The “Friendship” Highway

I had never hitch-hiked anywhere before, so in retrospect the Tibetan plateau was a bad place to start.  But events had conspired against me and I found myself stranded at 13,000 feet.  I needed to get to Nepal before my visa and money expired.

It all started in Lhasa.  Most Nepal-bound travellers in Tibet’s capital get together in a group and hire a Toyota Landcruiser and a driver.  They sit in the courtyard of the Yak Hotel meticulously planning a picturesque itinerary, which they then fail to communicate successfully to their carefully selected tour agency because of the language barrier.  I had a more straightforward request, or so I thought.  Get me to the border as quickly as possible.

I knew that Lhasa tour agencies regularly sent empty cars to the Nepalese border to collect groups undertaking the scenic route in the opposite direction.  For a fraction of the tour price, I could surely find a quick and easy ride to the border, two days and 450 miles down the Friendship Highway.

Checking notice-boards and trawling agency offices, I eventually found a car leaving in two days time.  Perfect: just enough time for some souvenir shopping.  Without the expression “counting one’s chickens before they are hatched” so much as crossing my mind, I congratulated myself on my resourcefulness.  Imagine the thought of taking a comfy Landcruiser all the way to the border.  And that’s exactly what happened: I imagined it.

Come the day I woke at 6am to be on time at the allotted departure point.  As soon as I got there I could tell that something wasn’t right.  Landcruisers hold six people, seven at a push.  But here waiting were six backpackers.  Add to them two Tibetans (one driver and one guide) and the product was an argument waiting to happen.  We had all paid our $50; we all had an equal right to a seat.  But eight into seven doesn’t go and somebody was not going to be going to Nepal today.

A tense stand-off followed.  The agency was not interested: we could fight it out amongst ourselves.  The driver started the engine and the guide shouted at us for holding him up.  Fantastic.  I was less than keen to go with these cowboys but I had no time to play with.  A German who felt the same as me but had a visa expiry date that allowed him to be more choosy, agreed to stay behind.  The last I saw of him he was still in the agency office arguing over his $50.

I sat up front with the driver and the guide and attempted, with forced smiles and limited language skills, to calm the atmosphere, ably assisted by two fellow Brits.  But a French couple in the back undermined everything.  Their strong dislike for our crew was understandable.  But spending the whole of the journey to our overnight stop in Shigatse humiliating them was a big mistake.

When we reached Shigatse and our drivers chose a dirty Chinese hotel on the outskirts of town in preference to the cosy Tibetan one in the centre, the French lost their tempers and the Tibetans lost face.  The French dragged their bags across town to spend the night at the Tibetan hotel.

With a whole night for the Tibetans to plot their revenge it was inevitable that it would be effective.  The French, one step ahead, turned up early to avoid being left behind.  A good night’s sleep had done nothing to brighten their outlook.  We drove out of Shigatse in silence.

Just outside town we stopped at a checkpoint.  This seemed strange given that the sentry was fast asleep and didn’t want to be disturbed.  A few quiet words to him and he was wide awake and demanding to see our passports and travel permits.  Passports were not a problem and we all had valid visas.  But permits were another matter.  The agency had told us (quite correctly, in fact) that we did not need permits for this trip.  I had travelled this section of the Highway just the week before without a permit.  This was the Tibetans’ clever revenge on the French.

With no permits, said the sentry, we would have to turn back.  Once a Chinese official has set out his stall the game is up: to back down would be to lose face.

We would go back to town and obtain permits, I said.

“No time” snapped back the guide.

“It will take an hour maximum”.


But wait!  What was this?  The French had permits!  They calmly placed them on the desk as you would a winning poker hand.  The sentry examined them, showed them to the guide and shrugged his shoulders.  The French had valid permits and he couldn’t stop them.  It was almost worth being abandoned high on the Tibetan plateau to see the look on the guide’s face.  He’d succeeded in disposing of the friendly, co-operative Brits and was stuck with the insolent French for the next 300 miles.

The rest of us trudged back to Shigatse and checked in at the Tibetan hotel.  Things looked bleak.  If getting a ride from Lhasa had been difficult, it was going to be ten times harder in Shigatse.  There was no public transport to the border and any vehicles passing through would either be full already or not stopping.  Worse still, it had cost me $50 to get only a third of the way (the bus would have cost $6) and I was running out of money and visa time.  Getting more of either would be difficult out here.

The duty officer at the Shigatse police station knew me already, as I’d had my camera stolen two weeks previously.  You could almost hear him sigh as I entered his lair.  With my tactics meticulously planned, I told him exactly what he wanted to hear: that I was trying to leave his country as quickly as possible.  He wasn’t impressed at having to fill out another report about me.  When I told him I’d been ripped off by a Tibetan tour agency he laughed at my naivete and shared the joke with his colleagues.  Never trust a Tibetan, he implied.  I wasn’t much more impressed with his service.  I enquired about the investigation into my camera’s disappearance.  He eventually tracked down the report at the back of a dusty drawer.  He gave me a short visa extension and hoped never to see me again.

Back at the guest house I needed my faith restoring.  News of our abandonment had reached Norbu, a charming young Tibetan guide who was in town with another group.  He was horrified at our experiences.  He knew of the agency in question – a rival one to his employer - and told the three of us to follow him down to the local telephone bureau.  Affecting a Chinese accent to his native Tibetan, he claimed to be from the Shigatse police.  If we didn’t get our money back the following day, he barked, he’d take steps to close them down.  “Chinese oppression seeks justice in Tibet”, I thought.  Now there’s a turn up for the books.

Even more surprising was that Norbu’s ploy worked.  Our money arrived in full by Landcruiser the following morning.  Freshly financed, we took on the task of finding a ride to Nepal.  This involved asking any truck drivers we could find where they were going and loitering around hotels trying to spot Landcruisers with spare seats.  After three days’ fruitless enquiries, we found a jeep driver who would help us out.  We agreed to pay half the money up front and the other half on arrival (we weren’t going to fall for the same trick twice) and the driver left us his driving licence overnight as a sign of mutual trust.

All seemed well but five hours down the road we were surprised again.  At the last major settlement this side of civilisation we stopped for food and water.  There we met a group of American mountaineers who were a little put out that we were travelling in their supply jeep.  We weren’t very impressed either:  it seemed that they – and therefore we - weren’t going to the Nepalese border but to Mount Everest  base camp.  We took the jeep as far as the turn-off to the mountain and spent the night in a facility-free police checkpoint.  The rooms were overpriced at a dollar each and the toilet appeared to be the parking lot.

This should have been a good place for hitching: all traffic had to stop here.  But taking foreigners as passengers is illegal in Tibet and nobody would risk it with so many police around.  We eventually struck a deal with a truck driver in broken Chinese and walked a mile down the road so that we could be picked up out of sight of the checkpoint.  I don’t know if the police knew we were doing this or if they thought we’d decided to walk the remaining 140 miles to Nepal.  Either way they didn’t seem to care just so long as we left.

At the next checkpoint, really just a hut by the side of the road, it hardly surprised us when we were stopped again.  Nothing could faze us now.  We just sat down and let the driver discuss the situation with the police.  We couldn’t get anywhere by arguing so we thought we’d just sit it out and see who had the least patience.  But then things got interesting.

A familiar looking Landcruiser coming in the opposite direction and full of western travellers pulled up at the checkpoint.  An even more familiar Tibetan man got out carrying their passports.  He was about to enter the hut when he caught my eye.  It was hard to know which of us was the more surprised at seeing the other again.  Before I could think of what on earth I could do, he jumped back in the car and enveloped us in dust, speeding off towards Lhasa.

There was nothing else to do but laugh.  Laugh at the fright we’d given him; laugh at the fact that he would be stopped at the next police checkpoint and questioned about his failure to stop at this one; and laugh at the reception he would get back in Lhasa when he discovered he’d lost his employer the $150 that had been refunded to us.  With the three of us falling about laughing in front of them, the police decided they’d really had enough of us now and told us to go away.

And so we continued our epic journey in the back of the truck.  The rest of the trip was easy after that.  My sunglasses were stolen; we got soaked when it rained; the engine broke down twice; a tyre blew; we got stuck crossing a river and had to be towed out; the last few miles of road had fallen into the valley and we had to walk.  But we didn’t care; every inch we travelled was an inch nearer Nepal.  I didn’t know what Nepal was going to be like but it had one obvious attraction: it wasn’t Tibet.

Tibet had been an extraordinary experience.  I had been dazzled by its monasteries, temples and palaces and humbled by the resilience and dedication of its people.  I had been frustrated and enthralled at successive turns and in equal measure.  But when I reached the Nepalese border, I had never felt so joyous to be leaving somewhere that I’d waited so long to visit.  “Welcome to Nepal” smiled the immigration officer, his arms outstretched.  I knew then that the ordeal was over.

© Nicholas White 2000