Thursday, December 09, 2010

Seven Years NOT in Tibet

I had a phone date with a good friend back at the end of October. When I shared with her my plans to travel to Nepal the next week to attend a language learning workshop, her response was, "International travel? By yourself? Really?" Perhaps a little too confident in my globe-trotting skills (after all, I felt my passport, with all its stamps and visas, was proof enough that I knew what I was doing), I replied, "No problem. What could go wrong?

And this, my blog-reading friends, is a story of just what can go wrong...

The ticket I had decided to purchase back in September I thought was a great deal at nearly $400 cheaper than any other ticket I had found online. It left from a different city from where I live, but I figured I had friends there I could visit and surely I could find a domestic flight that would still keep the final price lower. So I booked it, flew out from our city, had a wonderful few days with a dear friend (full of turkey sandwiches and 10k runs!), and then prepared to head off to my training.

On the day I was supposed to head off to Nepal, I woke up with the usual potpourri of travel emotions: delirium from the early alarm clock, angst from the tight travel schedule ahead, exhilaration over the adventure to come. These are the exact emotions that make Kevin hate travel days; these are the exact emotions that make me love them. So I set off to the airport before the sun had even spread its morning rays through the smog of China, happily informing my cab driver of all my exciting travel details (well, they were exciting enough to me. Not 100% sure he felt the same way!)

Upon arrival at the airport, I took my place in line amidst the Western backpackers strapped into their high-tec trekking gear and the Buddhist monks clad in maroon & mustard robes and wooden prayer bead necklaces, Nike Airs peeking out from under their flowing layers. When I finally reached the front of the line, I proudly announced my destination to the man behind the desk: "Kathmandu! (With an hour layover in Lhasa)." Not impressed by my enthusiasm, he routinely replied, "Where's your Tibetan travel pass?"

And that is when things started to derail.

"Travel pass? For a layover? But I'm not going to Tibet. I'm just going to the airport," I argued in Chinese as I tried to maintain my composure and suppress all the worst case scenarios flying through my mind.

"Doesn't matter. Still need a travel pass. Next in line!"

In my defense, I was aware that the travel pass existed. Knowing that foreign relations with China & Tibet aren't that great, I had researched it before I had left. When my internet searches turned up nothing that said I needed a travel pass for a layover, I just assumed that for transit travelers like me, it wasn't necessary. Well, you know what they say about assumptions...

I spent the next five hours bouncing between the domestic terminal, the international terminal, and airport security, dragging my 20 kilo suitcase behind me and sharing my sob story with anyone who would listen. I even called a backpackers hostel in town to see what was needed to get the elusive travel pass (3 days processing time and the purchase of a Tibetan travel thank you!) The wheels and cogs of my brain were in overload as I was having to negotiate, explain, and navigate the entire situation in a foreign language.

To make matter worse, my cell phone wasn't working. All the cell phones here are pre-paid, and it was on that inconvenient day that I discovered I was out of money on my phone. The machine at the airport which was supposed to enable me to add minutes guessed it...broken! In the end, the kind souls at the international terminal let me use their phone to get a hold of Kevin so he could go add money to my phone.

As a great (and somewhat abnormal) testimony to customer service in China, a good 95% of the people I talked with were helpful. But the answers all came back the same: get a travel pass or re-book a flight that doesn't go through Tibet. It seemed the latter was my only option. So in the end, I had a new ticket booked for the following day with a new itinerary that sent me two hours east to Hong Kong for a six hour layover there, then 5 hours west to Kathmandu with an hour not-allowed-to-get-off-the-plane layover in Bangladesh. The most important thing was that I arrived in the end. A little bit harried and haggled but I made it!

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