I found the dot-matrix printed homespun flyer promsing "70$ Bus trip to Lhasa." I phoned the number - they answered in local tradition with an uncertain "Hello?" rather than with the name of the business.
This means you then have to ask, "Is this the _______ office?"
By the way, no company name was listed at all on the flyer, so I had to say, "is this the bus to Lhasa?"
"No, this is E-Trek."
"Okay E-Trek, I am calling about the bus to Lhasa. Is this the right number?"
" that bus is not for foreigners."
Not for foreigners! Why?
"Only for Nepali and Chinese people."
"Because there was too much trouble with getting the foreigners' visas on that bus, with the Chinese government. " (Read: they were not making enough money that way.) "Foreigners must take a special package tour on a special bus."
"So how much is this special tour?"
"The package tour is $400 plus for 7 days, and that includes the guide, and sight-seeing, and..."
I said, "but I don't want a whole package guided tour. I just want to go to Lhasa. $400 is too much for a bus even both ways; I can fly there for $255!"
This really incensed me. Why should my butt take up $400 worth of room when if I were Nepali it would only take up $70 worth of room?
I insisted that I knew they could get me the "group visa" and then I could split off on my own, which, in fact, I do know because I know people who have done it. They didn't want to talk about it over the phone, and asked me to come by the office.
I happen to know where E-trek is, which is a good thing, as there is no address on the flyer and the guy neglected to tell me. It's in Thamel, sandwiched between a money-changer, embroidered t-shirt shop and store selling maps to Mount Everest and Kailash.
Of course, they have a vested interest in selling me a $400 package tour, if they can. That hardly means it's the only way in. I have been warned about this. The "group visa" thing is largely a fiction these days. All the "group visa" is, is a typewritten sheet of paper the travel agent has. There is no group visa in your passport...just an ordinary Chinese visa. If you can manage to get across the border without getting robbed blind by these agents, you can then pretty much wander off on your own.
Hmmm. No foreigners, indeed. I will go see these characters at E-trek this weekend.
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