A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tibet

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Sichuan Airlines” rang through our cabin as we all emitted a collective groan. You see, this was the second time today we had to sit through the preflight video. What had started out as a two hour flight from Chengdu turned into a seven hour-long voyage as ill weather halted our initial landing into Lhasa.

Following a long wait on the airline after returning to the Chengdu airport, we were told to buckle up as the pilot wanted to try again. Anxiety-ridden and still slightly nauseous from the first attempt, I tried to relax, but couldn’t help replaying over how my trip into Chengdu didn’t go as planned either…

I woke up yesterday morning with the knowledge that some trains had been canceled due to snow in the north. Hoping that was not the case for my train to the Wenzhou airport, I rushed that rainy morning to the Lishui Railroad station to find that all trains that day had been delayed. Thank goodness it wasn’t canceled! My train eventually arrived, giving me about two hours to make my flight.

At the Wenzhou train station, all the train ticket exit machines were broken, with only one overwhelmed agent checking tickets amidst the sea of people. Panicking, I pushed my way through and booked it to the taxi line. Once in taxi, I told my driver I was worried about being late to my flight as I had less than one hour and a half. He assured me that I would be there early and sped as best as he could – I say this because his car fogged up as soon as we drove onto the highway. He didn’t use his de-fogger and had to keep wiping his windshield with a cloth. As I was sure he couldn’t see well out the back or sides of the car, I offered to wipe them down which he refused to my consternation. At the airport I somehow  made it through the check-in and security lines just in time to board.

At long last, I mistakenly thought my troubles after that were over since I made it to Chengdu. I was super excited to meet up with an old friend from undergrad, Xian, who happens to live in Chengdu and was free for dinner. I checked into my hotel and Didi’d back to the airport (Didi is basically China’s Uber service) for about twelve kuai. It wasn’t far, and Xian took the metro there to meet me. We had really good, albeit super spicy and numbing, hotpot for dinner.

Since Xian insisted on seeing me off before taking the metro home, we waited in line for a taxi.  I get in the taxi with the address on my phone. Xian tells the driver the address. I also show the driver the address on my phone and wave good bye to Xian. The driver and I start off when he suddenly pulls over. I think it odd as tries to communicate with me as I have the address right in front of his eyes. He proceeds to take out his cellphone calculator and types in “100.” With a sinking feeling, I say, “what is this?” He then tells me he wants 100 kuai to take me to my hotel. I say that I can give him twelve, and he starts laughing stating that it is too far and he has to return to the airport. I quickly open the door and get out, strongly stating “BU YAO BU YAO (don’t want!)” I was lucky he didn’t lock my door. Well, he rushes after me telling me it’s okay come back and an airport traffic agents comes up asking what’s wrong. I tell him he charged me 100 kuai and the driver fires back that I only will pay him 12 kuai! I state that I’m leaving to call a Didi and go.

It turns out Xian wasn’t far off and offered to help me call a Didi. A few more mishaps later including trying to find the Didi, Xian’s phone dying, losing the first Didi, and almost getting lost trying to find the second one, I made it back to my hotel.

I very was grateful not to have to rush this morning to catch my flight to Lhasa. The plane was delayed by about an hour, but the front desk workers provided us with free lunch vouchers. I had fun people watching my fellow passengers who were a neat mix of native Tibetans, ethnic Han Chinese and maybe a few Muslim Hui minority members.

Distant view of mountains outside the cabin window

Additionally, our flight went smoothly until we reached snow-capped mountains. Regular bouts of turbulence strong enough to jerk our arms around met us as our flight path came closer to Lhasa. As it came time to land, the elements picked up. My stomach felt as if it was trying to turn inside out. The last time I felt like that was a roller-coaster at Dollywood that my husband, Mark, made me go on last year. Wails, moans, and sounds of people retching were drowned out by our pilot stating that we were going to make a return trip to Chengdu. This brought on more wails and some tears. The flight back was smooth yet very disappointing.

Those who were violently sick were given the option to disembark at the Chengdu airport. The rest of us were told to wait in our seats in the meantime, lots of people called home telling them what happened. I called my agent who stated that I needed to see if the airline could put me up for the night as it is too late to refund my hotel in Lhasa tonight. An hour dragged by when we were suddenly told to buckle up as we were going to try again!

Luckily, this time, the elements died down long enough for us to land successfully. A collective sigh of relief was audible when our landing gear touched the ground.

Our driver and my guide, Gelek, were waiting to meet me.  Gelek gave me a khata (Tibetan scarf) as a welcoming present. The airport was an hour away from the city so I got to know a little about him and the area. I felt so guilty for making them wait, but Gelek told me delays and cancellations happen all the time here. At night, the landscape reminds me a bit of New Mexico with its mountains, plains, and vast stretches of darkness. Gelek is a really cheerful guy. We easily chatted for an hour about Tibetan life,  Gelek’s hometown in Everest, travel restrictions for Tibetan laymen, farming, foods I wanted to try, the best recipe for Tibetan butter tea, and how sweet tea culture in Tibet isn’t Tibetan, but made popular from other countries like India.

Gelek taught me two phrases thus far in Tibetan:

Thank you = Tu Ji Che (Too-Jee-Chey)  and  Hello = Drashi Delek (Drash-Ee Dell-eck)

It’s two in the morning, and I feel like the past two days are just now hitting me, so forgive me for any writing errors… I can’t believe I’m here! Tomorrow I plan walk up the steps to Potala Palace and walk along some of the famous koras (Pilgramage routes). I am so, so thankful I get to end today where I wanted, and for thus far not getting hit with any altitude sickness.

Tu Ji Che! ཐུགས་རྗེ་ཆེ།!

I made it!!


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