Thursday, 2 June 2011

Crossing the Friendship Bridge

The border was finally open to budget travellers and the friendship bridge was the gateway from Nepal into Tibet. Our budget tour was the first to cross the bridge since February. Team Budget, as I called the motley collection of people, thrown together in a desire to see Tibet, was made up of 22 people of which 15 nationalities were represented. This included people from all the populated continents except North America.

We set off from Kathmandu on a rickety bus, bumping uncomfortably along the Nepalese road. By late morning we had arrived at the border where we left the Nepalese bus and walked through Nepali immigration, across the Friendship Bridge and on to the many Chinese checks. James and I soon realised that we'd hired the only drug addict in town to porter one of our three big bags the 800 m from the bus to the Chinese immigration. We closely supervised him as he tried to renegotiate the price. Whilst doing this we were also mobbed by a throng of money changers and everywhere we walked there was a chorus of “Change money?”

At Chinese immigration we had a long wait before searches of our bags commenced. We had been warned by our guide not to bring any books about Tibet (particularly the Lonely Planet). I, however, was more worried about what they would think of the GPS, walkie talkies and homemade maps I had. So, the night before I had done some careful packing. It was a difficult balance of not wanting to look like we'd deliberately concealed the items but make them difficult to find on a routine bag search. The GPS had been packed in the depths of the 4 season sleeping bag which had then been stuffed into a compression sack, then a dry bag and finally in the large holdall. The walkie talkies were placed in the toes of the mountaineering boots with socks stuffed on top of them. And the maps were placed in a document wallet with my emergency supply of tampons – an attempt to embarrass the inevitably male officials so they wouldn't through the wallet.

The first in the group to be searched had to remove everything in his bag and then repack. The Chinese officials scrutinised every book they found. When it came to our turn the officials started looking through the black holdall, inside were concealed the GPS and walkie talkies. We tried to act casually, when suddenly one official found something of great interest. He called over his superior and they crowded around the item. The superior was trying to say something to us, “Turtle”, he said, “Turtle”. We looked confused. “Churtel, Churtel” then “Premier”. He smiled and gave a thumbs up. What they had found was the Winston Churchill commemorative coins James had brought as gifts. More thumbs up and we were waved through. All in all it had taken about 4 hours to cross the border, with one Nepal Lonely Planet being the only casualty.

The Friendship Bridge - Inside Tibet looking across the border to Nepal

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