The Other Side of the Border: Not Quite Tibet, Not Quite ‘Chinese’

Somewhere in the plains of southwestern China lies an arbitrary state border that supposedly marks out Tibetan territory. Far on the other side of the Tibetan plateau, the ‘Chinese’ side, lies one of the largest Tibetan monastery complexes. Labrang monastery is actually expanding, and already hosts around 5000 monks and scholars.

This was one of the most fascinating stops of my entire four months of travelling the Silk Road. A big call, I know! No other place I’ve ever visited has had such a riotous clash of ideas and contradictions. There’s competition between old traditions and modern necessities, political correctness and lack of cultural understanding, tourism bolstering the economy while simultaneously eroding and improving local lifestyles; and threaded through it all is the monastery at the centre of town, without which the town would not exist.

They say a picture says a thousands, and that’s the way I feel about this photo. On the surface, there is a cute toddler, playing hide a seek around the temple. She had a very cute smile, and giggled as she tottered around ‘hiding’ from her Dad, who was taking photos. Her parents laughed and smiled at their beautiful girl.

Meanwhile, behind the doors of that very hall, hundreds of monks had just been called to meditate moments earlier, and her parents had seen the procession of monks file inside. The girls giggles no doubt interrupted their daily session somewhat – but the girl’s game was not interrupted, and her Han parents spared no thoughts for how this might be inconsiderate.


Above: Some of the yak butter sculptures on display. There’s a competition and exhibition of these, and the room they’re displayed is certainly has a strong smell!

Later we were told that many Han Chinese have never ever been in a temple, and that’s one reason so many visit Xiahe. I wasn’t sure if the monk meant a Tibetan temple, or just any temple in general (which seemed less likely), but it did make me think about the impact of the Cultural revolution, and how hard that must’ve been for monasteries such as Labrang to survive. It’s strange, for a country so shaped by Buddhism throughout it’s history, that so many of the day’s visitors could be so oblivious to some of the courtesies of temple life. Taking photos when they should not, more or less ignoring any passing monk that was not their guide for the day, and letting their kids play noisily in front of a hall full of meditating monks, it is easy to see that for some Han Chinese, there has never been much cultural awareness about Tibetan Buddhism. It probably explains so much about their relations between the Chinese government and the state of Tibet too!


This is Xiahe’s token ram! This guy hangs outside the monastery, and sleeps out the front of one the shops on the main street. He was there every day we were in town.

One of the most entertaining parts of our short tour around the grounds was the sassy guide we were given. He was the only monk who spoke English, and was proud of having learnt it – but hated that it meant he was now the designated tour guide, and it sounded like he was not likely to get away from that role. You see, all the monks need to do something to contribute to the temple. ‘Temple work,’ if you will. Novices study, and generally do menial tasks. The higher monks get as they study more and elevate through the ranks of the monastery, they are assigned different tasks. The most respected task is often being a Lama, or a teacher. This poor monk was obviously frustrated that no other monk had learnt English, so despite his pride in having taught himself the language, was possibly not about to be promoted. No one else could take us ignorant toursists around, and he was unlikely to get away from frustrating questions such as “What do you mean the future Buddha? How can you have a past, present and future Buddha?” right after he had explained said concept. The physical deflation of this monk, and the ‘how-many-more-times-do-I-have-to-do-this’ look clearly written over his face after a French man in our White Devil group asked this question, said it all. The same Frenchman later caused further offence by suggesting that maths and physics were of greater importance than the traditional Tibetan monastery subjects such as astronomy and traditional healing. The rest of us were biting our tongues so as to not occur this monk’s wrath after that.


Above:Our sassy monk guide

On the one hand Mr Sassy was a great insight into daily life of the temple. We heard his enthusiasm for the monastic life, and he really did light up when he got to speaking about certain things, and he obviously loved sharing his ideas and thoughts about Buddhism. If a few of us weren’t so afraid to offend him as our French neighbour had not learnt to, I could’ve sat for hours talking about the importance of philosophy and education and belief and health and sharing and openness…instead, I just smiled at the way he obviously loved sharing his beliefs about being good and living well.

On the other hand, it was clear that there was a lot of resentment towards tourists from the monks. It sounded like there were just a few too many visitors who did not really appreciate their traditions, or leave them be, or didn’t have enough understanding about their culture, lifestyle and religion to fully respect them. Unfortunately though, us tourists bring in a lot of money for the temple, allowing it to support the thousands of monks who come there to study and live. It’s also necessary for the economy of the local town, which definitely survives due the number of visitors who visit. A necessary evil if you will.


The Kora is a pilgrimage that people make, touching the hundred of prayer wheels that line the outside of Labrang. Because the monastery is constantly explanding, more of these wheels are being added. Already a few kms long, the sunrise devotion trail is about to get longer!

Labrang is a monastery that is still under construction. Several sites around the place had work vehicles and a few trades men. I was quite impressed at the scale of the complex, and how much new work was taking place. This not only reflects on the investment that tourism brings in, but the devotion of Tibetan locals who donate to the temples, and most interestingly, the huge donation the Chinese government has made to the monastery. The government pledge about 2 million (I wasn’t sure if that was USD or CNY, but either way it’s a substantial sum – one is just a lot more substantial haha) to go towards the construction at Labrang. Given the constant media narrative we are given of ‘Tibet vs Government,’ I found it extremely interesting they would donate to this temple belonging to an ethnic minority. I wondered if it signalled a change in their approach to some of their minorities, or if it was to placate the locals on another issue, or if it was also in part due to the boost it would give the domestic tourism market given that they own most of the train and airline companies. These are all the kinds of questions Xiahe throws up, without giving too many answers.


Above: A TIbetan girl looks out at the grasslands, about an hour’s drive outside of Xiahe

We were lucky enough to go out on a Tibetan grasslands tour, a definite highlight of the trip. We took the truck out the back roads of the Tibetan plateau, off roading until we reached a local family who had arranged to meet us. This drive reminded us all of Kyrgyzstan, open plains with herds of sheep and goats, and we were interrupted by some yaks crossing the roads (though in Kyrgyz it would have been horses). It was as if we had never been in any big cities like Kashgar, Turpan or driven days along the uber-modern highways.

Although not yurts, Tibetans traditional live in semi-permanent tents, which they can move as they need to. They predominantly herd yaks, sheep or goats. Yaks give Tibetans meat, butter, milk, and their local yak tea. It is increasingly harder for them to move to the best pasture available, according to the seasons. Out there, the most obvious forms of modernisation were the fences, and they’ve had a substantial impact on locals, severely restricting their nomadic lifestyle. Some Tibetans think it’s a way for the Chinese government to restrict their movement, or reduce the amount of land the ethnic minority has access to. In a country with an expanding population, and new housing being built in nearly every major city we passed through, it’s certainly going to be difficult to keep such grazing areas untouched in the decades to come. I guess that’s the drawback for this community – they’re on the wrong side of the Tibetan border.

And then there was my favourite, ironic picture: the nomadic family, looking out over the yaks, chatting as they do every day in the sun, being shaded by a RedBull tent. I wondered if the grandma and grandpa had ever even tasted RedBull, yet here was this piece of marketing in the most unlikely of places!


There is a confluence of the modern and traditions here. While talking about the life of the nomads today, it came up that there was no education system for Tibetans. Traditionally, to be educated, you would study at the monastery. There is of course no imperative to stay at the monastery forever, and so it is a viable free education system. But, as the Frenchman had earlier pointed out, the education subjects traditionally taught in the monastery are not always those that are valued by modern society. Thus, there’s a conflict. If Tibetans ever did want to establish themselves in the broader Chinese business culture, it becomes quite difficult. They have to more or less give up their nomadic ways, teach themselves Mandarin, and accept some of the Han Chinese’s influence. Or, the children are sometimes sent into town, to stay with a relatives or friends while they go to school – which in turn means they are less likely to return to their lands and nomadic lifestyles because they grow up away from that. Of course, the nomadic lifestyle is very hard, as they must survive off their yaks and herds, and trade what they can for vegetables and other goods. So, realistically, they are living in poverty – and the only way for them to get out of that cycle is to give up their traditions and get an education.

And therein lies the problem, and the crux of the arguments from both the Tibetans and the Chinese government: to keep their traditions they need lands to roam free and to accept their own forms of lifestyle and education, but to be a part of the multi ethnic and pro-development China they need to leave some of those freedoms behind. Of course, many don’t want to be a part of China at all. But in towns like Xiahe, who didn’t quite make the cut-off for the Tibetan territory, that is not a likely option. But with the boom in domestic tourism, hopefully it will foster more cultural awareness on both sides, and allow them to develop and live along side each other a little easier.

Xiahe is a town in Gansu Provence of mainland China. Let me know your opinion of Labrang, Tibet and China by commenting below!  I visited there earlier in the year while travelling with Dragoman as part of their Bishkek-XiAn trip.

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Organising Visas for Central Asia and the Middle East

I’ll be sharing my experiences of getting some of the visas for my trip, and updating this post as I go. Please bare in mind that the process may be different according to your nationality and passport. Best piece of advice is always ring the embassy!

China:

They get so many people applying for visas to enter China on a daily basis the embassies and consulates aren’t even involved, it’s a separate visa processing authority. It’s fairly straightforward, and everything is very clearly explained on the processing centre’s website. You will need to organise a Letter of Invitation for many visa types, so if you don’t have a local contact, or aren’t on a tour, you’ll need to research how to arrange one. They usually come within a week.

The only thing not mentioned on the website is that you need flights in and out of China. This means you need a booking confirmation of held flights on the dates you wish to enter and exit in order to be able to apply. All other documents are as specified.

Get to the centre early, easpecially if going to one of the bigger centre’s such as Sydney., and try to make an appointment online. Making an appointment means you’ll wait about 15-20mins to apply, without one you could be waiting over an hour. Visa pick ups are a little quicker, but I still waited for about 35 mins.

They’re very reliable at processing visas on time, standard processing is 3 days, express can be done in 24 hours.


Dubai
Although this may be easy enough to google, I did find it odd. Everywhere I read said a ‘visa on arrival’ had be organised at the airport. However, when I did get there, it was merely the usual entry stamp, the customs officer didn’t even want my documents proving entry and exit. I think I was in the queue for about five minutes, stamped into the UAE hassle free after ten.

Oman:

There’s a little trick with this one if you’re entering and exiting from Dubai and Qatar, but ONLY if you do that. Visas will be free if you do this. This is so tourists from Dubai can go check out Musandam really easily, and it encourages more tourists to the area. For me, although I was entering from Dubai, I was travelling onwards to Iran, so I went with the visa on arrival. It’s incredibly cheap at only 5 rial! That works out to be about $20AUD ($17 USD or so) for 10 days. Longer stays of up to 30 days were about 15 rial I think, though I don’t remember clearly. Up to date information is on the Oman Air website, and there’s a few links found on the Muscat airport webpage.

Muscat isn’t a huge airport, so I got off the plane, and straight into the visa queue like most other passengers. You can actually exchange money at the same time as paying for your visa,so I exchanged the bit of cash I had and the visa payment was deducted from that amount. You get a receipt with a stamp to prove you’ve paid for your visa, then line up for the immigration officers to check your passport. I had to queue for a little while, but it was still a very straightforward process. It’s not a physical visa, just your standard entry stamp, so don’t stress about having extra pages in your passport!


Uzbekistan:

I chose to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai because I’d read you could get it on the same day. This was a stressful decision for me,because if this didn’t go as planned, I would ruin my whole trip! I got off my flight into Dubai, dropped my bags off at a hotel, and went straight to the consulate with my filled out documents.

Letters of Invitation for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are both embassy/consulate specific. This means that the LOI is only valid at the embassy or consulate which you initially specify when filling out the paperwork. So if you get an LOI to be used in Abu Dhabi, and you turn up in Beijing, it might not be accepted. I suspect you could probably get away with it in many cases though! I think my Uzbek LOI specified the pick up location, but the Turkmen and Chinese LOIs didn’t. But do bare it in mind when applying and organising where to file the paperwork.

Although the people working there did speak a little English, everything was being communicated in Russian and I presume Uzbek as well. I had no idea what was going on. I sat down because everyone else seemed to be waiting. Then people just sort of wandered up to the window, handed in some papers, a few people were called over to change something on their papers….I eventually stood behind someone else, and a queue starting forming. I then got to the front, to be told I had to line up in front of the other window – and then was told the same when I got to the front of that line. The person in charge of the visa window didn’t turn up for at least an hour. Then they took my application, LOI and passport, and just shut the window again, so I was left confused about how long this would take, if I was supposed to wait for them to give it back to me or come back in two days, and he didn’t even tell me how much it was, as I wanted to check if Australian passports had the same charge as most other nationalities. A long while later and it was all done, much to my relief! I paid is USD, because their English website quoted in dollars, but they were a little put out I wasn’t using dirhams. It was 350 dirhams, or 85USD. Take exact change! In the end I suppose it was quite easy, I was just jet lagged, hungry, and very much out of the loop with the inner workings of this consulate.


Iran:

If you’re going to Iran, this is something you’ll definitely need to read up on, because different nationalities have vastly different visa charges and British and US citizens have a very different process from the rest of us (or so I gather). I could have organised this visa from the embassy in Canberra, but chose to arrange it on arrival instead. Again, getting it arrival was quite easy, and very well organised. There are a few things to remember though!

For those applying beforehand, you need a photo to apply. For women, this means a passport style photo, but with a headscarf. Interestingly, you don’t need that when applying on arrival, so mine didnt have any photos printed onto it – and it meant I got extra passport photos for nothing!

The first thing is that it is definitely important to get a letter of invitation or a visa activation code. There are people who didn’t have either at the airport, and I’ve read other blogs where people claim you don’t need one either. However, a pre-arranged visa activation code or LOI will guarantee that you get your visa. It will also significantly speed up the process. If you don’t arrange either of those, they must do all the same checks as they would have done had you organised it earlier, and there is a chance you can be turned away at the airport (in Iran, or before you leave your home country) and forced to buy a new flight. The same is true of any country of course, which is why it’s always important to organise visas! I arrived after, and left with my visa before some of the other people who didnt seem to have the right papers. I would guess that the need for the activation code and LOI is probably determined by your nationality – I wouldn’t like to risk it coming from Australia! I noticed the Bahraini student group didn’t seem to have so many papers, for example.  

The other thing they will ask when you arrive is if you have insurance for Iran. Without it, they will ask you to pay about $18 USD for local insurance. The lady in front of me had travel insurance, which stated it was worldwide cover, however,as it didn’t explicitly say it covered Iran, was asked to take out local insurance. Without a stamp from the insurance window, the staff at the visa window will not accept your passport. I had insurance which stated it covered the Middle East, and though I got a bit of a talking to, it was accepted and stamped. I suspect a smile and polite greeting to the staff behind the counter goes a long way too.

The visa payment is in euros, and they most certainly prefer them! I paid in dollars, and I think I may have been charged extra for it, though I didn’t know the USD to euro exchange rate off the top of my head to check. For Australian passports, I was asked to pay 145 euros. Many other nationalities got cheaper rates. The embassy in Australia said the visa would be $160AUD on arrival, and the same if you pre-organised. I paid $163USD, and a Kiwi friend of mine paid about $170USDthe same day. We think Euros is the flat rate, while USD might be adjusted with exchange rate, though can’t be sure of course!

The whole process only took about half an hour. Get a stamp on your insurance or take out the local one, go over and hand in our documents and get given the price of your visa, go the window next door to make the payment in cash, then sit and wait for you passport to come back with the visa inside. Although the paperwork was a little different to get my activation code, it was far simpler than trying to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai! The airport staff were really helpful too, and everything clearly signposted.


Turkmenistan:

This was another LOI situation. Again, I had to chose between embassies and consulates to visit overseas. I had the choice of Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Korea, Japan or Armenia which would have interested me, but I went with Armenia because I wanted to spend a fair bit of time there. Initially, I contacted all of these embassies to check that I would be able to apply for the visa at their offices. Within three hours, the Seoul and Yerevan embassies replied confirming that it would take a few days to process. However, when later trying to contact the Armenians again to check the exact amount of days and their opening hours, I have had no response at all, which made me a little apprehensive! I left myself with a total of 10 days in Armenia, so that at least calmed my nerves a little.

Please see the above entry on Uzbek visas regarding validity of LOIs.

I went to the embassy first thing on Monday morning, and the embassy is down a residential street off a main road. A taxi from my hostel near Republic square only cost 600 drams, and took about 10 minutes. There was a guard outside, and someone washing a car in the drive way. Nothing but the guy in uniform really said ’embassy!’ The guard noticed I looked like a lost tourist, and the taxi driver seemed confused as well, so he came up to the taxi and led me over to the door. I rang the doorbell, said I was there for a visa, and was directed up the stairs and into a small room.As far as I could tell, I was the only person there, so it felt a little like an interview. The lady was abrupt but very efficient, asked for all of my documents, and gave me the correct form to fill out. The one listed on the Caravanistan page (also the only one I could find anywhere on the net) is not the correct one. Very similar questions though, just laid out a little differently. She made sure I filled it out correctly, and was helpful when I needed some clarification about the translation of a few words.

The service charge is $35USD, which you can pay upfront or when collecting the visa. She did say that she needed to ‘put it in the computer,’ and that there may be extra charge, which I took to mean different nationalities have different visa costs. I chose to pay later as a result. They ONLY accept payment in USD, not local currency. I was told to return to pick up my passport 3 days later – the express option didn’t seem to be on the table anymore, but I didn’t ask since I had an extra day to potentially reapply if something went wrong.

I returned first thing on Thursday morning as directed, was asked to pay the fee, and then a man came down with my application, asked for clarification on two points on my form and then handed over my passport with visa attached. After hearing so many reports of visa rejections, I was relieved! It’s also one of the cheaper visas of my whole trip. 

NB: I applied for tourist visas in all above cases. For Turkmenistan, recent reports indicate that transit visas may be a little more difficult, and I met several people who had been rejected when I was in Armenia, both with and without invitation letters. As I was part of a tour, I could apply for a tourist visa. Tourist visas are only for those on tours, so many people opt for the transit visa option, but there is high risk of being rejected that way. 


Armenia

This was an easy visa on arrival situation. Arriving bleary eyed, late at night meant the process was a bit more confusing than it should have been, but all I really had to do was fill out the form, get Armenian drams out of the ATM, and pay for the visa. The drams was inconvenient, as there was no exchange place near the immigration counter, so I had to guess the rough exchange rate and how much cash I would actually need for the next few days. But other than that, a very straightforward and painless procedure.

 

Vietnam 

For the first time, I’ll be applied for my Vietnamese visa overseas. The process was very straight forward, I just had to turn up at the embassy in Beijing, fill out the form and pay the fee. No proof of entry or exit was required, and I could get the express visa 3 days later.