Up Early to Queue in Lhasa

On our first day in Lhasa we found out that because Yi was Chinese she would need to get up early in the morning to queue for the tickets to Potala Palace. They also needed one other person to go as well, so obviously I volunteered. So at 5 in the morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to go down and meet our tour guides.

The Queue

We were driven to the foot of the Potala Palace where a huge queue had already formed. There were probably in excess of 1000 people waiting to get a ticket to see the palace. It turns out that our tour guides had paid someone to queue up for us and my girlfriend and I were to take their place. I was given everyone’s passports and we went to meet our stand-in.

When we tried to swap places the guard tried to stop us. An argument ensued – it seemed they didn’t want to let my girlfriend in to the queue. We managed to convince them by telling them that she was my translator. After taking our place, Yi was handed a group of Chinese IDs to hand over alongside her own. Our stand-in provided us with a light cake for breakfast and some water. One man remained to guide us through the process of getting tickets.

While waiting in line we got talking to some of the other people around us. People had been waiting in this queue since 4 o’clock. In the afternoon. The day before. I felt a tinge of guilt having managed to jump a queue that people had been camping out all night in, and a little nervous that all those around us would resent what we had done.

The ticket booths opened at some point – I can’t remember what time exactly and the queue started to slowly move. After what seemed like another hour we finally reached the front of the queue. I went up first and handed over the passports and the money. In less than a minute I had the tickets.


Yi went up with her ID and the other IDs that she had been handed. They printed out her ticket, then noticed the other IDs. Suddenly a huge argument broke out. Apparently Yi wasn’t supposed to be getting tickets for other people. They were demanding to see the other people who were on the IDs. I heard Yi constantly saying “I didn’t know” over and over in Chinese as her ticket was kept from her. The argument didn’t end well, and Yi didn’t get her ticket.

It turned out that what they had tried to get Yi to do wasn’t allowed, and because they hadn’t explained what they were doing, she wasn’t able to defend or explain herself at the ticket booth. They had basically tried to use her to get tickets they weren’t supposed to be able to get, and now she didn’t even have her own ticket.

Our tour guide was furious. “She’s not part of my staff, she’s my customer!” He demanded to know what had happened, and what they were going to do for her. They explained that there had been a language misunderstanding. “Language misunderstanding?” he retorted, “she’s fucking Chinese! She speaks fluent Mandarin!”

They went off and argued for a while. Eventually he came back and told us that they had agreed to fix it. It wasn’t the best start to our holiday in Tibet, but we decided to put it behind us and carry on with the rest of the tour. The visit to the Potala Palace wasn’t until the next day, so they had a day to find her a ticket.

Looking back I’m surprised how different they treat foreigners and Chinese here. I handed them a bunch of passports – English, Canadian, American and Australian and had no problem getting tickets with no questions asked. They had no problem with me jumping the queue. But when Yi tried to do the same we had to lie and say she was my translator, and when she handed multiple Chinese IDs over they wouldn’t give her tickets because they were from a different province. It really made me wonder what they were trying to protect with this crazy security setup, and whether or not they were actually successful in doing so.

Tibet: Arrival

Last summer we visited Tibet (西藏 or Xīzàng in Simplified Chinese) with Young Pioneer Tours, a part of China, yet not so simple for foreigners to visit. The rules to get in are constantly changing and China often temporarily blocks foreigners from entry. Money always wins in the end, and these bans are usually lifted very quickly.

This time foreign nationals had to be travelling with at least one other person of the same nationality. Fortunately our tour guide was also British so I was able to be on the same pass as him.

On arriving in Tibet we met our Tibetan tour guide and got on the bus that would take us to Lhasa. Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and has been heavily modernised. A large population of Han live there alongside the local Tibetans (Han Chinese are the majority in China, which has several minorities, including Mongolians and Tibetans).

On the road to Lhasa we took in the most scenic views I’ve ever seen in China. We were travelling through a large valley surrounded with treeless mountains. In many ways this place reminded me of the Eden Valley in Cumbria – the place where I grew up.

We arrived in our hotel in Lhasa. The place we were staying at was in Old Town, a part of Lhasa that preserves the local culture and heritage of Tibet. It is here where you will find most local Tibetans. Outside of Old Town has been heavily modernised and feels like any Chinese city.

One of the first things I noticed about being here was that the air really was thin. Tibet is actually a large plateaux with a really high altitude (around 14,000 – 15,000 feet). Because of this, the air is really thin, so for people used to the dense air closer to the Earth’s surface your body needs to get used to breathing in this air. Although I didn’t get altitude sickness (yet), running up a single flight of stairs would make me queasy and dizzy. I’d have to hold onto the wall and take several deep breaths before I could move again.

Hotel Lhasa
Hotel Lhasa

After checking in to the hotel we were given some free time to wander around. My girlfriend and I decided to try and find some food, so we wandered down the road and quickly came across a noodle shop. We went in and ordered ourselves spicy beef noodles – the safe bet when you are somewhere strange in China.

When I was applying for the holidays to come to Tibet, my boss told me that he wouldn’t go himself because Tibetans don’t like Han Chinese. Seeing my girlfriend was Han, the Tibetans running the shop decided to talk to her asking where I was from. My Chinese is still terrible, so I understood little of the conversation, but it seemed to be friendly and certainly destroyed the idea that Tibetans don’t like Han.

In the afternoon we got back together as a group and went to wander Old Town. We didn’t have a real plan for the first afternoon – many of us would be suffering from altitude sickness so we were to take things easy. We saw the hustle and bustle of the markets in Tibet. The unpolluted, clear blue skies made the city appear far more colourful than anywhere else I’d seen in China.

We came across a small temple almost hidden behind the market street. On our way down the alley leading to it, several prayer wheels lined the wall on one side. People would touch and spin each one as they went in. In the alley was a door into the main temple. People would go inside, walk around the temple in an orderly fashion and pray to the Buddha statue as they went past. It was our first glimpse into the Tibetan style of Buddhism.

Afterwards we continued wandering the market streets and bought some Tibetan “cheese”. This cheese was more like dried milk. It tasted a bit bland and chewy – with a small hint of gone-off milk.

Before we went to bed we made our way to the first restaurant that we would visit in Tibet. It was a rooftop bar that looked over the Jokhang Temple. They served some western-style food and some drinks. We had a few beers and headed back to our hotel to sleep off the lack of air.

Our Tibetan guide had explained to us that our girlfriend and myself would need to be up at 5 in the morning to sort out the Potala Palace tickets. We were completely unprepared for what would follow the next day…