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20 October 2011 / leggypeggy

When locals are driven crazy by their own system

Potala Palace—viewed from the south, where the Main Gate is.

No trip to Tibet is complete without a visit to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Originally built almost 1400 years ago, its most important residents have been the 5th to the 14th Dalai Lamas. And while the current Dalai Lama has never lived there, it is an important place in the world of Buddhism.

Poor John and I were especially keen to see the palace, not only for its religious and governmental significance, but because there are rumours that it may be permanently closed to the public. Daily admissions are already limited to 2000 people, and the quest for tickets kept us busy for two days.

There are two ways to come by tickets. Groups can use an agent who will buy advance tickets that cost 300 yuan ($50) each. The ticket is for a specific time slot and gives the group a guide and an hour in the palace. Or you can buy one yourself. This ticket costs 100 yuan (about $17) and allows you to enter at a specific time and stay as long as you like until the palace closes.

This is a no brainer! Right? So what’s the catch? One catch is that you have to buy the ticket a day in advance. The other, and much bigger, catch is that you have to find the ticket office. This is like a gigantic scavenger hunt with vague and conflicting clues written in Chinese.

At least Poor John and I had a time advantage. Most of our group did the three-day trip to Everest Base Camp, so they had to go the agent route. But the altitude knocked us around enough that we decided to stay in Lhasa. Oh goody, three days to get a ticket.

Our first foray took us most of a whole day to NOT find the right ticket office.

Following the pilgrims around the outside of the palace.

We started at the Main Gate. They said go to the West Gate. Our first snag—there was no obvious West Gate, at least not one we could find. Without giving you a blow-by-blow rundown, we joined the pilgrims and walked back and forth around most of the building—and this is one huge building. Even the people in the palace’s outdoor cafe couldn’t help. We didn’t think it right to ask the pilgrims. They weren’t gong inside anyway, so probably didn’t know where to find the ticket office either.

We finally staggered out of the palace grounds and went in search of lunch. THat was a much easier challenge and we found two bowls of noodles for $1.33—gosh we love a bargain. As we were leaving the restaurant, a young man at another table struck up a conversation in English.

Poor John pounced immediately. Did this fellow know where to get tickets for the palace? Of course, and he advised us to go to the East Gate. Although he was in street clothes, he told us he was a policeman, so we felt a bit confident about his instructions. Another trip through the palace gardens and we were at the East Gate. We’d seen it before, but never went in because it wasn’t the West Gate.

Once inside, we saw signs for ticketing. This was encouraging, except that no one spoke English. Suddenly our policeman appeared at our side. He took over the conversation. It was like a tennis match. Yes, they sold tickets, no they didn’t, they sold to groups only, they could sell us one now if we could go in immediately.

Yes, yes, we’ll go in immediately, we said. That’s when the punchline came. Oops, sorry, we’re all sold out for today. I thought the cop might strangle the fellow behind the counter. It’s perversely satisfying when locals are driven crazy by their own system.

Our advice was to go to the West Gate. We set off again and after asking in every single office, souvenir shop, travel agency, we finally found the West Gate, which looks exactly like a driveway for delivery vehicles.

We went up the drive and, amazingly, there was a ticket window around the corner. It wasn’t really open, but we asked a chap if he had any advice. When he realised he couldn’t tell us anything in English, he helpfully pointed repeatedly at a sign in Tibetan and Chinese for us to read. Gosh, what a choice. Another fellow used a series of rather elaborate hand signals to tell us to come back the next morning at 7.

Prayer wheels line almost two whole walls of the palace complex. Pilgrims spin the wheels as they go past.

And so we did. We were the 67th purchaser in the queue, and got a time slot of 10:40 for the following morning. A little victory!

In the next few days, I write an item about the palace itself.

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Louise M Oliver / Oct 20 2011 7:16 am

    I’m really pleased that you and Poor John persisted in getting tickets. That palace looks amazing and the fact that you can go in relatively early in the morning and stay for as long as you like is really good. I am looking forward to your post about the palace itself.

    Take care and enjoy.


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