Year 2007. A palace I never visited.
When in early August 2007 I visited Tibet together with my daughter, due to professional reasons of my own, we had only 5 days to do it. In such circumstances we planned to spend most of the time in and around Lhasa. After my daughter came out from her zombi dreams (see my other post Above Sea Level) we decided to visit the Potala Palace on the second day.
We took our breakfast and I put in my backpack some fruits and drinks I bought the day before while Anna was in her deepest sleep she remember to have in her life. The distance between the hotel and the palace was a walking distance and we headed for it. I knew, the day before, what time the entrance (the gate for foreigners) was opening for business and we were well ahead to secure one of the first places in a queuing as we imagine it should have. Upon arrival, to our surprise, the queue was already long and very confusing like any queue managed by chinese, no discipline and nobody to discipline it. We tried our best to understand the situation because the number of tourists already on the spot was far to much for the early hours, it was 7.30 and the visits would start at 8.30 only.
I asked Anna to stay put while I got close to the gate and try to understand what was going on. The queues were more or less 5 if we could call it queues. In total I have been working more than 3 years in China and the queuing was far the most irritating paraphernalia I ever experienced. So be patient once more. I came to where Anna was. In this circumstances, as the guards gave no damn to foreigners, we had to hope foreigners would at least respect the ones already there and things would go smoothly. No way! As it is rather normal than the opposite, the new arrivals also tried to assess the situation, but unlike me, they would stay in the front as if nothing was happening, the law of the scruffy was obviously applying. The mannered people never win in such circumstances! We had to use our elbows too.
We finally got into the gate leading to the ticket counters. We thought five to ten minutes would be now enough to get us inside the palace. Wrong! Once crossed that gate the people we thought were getting into the palace were lined up (now yes, there was a real queue forced by barriers) around a huge open interior terrace. The queue was moving, slow, very slowly, desperately slow. It was summer but in high altitude until the sun rises and start to increase the temperature it can be very chilly but for us it was cold, very cold! Anna could not feel her toes and started to feel very displeased. So did I. We waited one hour but the queue had only move because people were moving around themselves to warm up their feet and this was creating small gaps giving the impression we were moving. It wasn’t moving at all!
The Chinese tourists and locals (free entrance in this case) had the priority and that was the main reason for the ongoing mess, we understood it later. They have another gate, actually the main gate of the palace is for Chinese and Tibetans. Foreigners have to use the backside gate where we waited in vain. But the indications were not clear enough, not even for the Chinese, so they would join mistakenly the foreign queue. To add to this chaotic situation many tourists come in groups and their Chinese guide uses the foreigners gate to buy the tickets. Theoretically they should be in queue like us but as schemes is part of their culture, they would pay, let’s call it a gratification…, and buy the tickets ahead of anyone. Hotels also doing the same way using their cronies for this job and anyone we can imagine in town. This means our queue, the queue for foreigners, was not moving because there was only one ticket counter and the outside queue (the Chinese tour guides and so forth) had the priority. No way a foreigner can claim, no way we could scream for injustice, no way we could criticise. The guards and the ticket counter officers are the law and no one will listen whatever a foreigner will say, they will simply jeering in Chinese and laugh.
After 3 hours waiting we could no longer take it and decided the wasted time would not worth the visit, Dalai Lama forgiving our thoughts. Anna felt the big toes numb and we could not see the end. Someone told us later that the foreigners queue normally start moving after lunch time. Lucky we gave up! Not only because that abnormal lawful situation but also because the number of visitors inside the palace are limited to a short number at once.
We left and walked to a small and quiet hidden coffee shop in the old town area not far from the palace, to warm up our souls, console our feelings and consider the next move. We agreed that, particularly because Tibet circumstances, we should not make any waves no matter what we felt because we would have no protection and be treated as subversive foreign elements. In that coffee shop we received from the young owner very good tips for our next moves.
(to be continued…)