Is this a desert?
What a strange place. 25 hour sleeper bus journey from Lhasa and here we were. Freezing when we left Lhasa but boy was it hot when we arrived in Golmud. There is a sign here which says, 'Top Tourist City in China'. However, we found no one who spoke English (although everyone was very helpful) and nothing of interest (although there is a huge potash plant just outside the city: see it from the train east from Golmud to Xining).
Just a few hours
"Train Station, Hotel and Car"
We arrived in Golmud at midnight, pushing through the taxi drivers with the standard intent not to get ripped off. Outside the train station, there was nothing open. The Lonely Planet's hotel was closed, leaving us at the mercy of a friendly woman who owned a tiny hotel just to the right of the station exit. For 20 yuan per person for the night, we stayed in somewhat clean but very scant rooms. Before going to bed, we discussed with them the plan for the next day and found that a friend of theirs was going to drive to Dunhuang with another couple. We tentatively and apprehensively said, "yes" to the driver. It's not that he seemed like a bad guy, it's just that, at that time of night locals have a tendency to try to rip off foreigners.
We met the next morning at 6am, waited for the other passengers, and had a very pleasant drive through the desert in his VW Santana 3000 to Dunhuang. He didn't overcharge and offered to drive us other places if we wanted.
Golmud - on Christmas
Somehow I have a special sensation for Golmud probably because we arrived on Christmas eve and also we spent a wonderful 25th Dec 2001. A remote town where nobody seems to understand Christianity suddenly a hotel girl knocked on our room door and says merry x’mas, plus a cake. Even though I’m not a believer but at least the cake meant something.
Why visit Golmud?
This serene semi-desert town acted as stopover mainly for inland Chinese and alien tourists to catch buses and trucks into Tibet. Greatly industrialed but somewhat dissimilar from other Chinese cities, obviously less populated. Accommodations as usual are super problematical that no "Aliens" are allowed unless the hotel hangs a tag "(Authorized hotel for Aliens and overseas reception. Issued by the division of Aliens and exit-entry section of.....)."
A hotel lady disclosed that a heavy penalty will be given to them if the officials discovered any non-Chinese stays in the room without Aliens' Certification. These undersized hotels couldn’t afford that piece of document, dare not accept aliens.
Only one hotel willing to admit non-Chinese during our visit. The location is on the main road after the bus station. Walk approximately 20 minutes until a big round about. There’s a mid-size hotel 3-4 star with the alien tag.
The main bus station has Oxygen tube selling at RMB40 each for AMS prevention - Acute Mountain Sickness. Passengers can choose sleeper bus cost RMB250 needing 35 to 60 hours depending on the climate and road conditions. Another option is to pay a truck driver RMB120. This is of course an illegal action hopefully the neglectful Jing-Cha (police) snoozed on the checkpoint.
Bus station in Golmud has tickets to Dunhuang at RMB90 sleeper, aslo go to Aksay, eastward to Xining or Lanzhou (train cost RMB70)
Special notice: Certain buses or train depending on what languages you use, say if you speak English RMB100 for you, speak good Mandarin, you get RMB50.
What a surprise to discover a restaurant in a familiar name Malaysian Roast. Somebody must have been to Malaysia or perhaps a Malaysian settled down in Golmud. We didn’t try it because in no way it looks like a Malaysian styled restaurant. Whatever it is, a good impression.
Expenses in general are slightly higher in Golmud but that’s okay. However we have big supermarkets, shopping complexes and internet cafes. Most importantly CITS, a special department for Tibet Visa, the price of course are RMB3400 and RMB1900.
To obtain the Visa of Tibet
There are about 5 overland routes unless you want to fly in. Golmud-Lhasa, Katmandu-Lhasa, Chengdu-Lhasa, Zhongdian-Lhasa and Kashi-Lhasa. I have so far been to 3 of them but still I haven't been to Tibet yet.
The Chinese central government prohibited all possible alien tourists to backpack in Tibet. Open only for luxurious group tour which means tourists must follow tour packages. The rules say only if you are citizen of People's Republic of China you can travel to Tibet individually. Foreigners including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and oversea Chinese from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia whosoever, are not allow to enter Tibet as individual tourist. Only when you pay appointed CITS certain amount of money for a package tour otherwise no way.
CITS Visa need to know which entry point you desire, say if you choose Golmud-Lhasa, the tour group money will cost you RMB1,900 with 3 days well arranged accommodations while transportations excluded. A tourist obtained the RMB1900 Visa can buy a bus ticket cost RMB230. This Visa only for certain limited areas and time. If you want to enter Nepal or going somewhere else, another amount of money.
My unsuccessful Visa
I was already well prepared to enter Tibet inside the Golmud bus station queuing up to buy the ticket but a counter lady asks for our Tibet Visa. She told us to obtain the Visa first before buying ticket. We assumed Visa should cost additional 50 or 100. Hopped on a taxi to CITS office. Not far away we come to the place. Naively walked full of hope expecting a successful Tibet visit. The lady in charge said “Okay sir, it's RMB3400 for the Visa to Lhasa and also to the border of Nepal."
We asked whether it can be bargained, no they replied as it was the central government’s strict control. Those who want to try the truck are welcome by paying the driver RMB120 and good luck!
Sure we must turn back and at last we switched to Dunhuang and Jiayuguan and way back home through Chengdu and Kunming.