Three things you almost certainly didn’t know about driving around Tibet

I’m writing this on the train that runs between Lhasa and Beijing. We left the Tibetan capital a few hours ago, the start of the last phase of all the railroad adventures we’ve had on this trip. Eventually I hope to report on the highlights of those. But first I’d like to share the top 3 insights we gained from all the driving we did in the previous week.
1) The Chinese take the screwiest approach to accident-reduction you’re likely ever to see.

On the roads between Lhasa and Mt. Everest (and other points), government officials have set up a complicated system of speed-control checkpoints. Over and over, our driver would stop and our guide would dash into a roadside office to have the time recorded. Further down the road would be another checkpoint, and we would have to take care not to reach it sooner than the time allotted. If we did, that would indicate to the speed-control cops we’d been driving faster than permitted. 

The problem with this strategy was that the time allotted was often too long. And the intent was laughably easy to subvert. Our driver never drove at speeds that seemed reckless to Steve and me, but over and over, he would have to halt shortly before a checkpoint and wait for anywhere from 5 minutes to 20. This rigmarole increased the time of our final drive from Shigatse to Lhasa to seven and a half hours, instead of 7 or less.

A typical wait to beat the speed police

In addition to the pointless checkpoints, the Chinese authorities often set up phony police cars…

The lights are on, but nobody’s home

And phony policemen (often holding phony radar guns) along the side of the road. Apparently everyone knows they’re fakes and can be ignored (except for the occasional rube who blunders along and believes them?)


We also saw occasional installations of wrecked cars adorned with lots of wordy warnings. Tashi said the signs described the gory details of how everyone in the car had died due to reckless driving. Sometimes we passed under actual working video cameras set up to check driver speeds, but apparently every professional driver on the road knows the location of every one. Ours always slowed to a crawl (for the few seconds it took to pass under the speed detector).

2) Fueling one’s vehicle might be an act of terrorism.

We didn’t see many gas stations, though of course they do exist, sometimes resembling their American counterparts but sometimes tucked away inconspicuously on a small town’s side street. That’s not so strange, but what boggled Steve’s and my minds was learning that every time Tibetan drivers need fuel, they must present their id card and fill out special forms. They have to do this regardless of whether they’re filling up a van full of foreign tourists or a simple motorbike. We were told that the reason for this was to reduce the risk of some Tibetan dousing his body with gasoline and setting himself on fire in protest of the Chinese presence. That’s happened a lot over the past 65 years of the occupation, and apparently the authorities still consider it a serious threat.

3) There’s more than yaks and hillside monasteries to catch the traveler’s eye out in the country. 
To keep big trucks off one 50-plus-year-old bridge, the road masters built a special jig at each end of the span. Our 8-passenger Hyundai van squeaked through — but with only inches to spare.
A bit further down the road, we passed a congregation of trucks and vans.Tashi declared that it was a Chinese filmmaking crew making a movie. We also were amused by the sight outside tiny roadside establishments of kettles of water surrounded by parabolic mirrors set up to catch the sun’s rays and keep the water hot — solar heating in the service of sanitation (and a steady source of hot water for tea). 
We failed to catch a photo of any of those, and I felt it would be intrusive to aim my camera at the old lady who walked across from where our van was waiting for one of the speed-control stops. She casually climbed down into the ditch next to the road and squatted. All I could see was her head and shoulders, but it was obvious she was hitching up her skirts and apron. She squatted in that position for a couple of minutes, craning her head to observe the infrequent passing traffic. Finally she re-arranged her skirts, climbed out of the ditch, re-crossed the road, and went back to stand near a small cluster of storefronts. If she washed her hands, I didn’t see that.

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