk in the park.

So bring it on; the travel delays, inconsiderate rookie passengers, hours of flying, customs red tape.  An amazing trek on a motorcycle and a photo of Mount Everest in the background will be worth it all.