I’ve found myself in another cattle call of an immigration hall. There must be 200 of us here. We’re all staring at the same signs pointing in multiple directions to…. we’re not sure where. We are tentatively joining lines that seem be queueing somewhere important but are really just roiling masses of people headed in three different directions. (In reality, four separate tasks must be completed at four different stations.) And we are all giving the same side eye to the large air conditioners that simply are not up to the job today.
Ninety minutes later, after some extremely clever (read = aggressive) navigation of the situation, I happily take my passport from the immigration officer and walk into the sea of yelling taxi drivers and dust. I have arrived in Kathmandu.
The beginning of this spool of experience though starts two stops before as I enter China through Xi’an.
Xi’an is one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world. Pottery has been found there which dates back to the bronze age. I’m thrilled to just blow through the city. The immigration officer; however, is not thrilled to see an American passport. Despite my rusty Mandarin. And despite the fact that this is actually the second multi-entry China visa in my passport. And my company wrote a letter (I have a business visa) to ease the immigration officers’ minds about my desire to travel to Tibet. And yet.
He questions me thoroughly about my visa and I have a bad moment where I think I am going to be pulled out of line for a longer interview. It’s very clear I am no longer in South Asia and definitely not entirely welcome. But after rolling his eyes at me (my determined smile may have started to crack slightly) he bangs his stamp on my passport and I proceed on through. I see Xi’an’s famous wall from the ground, in the dark, then go to sleep in a chain hotel.
The next morning I depart on a domestic flight for Tibet. No less than three times I think I am lost in the airport because Tibet and China do not compute for me as a domestic trip. I’m sure I’m in the wrong terminal somehow. I spend 15 minutes wandering around the ticketing desks looking for signs to the International Departure area. Wisely, I do not share this confusion with the security officers. China feels rather differently about the status of the Tibetan Autonomous Zone. My tour guide gives me three extra full pages of visa paperwork to enter Tibet. This does not help my bleary confusion.
I’m watched in Tibet. I’m not even certain I’m allowed around Lhasa without a guide present. If I am caught taking a photo of the constant police stations, the checkpoints to enter the city, or the full military brigades marching a quick step through the square, my guide may lose his license. Immediately.
On the other hand, the extremely shy Tibetan people, particularly the monks, are willing to take photos with me when they hear I am American. Maybe it’s a small show of resistance. Maybe it’s a shy sign of welcome. My country, for now at least, supports an independent Tibet. It’s enough.
By the time I arrive at the airport to depart for Kathmandu I am once again accustomed to rules, regulations, and very crisp lines. Other tourists behind me tell each other “I’ve never been asked to take out my power banks from checked luggage. Leave it, I’m sure it will be fine.” They are still going through their bags with the security officers at the ticketing counter while I pass through immigration out of Tibet and out of China.
It’s incredible how much of a culture is obvious in their welcome. Singapore is meticulously efficient but friendly. China is a bit cold and the officers begrudgingly speak other languages. Thailand (and most of South Asia) is a bit of a pleasant, distracted, slow-moving experience. As I shift from foot to foot and try not lose patience in my current line, I remember that the American CBP don’t say “welcome home” anymore.
The contrast between Tibet and Nepal increases the feel of an assault on the senses. Nepal, like India in many ways, is in. your. face. Construction is everywhere as a result of the horrific 2015 earthquake. The government has unearthed some of the key roads. I hear it’s for water pipe reasons. But despite the fleets of construction workers managing buildings on both sides of the street, we don’t see a single orange cone or worker on the streets. Dust rises from the cars, buses, tuk tuks, motorbikes, and bicycles into a hazy dome over the city.
I’m clearly back in South Asia here. Tour guides are slipping the ticket sellers a little extra to go into “special” areas. The military is a highly desired job, not because it has a great salary (it doesn’t) but because you can make a very good living. Traffic cops work in vain to keep all traffic going one direction on one side of the street. I can’t help myself. As long as I have a place to retreat to, I love it.
By the time I queue yet again in Thailand to return to my current home I feel fully aware. A journey that started in the dark of Xi’an, moved to the searingly crisp light of Tibet, and crashed into the dusty chaos of Nepal is over. But my inner wanderer, the part of me that thrives at the edges, at the borders to any place new, is fully awake once again.