Tibet 1995-1996

The worst and most dangerous bus trip of our life

(Extract from the diary)

The bus driver makes clear to us with wild gestures that we are to take place in the row next to last. Of course we know that in the old coaches the last rows are the most uncomfortable ones, nevertheless we follow the rough instructions of the Chinese driver, and squeeze ourselves into the much too narrow and totally worn out seats. “Put on your caps and wrap yourselves into your scarves”, is what we believe his next instructions to be. “Why?”, I ask in English, not expecting this unfriendly man to understand me though. He and his collector form their hands to pistols, symbolically pointing to their heads, and show us the star on one of the caps. We understand immediately, and once more follow his instructions.

Tanja and I have ventured an undertaking, not really aware of what will be expecting us. Due to the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (the second greatest religious leader of Tibet after the Dalai Lama), the Chinese authorities have closed all Tibetan frontiers, thus hermetically insulating Tibet from the outside world. The Chinese kidnapped the real Panchen Lama and enthroned their own Panchen Lama in order to increase their political influence on Tibet, and are now, as a consequence, expecting riots. With the aim of avoiding this coup to become public, they have totally insulated Tibet from the outside world. However, considering our aim to accomplish our 30-year expedition from Germany to South America without flying in an aeroplane, we have no choice but to take the one or other risk on our way. In order to reach Nepal from the North-West of China where we are now, we must cross the Himalayan. And right in between lies the insulated Tibet. The only way to reach our goal is to be smuggled into the country by means of this totally shabby bus. Reason enough for the bus driver and his collector to charge us DM 170,- per person, which is twelve times the normal fare. In case we should be caught by the Chinese police, the punishment would at worst be to be kicked into jail, and at best to be kicked out of China. As always, we trust to our luck, and at the same time rely on our bad-tempered bus driver, who’s promised to take us to Lhasa. If we should manage to pass all control points without problems, our Chinese visa will allow us to move about more or less freely in Tibet.

Crouched up and wrapped up in camouflaging Chinese winter military clothing, we are sitting there awaiting this old shabby bus to eventually get going on its two day mammoth trip. Other travellers we had met in the past months have warned us that we can be sure to be facing one of the worst bus trip on this planet.

Although this vehicle is already bursting, it’s being crammed more and more, and we’re amazed how much it can take. Even the corridor between the seat rows is used for storing luggage. More and more passengers enter, until each and every seat is occupied. Suddenly, the bus driver comes round again and makes clear to us that Tanja and I should not be sitting next to each other. “Police!”, he shouts in Chinese. So Tanja goes to share a double-seated row with a monk and an old lady in front of me, whereas a Tibetan man is seated next to me. His extremely thick fur coat as well as my fluffed up military coat both greatly contribute to making me feel trapped in a strait jacket.

Finally, at 5.30 pm, our ancient bus (in fact, it ought to be a museum exhibit) starts its engine. We leave Golmund, a city in the province of Qinghai, which geographically seen is to be found at the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau. Qinghai is reputed to be China’s Siberia, as most of the Chinese labour camps are located here.

Due to several small control points, as well as a refuelling stop, and reasons not apparent to us, it takes us a whole two hours to leave this hideous and unfriendly city behind. Upon passing policemen or control points, the bus driver makes signs to us to duck down. At about 7.30 pm, we eventually reach open terrain, and one can see the brick houses of Golmund getting smaller and smaller. Finally we are able to sit upright again. My back is killing me already, and I don’t know how we are supposed to survive the following 1.166 kilometres to Lhasa.

The Tibetan passengers start to sing, they seem to be in a good mood. Some of them are now endlessly praying their mantras. Soon enough, the outnumbered Chinese passengers start singing too. Unlike the Tibetan songs, the Chinese singing sounds terribly wrong and is awfully loud. Shortly afterwards, the Tibetans fall silent. The Chinese yell and talk to each other extremely loud, as if they all had a megaphone in front of their mouths; it makes our hair stand on end.

Only one hour later, the bus driver makes wild gestures. We crouch down in our seats, hiding behind the seats in front of us, and as we hear a Tibetan passenger calling “Check post!”, I duck down for fear. As I put my head down on my knees, the Tibetan man next to me covers me up with his thick fur coat. Confined in this tiny cage smelling of frowsty milk, I wait to see what will happen, and break out in a sweat. Soon I feel short of breath. I take deep drags of the buggy air, wondering how long my body will be able to cope with this. Through my fur coat cover, I can hear loud voices routinely barking out instructions. Either soldiers or policemen are checking the travel permits and papers of the passengers. “What if they find us?”, I ask myself anxiously, also worried about Tanja. Not knowing what’s going on out there almost drives me crazy. Terrible fear is creeping over me, spreading over my overheated bones, and I start praying one Lord’s Prayer after the other. What if they come inside the bus? I think “Oh God, I really don’t want to end up in prison!”. We must have been stuck here for at least half an hour by now. I can’t take it much longer and I feel I must throw this horrible fur coat off – it’s so hot. Suddenly… brrooommm, brrrooomm… the diesel starts off again. Jolting and rumbling, we continue our trip. Only seconds later, my friendly neighbour looks at me with a grin, and rids me and my soaked body of his protective coat. He shows thumb up, and is as thrilled as we are about having successfully passed the fist check point.

Full of pity, the woman sitting next to Tanja pulls at her cap. “You can take it off now”, is what she appears to be saying. Relieved Tanja takes the thick winter cap off her perspiring and red head. We believe to have left the greatest obstacles on this trip behind us, and look forward to a quiet rest journey to Lhasa from now on. We smile at each other in relief. I feel on top of the world, and start a conversation with my neighbour. “What’s your name?”, I ask him in English. Obviously, he completely misunderstands me, as he immediately vacates his seat in favour of Tanja. Due to the language barrier, I don’t even try to explain what I wanted to say, glad also to have Tanja back on my side.

Much to our annoyance, a Chinese passenger close to us is continuously smoking some kind of stinking cigarettes. Our heads are pounding with his barking smoker’s cough. Again and again, he chokes up parts of the contents of his stomach with an unbelievable “Ccchhuud”, and uninhibitedly spits the green yellowy slimy pus onto the floor next to Tanja’s feet. Due to the lack of heating in the bus, the stuff freezes in an instant. Only one hour later, the captain of this lurching cruise mobile gives order to take our original seats again. We look at each other anxiously. “Do you think there will be another check point?”, Tanja asks. “No idea. We better follow his orders,” I answer, feeling more and more uneasy. And indeed, only ten minutes later the bus is once again stopped.

Nerve-racking moments
I’ve been cowering under my neighbour’s thick coat in this uncomfortable and distorted position for over half an hour now. This time I’ve got the window seat. Due to the extreme cold, the window pane is frozen. A fold in the fur coat allows me to dare a cautious squint at the window, which is covered with frost patterns, trying to catch an eye on what’s going on out there. The ice crust on the window is so thick, though, that it is absolutely impossible to recognize anything at all. I hear loud and aggressive snatches of voices. Some of the passengers are being dragged out of the bus. I hear them complain loudly. My stomach cramps. One heat wave after the other makes me break out in a sweat. Suddenly I can feel my neighbour supporting himself on my back as he stands up. What on earth is going on? About 45 minutes must have gone by in the meantime. I hear a routined instructive man’s voice shouting through the night sky. “Oh God, they’re in the bus!”, is my first thought. The policemen seem to be controlling one seat row after the other. Their dreadful voices are definitely getting closer. I’m overcome by panic attacks, and by now I am soaked with sweat. My mind is pounding wildly. Many thoughts keep jerking into my mind, and I start cursing at myself for having expected us to remain undiscovered on this trip to Tibet. “I am such an idiot!”. The policeman is only one seat row in front of me now, and is shouting at the top of his voice. Has he found Tanja yet? What a triumph it must be for a Chinese policeman to suddenly discover a European amidst all the Tibetan and Chinese – a European who is obviously intending to illegally cross a hermetically closed border, thus intending to travel into one of the politically most sensible regions of China. It would probably be a fantastic success story for these hot tempered and overambitious officers. Maybe for the guy standing by my row now it would even mean a promotion. My thoughts are going wild, my back is killing me, and my nerves are all on edge. “Please, please,” I beg to God, “please let us come out of this one safe and sound!”. The unpleasant and fierce voice is still cutting the air. If they find Tanja, I shall reveal myself too. I have the feeling I must go out there and help her, and am just about to pull off the fur coat and the covers they’d spread over me. I stop myself in the last second. What if this slobbering policeman has not yet discovered Tanja, and I appear on the surface for nothing? That would mean I’d even given us away. What would I do if I was her and they found me? Sure! She would definitely reveal herself too. The game would be over. I feel sick.

My muscles are trembling. We must have spent more than an hour here by now. The Tibetan man slaps on my back with his hands and presses his body against mine. For an outsider my body must look like a wild heap of old and stinking blankets. Suddenly, the hostile voices start fading away more and more, and as the diesel engine starts off again, causing the whole body of the bus to quake, I am slowly filled with great relief. Only minutes later we are freed from our camouflage hide out. I immediately look at Tanja, who, in spite of the smile on her face, looks as if she’s going to faint any second. “That was tight. I wouldn’t have taken it much longer,” she says with a sigh. “Were you hot too?”, I ask. “Hot? My God, there’s no word for it. I could hardly breathe, and I thought I’d black out any second. This friendly monk next to me must have sensed my state of emergency, and fortunately opened the window for a bit.”

Only now I realize that some of the passengers are missing. The police have obviously taken them along. Although most of the passengers are Tibetans and only about a fifth of them are Chinese, some of them apparently had faulty or no travelling documents. I cannot understand how we managed not to be discovered, but I guess we’ve just been lucky.

A murderous cold and a real torture tour
As the bus has no heating, our feet are frozen numb only few hours later. It must have at least minus 15°C outside. A strong wind is blowing over the wide lands. A terribly cold air draught finds its way to the inside of the bus through a burst window pane. The Tibetan mothers hold their babies up above the corridor between the seats. Their urine splashes onto the steelplate floor, disappears under the luggage, and is frozen up seconds later. “If we don’t want our toes to freeze here, we must keep them moving.” I twist and bend my numb toe limbs at least 300 times until eventually I feel blood flowing through them again. It won’t take long, though, for them to feel numb once again, so I see myself forced to keep repeating this exhausting training. It would really be something to have your toes freeze on a bus trip. I would understand if mountaineers were to lose a toe when climbing Mount Everest. But losing a toe during a bus trip? What an irony of fate this would be. Mind you: our travel guide does clearly give warning against this bus trip. Apparently it is not really unusual for people to die of cold during this torture tour of two to three days. In order to better endure the strain and the freezing cold temperatures, some apparently fill themselves up with sleeping pills, and then never wake up again. Indeed, some of the Chinese, who on top of it all are pretty poorly dressed, are lying there totally cramped up in their seats, and are fast asleep.

The monotonous sound of the engine sometimes mingles with dreadful choking sounds. A Chinese woman sitting directly in front of us is obviously not feeling well. She’s been throwing up for about half an hour now. Parts of her vomit fly our way through the ice cold wind blast. No wonder, considering these roads. The bus seems to be jumping from one pothole to the other, thus shaking us about like ping pong balls. On top of all the inconveniences, I’m suddenly overcome with an awful headache, most probably to be explained by a lack of liquids due to the extreme perspiration hours ahead.

All of a sudden, the air is filled with a shouting voice right next to Tanja. The chain-smoking, spitting Chinese is screaming as if someone had stabbed him. He’s yelling at Tanja like a berserk. “What in God’s name is up with him?”, I ask startled. “I have no idea. I only asked him to quit hitting his knee against my thigh.”, Tanja answers. I am appalled as I watch this choleric guy grabbing for Tanja’s jacket and pulling her out of her seat. I am about to punch him straight into his ugly face, but Tanja stops me abruptly. “I’ll take care of this one. Keep out of it,” she gasps, and starts singing a loud OM. “Oooohhhmmm! Oooohhhmmm! Oooohhhmmm!”, her voice sums through the whole bus. In the meantime, almost all passengers are wide awake. The Tibetans look angrily at the still abusive Chinese. Cursing, he loosens his stranglehold, and lets Tanja sink back into her seat. “Puh, well done!”, I whisper at her. I wonder how much more we will have to go through on this trip, on this descent into hell.

Lack of water and bad food
(Monday, Dec. 11, 1995)

I’m dying for the loo, and about to wet myself, when this nightmare of a bus ride is finally stopped for a short break. It’s 10.00 o’clock in the morning. With stiff bones and knocked out by the happenings of the last 17 hours, we crawl out of our dented box. We are somewhere in Tibet. One can only see meagre and barren land as far as the eyes can reach. We haven’t got an eye for the beauty of this scenery at all. On the contrary, to make it worse, we’re received by mangy dogs and upland goats. They’re ploughing through the wastes of this simple truck stop in search for anything they can eat. Huge black ravens which look like gorged, fat chicken are hopping about on the road.

Tired and exhausted, we enter the shack of a tavern. It’s full of life. All the other passengers start to shove something unidentifiable into their mouths. We desperately point at some kind of burgers which for us appear to be the only food among all the unidentifiable stuff that looks relatively appetising. A toothless, old woman serves the food on greasy plates. I have had to eat many crazy things during the last 13 years on the road, but still, my stomach turns at the sight of this plate, and I cannot touch it. Tanja pretty much feels the same. We are served salty tea with rancid butter to ease our thirst. As we are afraid of drinking the muddy water (danger of bacteria) we force ourselves to drink the tea.

We’re unsatisfied and still suffer great headaches as we get back into our bus. After this meal, the snotting, puking and coughing in the bus hits its peak. Or does it just seem like it because everybody is awake now? Anyway, the silence of the night ride is over now. They’re all chatting loudly and smoking endlessly. It smells disgusting for all the food wastes and the children’s urine in the corridor, and the human evaporations all over. At least the driver stops for a pee every two hours now. Or does he do it to avoid falling asleep? I wonder in any case how one man alone can drive a bus for so many hours without a break. He must be doped.

Suddenly a terrible hiss fills the air, and the bus stops abruptly. We’ve got a flat! No wonder, considering this dirt road full of pot holes which doesn’t even deserve to be called a road. While the driver and his helper exchange the worn down tyre by another worn down tyre, many passengers get off the bus and wait outside on the windy, open terrain. Most of the area is covered with snow. It’s bitterly cold. My former neighbour, the one who protected me from the police by covering me up with his fur coat, just lies down flat on his back. The stones and the snow don’t seem to bother him. Without any doubt, these people are bound up with nature in another way than the Chinese or us Europeans, I think. I would love to lie down next to him, just to be able to stretch out my body at long last.

We reach yet another tavern in the late afternoon hours. This time we can take the pick between a totally messy Tibetan tavern or a completely shabby Chinese tavern. “I can’t eat anything. I feel sick,” says Tanja while I go to fetch a completely overpriced plate full of rice with beans and meat. On closer examination, the meat turns out to be the pure fat, and the gravy is so hot that in the end I content myself with just eating the naked rice.

The driver and his helper take advantage of the break to repair the flat tyre. With the help of their fingers and a lot of spittle, they search for the hole in the hose. This keeps them busy for hours, and I can walk about and thoroughly move my legs. My Tibetan saviour comes up to me at some point, and tells me not to walk about out here. He pulls my sleeves, and tries to make me follow him into the stuffy tavern. I explain to him with sign language that I would like to stay outside, so he points at my scarf, and tells me to cover up my face with it. “Ah, okay,” I answer thankfully. It would obviously not be that good to be discovered by police here, as we are not yet in Lhasa.

Shortly before the bus trip is to continue, the driver’s helper comes over and tries to explain to me that we are already in the outskirts of Lhasa now. He signals to me that they’re about to unload our luggage. At first I think he’s joking, but he keeps going on about it. Lastly I realise that they really plan to leave us behind here in the middle of nowhere. I’m shocked. “No way!”, I say in German, as he doesn’t understand anything but Chinese anyway, so my English is completely useless here. “You leave the luggage on the roof of the bus,” I curse at him loudly. He walks off and leaves me standing there. Eventually, after three hours the spare wheel is repaired, and we all get back on the bus without any further events. We are shaken about yet another night. Our headaches get worse and are almost unbearable; probably the beginning of mountain sickness. We must be at a height of about 3.600 metres by now.

Once again, the woman in front of us throws up out of the window. “It’s probably the dinner she had,” I suppose complacently. We cover our faces with our hands or with the scarves, in order not to be soaked too much by the smelling vomit. It doesn’t help much, though, as for whatsoever reason she also permanently throws up into the already contaminated corridor. Even when the bus stops for a break, the sick woman stays inside and pukes onto the ground. Tanja can always just about pull away her feet in time…

At night the communication between the Tibetan and us gets more and more hearty. One of the traders permanently wants to sell us jewellery and glass pearls. He jokes and laughs, and tries to convince us of the high quality of the stuff in his vendor’s tray. He pulls at my thick winter trousers, and makes clear to me to take them off, and the whole bus almost roars with laughter. Although we are probably all suffering from this merciless trip, for a moment we are having a lot of fun.

We’re deeply shocked
(Tuesday, Dec. 12, 1995)

I open my swollen eyes and notice a pale ray of light at the horizon. Exhausted I look at the unique landscape of Tibet. All of a sudden, the voices in the bus start getting louder again. People wake each other up, pack up their little bags, and expectantly look outside. “I think we’ve soon made it,” I say full of expectation, trying to look out of the dirty window. More and more houses appear, and all of a sudden I make it out. “Quickly, look, there it is!,” I call out full of joy, pointing at the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama. “We’ve made it,” says Tanja, also delighted, an gives me a wonderful kiss.

“What’s that?” It looks like check points. Look at all the policemen! I’m horrified as I look out of the window and the bus pulls in onto the bus terminal of Lhasa. This time the driver doesn’t have to tell us to hide. We duck down immediately, and while many passengers leave the bus, we desperately stick to our seats. Hidden under a blanket, I can watch a great turmoil outside. Several policemen walk around our bus. Our hearts are in our boots, we’re scared silly. How are we supposed to get out of here without being discovered? And what if they get us? “They’ll send us right back,” I assume. “Or else they’ll put us in prison,” reckons Tanja. My already overstrained stomach turns over once more. White as a sheet, I try to inconspicuously observe what’s going on outside. “They’re unloading the luggage,” I say. Full of suspense, we watch them taking our backpacks off the roof. If our luggage should be stolen now, we’re stuck. And if one of the policemen sees the backpacks, it will be clear that there must be foreigners about.

I’m curious to see what’s taking place in the passenger compartment, so I carefully lift my head, and as I make out a policeman talking to our driver only a few yards ahead of us, I immediately crouch back down behind the seat. “They’re really close now,” I whisper over to Tanja, hoping that she won’t move. All of a sudden, a hand grabs for my shoulder. “That’s it,” I resign, and lift my head, but much to my astonishment I look into the face of our driver, who instructs us to immediately leave the bus. Without hesitating, we get up and slowly take the steps outdoor. Some of the Tibetan passengers and the controller manage to keep two policemen busy behind the bus, while several leading hands show us the way to the front of the bus. With our caps pulled down way over our foreheads, and wrapped up in our scarves, we don’t look a lot different to the locals. Things happen as quick as a flash now. Our driver waves a small van over, which stops directly in front of the driver’s cab. The doors open and we’re being shoved inside. Other passengers are being pushed aside crudely. As if by magic, helping hands hoist our heavy backpacks into the cramped passenger area, and before the doors can even be closed, the van speeds off.

“Have we made it now?”, Tanja asks full of disbelief. “I think so,” I answer, still overtaken by all the excitement and fatigue. “I hope our stay here will not carry on the same way,” Tanja says, smiling at me exhausted and worn out. “Me too”. Relief makes me feel light, as if walking on air.


Tibet 1995/1996

Tanja & Denis Katzer were fascinated by Tibet’s landscape with its wide and open plains, its looming up mountains, and its thin and crystal clear air, as well as by the dignified and tough people. Yet, at the same time, the sight of arbitrarily destroyed monasteries reminded them of the tragic time of occupation and oppression.