Quarantine On The Friendship Highway, Part I. Xinhuanet Press (China): “During my quarantine at first I was worried, but the Chinese government provided us daily necessities, and I’m no longer worried anymore,” said Jessica Ricci, an American.
Let’s face it, as an American, I expect the Chinese to bend the truth a bit when it comes to issues like currency manipulation or the political situation in Hong Kong. But I was not expecting the outright lies and manipulation that the Chinese press propagated regarding my trip to Tibet. Is the government that distrustful of their own citizens and so overly concerned with their global image?
But let me take a step back. I was fortunate enough to explore the amazing region of Tibet. A remote and mythical land, steeped in legend. Unfortunately, most of my time was spent quarantined by the Chinese government in a Tibetan border town on the edge of Nepal under the suspicion of having H1N1.
On occasion, epic adventures present themselves. And I grabbed this one. An overland, 1200 km adventure in Toyota 4x4s, beginning in Kathmandu and ending in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. I had visions of Skittle-colored Buddhist prayer flags dotting curving mountain passes, chanting monks, hirsute yaks, and of course the World Heritage Potala Palace.
A group of strangers gathered on a sunny day in Kathmandu, ready to board our bus which would bring us to the border crossing with Tibet (China). We were all part of the tour heading to Lhasa. Twenty-four people positioned themselves in their seats and eyed their fellow passengers. We were going to be spending the next nine days together. And you know, statistically, there was going to be at least one person you were going to hate. Initial conversations began, and I gathered I was at an ad hoc meeting at the UN. I was accompanied by Ukrainians, Singaporeans, Japanese, Aussies, Americans, and many Europeans. The bus rumbled to the border.
After several hours, the bus discarded us in the last town in Nepal named Kotari. The group shuffled through Nepalese immigration and we received our exit stamps. We then proceeded on foot, ambled over the lengthy Friendship Bridge and walked into Tibet. We entered the apparently new Tibet immigration center. This building stood in stark contrast to the immigration building we had just departed in Nepal. The building in Tibet was a two story, two toned stone building. The building in Kotari in Nepal was a decrepit, one room facility. These buildings spoke to China’s and Nepal’s standing in the world economic order.
I went through the required paces to enter Tibet. Luggage searched. Passport scrutinized. And temperature taken, thankfully not anally. We were in the throes of H1NI, it was 2009. I watched a tall Dutchman from my group arguing with an immigration official. The humorless official was confiscating his Lonely Planet Guide for Tibet. The offense? A picture of the Dalai Lama in the book. His image is forbidden. And the government is deadly serious about the banning of his image. Think 18 years in jail for the offense.
Our group eventually congregated on an expansive deck at the exit overlooking the canyon into neighboring Nepal. The temperature had already dropped significantly due to the higher altitude. We were at 2,300 meters. Some in the group donned jackets or sweatshirts.
Our lead tour guide joined us the deck and asked us for our patience. An hour slipped by, and the group’s frustration grew. The relative quiet of this sleepy border town was punctuated by a sharp siren. An ambulance pulled to a stop. And two men ran out and headed toward the immigration building. They were wearing white hazmat suits. A female was escorted out of the building and guided into the ambulance. The siren squeaked and the ambulance departed.
Members of the group shared awkward and uncomfortable glances. The woman escorted into the ambulance we realized, was an Italian woman who accompanied us on the bus and was in our group. Our lead tour guide, Chewy, returned and explained that the Italian woman had a fever and was being brought for testing and observation at a local hospital. He then handed out baby- blue face masks. He asked us for our patience once again as the local officials sorted out the situation. And he asked to see our passports for “a moment”. Time slipped by. The immigration building was chained and closed. We were all still gathered on the deck. I felt a growing irritation with a dollop of gallows humor.
As dusk settled in, five Toyota 4x4s pulled up. We were directed into the vehicles and we snaked down the curvy road of this one-street border town.
We were deposited at the Zhangmu Caiyuan Hotel. Not the highest rated hotel on Tripadvisor. This two story motel was compact with a lobby anchoring the middle with 4 rooms down a wing on either side. Chewy informed us we would be able to depart tomorrow as he told us he would be holding onto our passports. The staff clamped on a lock to the glass doors of the lobby. More confusion and concern.
Little did we know, that we were to be held in this motel for the next five days. Quarantine On The Friendship Highway, Part I