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Tale of Two Taxis

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Local knowledge

I arrived at the hotel reception at about 6pm.  I was exhausted, but still very much on the kind of high you can only get from traversing one of the most incredible regions on planet Earth. The receptionist looked pleased to see me. Until, that is, she realised I didn't have a Tibet entry permit.  "Don't have one?!" she said, with the wide-eyed look of someone who'd just had a premonition that a tall stranger from a far away land would be a bringer of trouble and strife.  "No, I don't have one," I repeated.  "This is my third visit to Lhasa, and my fifth visit to Tibet and this is the first time anyone's asked to see a Tibet entry permit."

  "But you must have one to be here!"  She was beginning to raise her voice, so I thought it would be better to employ ice-cool calmness:  "It can't be true that I must have one to be here because I am here and I don't have one..."  I was beginning to sound as well as feel like Alice following her arrival in Wonderland (same rude welcome, but at least she only had to fall down a rabbit hole to get there).

  However, despite my good intention to hold it together, my sleep-deprived mind wasn't in calm mode and I could feel my composure ebbing away with every word of my explanation:  "... I can show you my passport, my visa, my Chinese driving licence, and my Beijing to Lhasa train ticket – which, I might add, was checked numerous times by numerous people on the train, and was even checked by two policeman before I crossed into Tibet.  Two policeman who said absolutely nothing to me about needing a permit to be here.

  "I can show you all of those things, but I cannot show you a Tibet entry permit, because I DON"T HAVE ONE.  I have absolutely no desire to be here if I am not wanted here, so..."  I the realised that I had said the "so" without knowing what the "so" was, so I prolonged the the "oooo" long enough to think of  a suitably dramatic punch line.  "...does this mean I need to sleep in the street and get the morning train back to Beijing?".  She tilted her head to one side and then to the other, as if sizing up the situation, before telling me that she needed to call her boss.

  I awoke not knowing where I was – the memories of the past three days swirling around in a bewildering montage.  I then heard the yapping dogs that had kept me awake half the night, which I found strangely reassuring because the sound at least reminded me that I was in a hotel room in Lhasa.  I then remembered that today was the day I would return to the mountain nunnery I had visited in January 2008.

  That time, it had taken a helpful concierge ten minutes to find a driver who knew the way.  This time it would take 15 minutes.  The same receptionist who had eventually given me my room key after her boss had confirmed I could stay, kindly offered to find the "right" taxi for me, because “Only a few drivers know how to get there”.  I asked her how she knew which drivers would know the way.  “Only locals know the way there,” she said matter-of-factly.  “And how do you spot a local driver,” I enquired.  “Oh, you can just tell,” she responded dismissively.

  Most of the taxis were full.  But then an “empty” taxi – a shiny new Brilliance (made in Shenyang) – slowed down, the driver not unreasonably thinking that we wanted to hire him.  The receptionist waved him away.  Clearly, not the “right” one, I thought.  Several more “empty” Brilliance taxis were allowed to pass by, before the receptionist spotted one that she thought would be able to take me to the mountain-nunnery.  A battered old VW taxi was flagged down.  My helper spoke to the driver in Tibetan, before confirming to me that this driver would indeed take me where I wanted to go (2 hours away from Lhasa), wait for 4 hours, and return to Lhasa – all for a price I thought was reasonable.

  Thanking the receptionist for her trouble, I climbed in to the front passenger seat.  This could have been – I would later realise – a fatal mistake.  The driver, an early-thirty-something, sporting a Kappa tracksuit top, nodded a hello.  It didn’t take me long to work out that this was a driver in a hurry. 

  Before I had shut the door, he started to perform a G-force inducing U-turn.  This set the mood for the rest of the nail-biting journey.  I deduced that – let’s call him Mr T – had a worryingly high level of speedosterone, a chemical that seems to affect more than a few thirty-somethings the world over.  The reality was he was driving a battered VW, but that didn’t stop Mr T driving on and sometimes beyond the limit.  Everything that was ahead of us didn’t stay ahead of us for very long.  That was until we encountered a Toyota Landcruiser.  Mr T raced up behind it, slammed the gearbox into third and, with the engine shrieking its protest, was just about to execute an overtaking manoeuvre on a blind bend that would have been logged by accident investigators as “travelling at least 30km over the speed limit”, when I screamed out: “Wu Jin!!”

  Mr T hadn’t noticed the WJ number plate (he had been too busy reciting a Buddhist sutra as he passed a prayer-flag bedecked shrine, while talking on his mobile phone to one of his mates).  The WJ signified that the car in front was not just any Toyota, it was a Toyota carrying Wu Jin – an armed-police response unit.  “Oops,” said Mr T, as he lifted off the accelerator, “I didn’t spot that one”.

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CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO SEE MANY FAR MORE ROMANTIC PHOTOS OF LHASA AND TIBET