Couchsurfing in Lijang (Lijang, China)

Lijiang was far better than Dali.  Its old town was more charming and more authentic, and, once again, CouchSurfing had greatly enhanced my experience in Lijiang.  It was the first time I had actually surfed a couch, that is, the first time I had ever stayed with another CouchSurfer I had never met.  Until then, I had only been meeting people for coffee or beers.

My host was fantastic.  I stayed with Keith, a former journalist from New Zealand who moved to Lijiang three years ago and has spent his time since then restoring a 100-year old traditional house.  His proposal was straightforward.  Yes, I could stay with him, but I had to spend two hours a day helping him restore the house.  Deal? DEAL!

His two story house was centrally located and separated from its neighbors by a brick and tile wall.  The wall enclosed a pleasant courtyard with a small garden.  There were seven spare rooms in the house, for Keith lived alone.  I took one.  It was excellent.

It was a strange change of pace for me after so many months of traveling.  I volunteered to walked his dog and I looked forward to helping restore the house – I actually enjoyed doing chores!  It felt good to set down my bag and live a settled life for a bit.  I stayed over half a week.

But I was not ready to settle down, not yet.  I still had time on my hands and much ground to cover.  I had two essential constraints –TIME and MONEY.  I decided to stretch both to their limits.

But where to go?  I had about 3 weeks before I had to get on the Trans-Siberian but nowhere in China looked particularly appealing…except for Tibet.

But it was waaayyy too expensive.  It would break by budget to say the least.  Plus, I had met other travelers returning from Tibet, and many of them said it was actually quite Chinese, not Tibetan.  They told me I could find more Tibetan culture in Sichuan province, where the Tibetans were freer to practice their religion.

On top of it all, it was a pain in the neck to get there.  I would need a bunch of permits, and the government was forcing tourists to join organized tours.  If I wanted the costs to be anywhere near affordable, I would need to join a tour.  But all the tours were being organized in Chengdu, a day’s journey away in Sichuan province.  I dismissed the idea and promised myself that I would return to China and visit Tibet later.

But then I had a conversation with a Chinese-American who was determined to get to Lhasa.  He said that his people – the Han Chinese – were destroying Tibet, that he was determined to see the place before it was gone forever.  I told him I was going to go later.  He told me I could not wait.  He was right, “later” is a very dangerous word.  Some things simply cannot be put off.

Plus, what could I tell my grandchildren when they asked me about the mystical forgotten Kingdom once called Tibet.  Surely you were alive when it was around, weren’t you Grandpa?  What could I say, that I almost went, but that I was too cheap for fork out the cash?

No way, Jose.  I had sacrificed too many good experiences so far in the name of pinching pennies and this was one not to be missed.  My trip was cut short by two months anyways, so I could make it happen.  Spend the money now, make more later.

So it was decided – I was going to Tibet.

There a few problems with getting to Tibet.  As I said before, I had to join a tour to be allowed into Tibet.  And if I wanted this tour to be affordable, I needed to split it with three other people.  I sent out emails and posted messages across the net and finally I got a taker – three random people leaving for Lhasa in a few days time.

I tried to explain that I was trying to travel overland, and that I was avoiding airplanes unless absolutely necessary.  It was useless.  One guy had to take an airplane, and Chinese regulations stated that all of our tour group had to arrive on the same plane together.

So I had to take a plane.  It violated one of my core travel principles, but it is necessary in life to be flexible.

Plus, there were greater injustices.  I needed two or three expensive permits to visit Tibet, I couldn’t go anywhere without a guide AND I had to pay for his food and accommodation.  Oh yeah…and the Chinese are occupying Tibet, the Dalai Lama is forced to live in exile, and the Tibetans have suffered from 50 years of abuse from the Chinese military.  Yeah…that too.

So I waved goodbye to my first CS host and took a bus and a train to Chengdu, and left of Tibet the very next day.


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