Most travelers to Tibet are really great people. However, there are some travelers that probably should have stayed home.
If you have been following my site for a while, you will know that I have lived and worked in various regions of the Tibetan Plateau for going on 13 years. I started out working for an NGO that focused on education among Tibetan adults (most of whom were nomadic). Then, for several years I owned and managed a successful travel agency focused on budget and midrange tours of Tibet. For the past 4+ years, I have been leading higher end photography and cultural tours across Tibet. Since I work in tourism, nearly all of my good Tibetan friends also work in tourism. I have friends in all areas of Tibet who work as tour guides, trekking guides, drivers, hotel managers, hotel staff, restaurant owners, travel agency managers, sales representatives and just about every other job you could think of that relates to tourism in Tibet.
In this post, I will write about some of the horror stories that my Tibetan friends who work in tourism have experienced with foreigners. Though the majority of foreigners traveling to Tibet are really great people, there are a few out there who are plain rude, disrespectful and mean. Here are a few stories that either I have experienced or my friends have…..
Leaving on the train….or so we thought
In 2007, while I was the owner and manager of a travel agency based on the northeast Tibetan Plateau, I had a group of 6 cyclists who I arranged a tour for. This group was very cordial in their emails and asked for a cycling tour from the Nepal border to Lhasa. At the end of their tour, they were to board the train to Xining and continue traveling through Mainland China. Their tour went very well. The guide reported that the group was quite nice and friendly. At the end of their tour, the Tibetan guide dropped the group off at the train station and said goodbye. We thought that was the last we would see of this pleasant group….we were wrong.
Three days later the police in Tsetang (small city south of Lhasa) called our office in the evening to inform us that our group of 6 was caught cycling illegally in Lhoka prefecture. The group had a copy of their travel permit, which was expired. Not only was the permit expired, but it did not list Lhoka prefecture on it. Since the travel permit had our company name and license on it, it was easy for the police to track us down and contact us. The police told us that they were holding our group at a nice 4 star hotel in Tsetang and that we needed to arrange a vehicle from Lhasa to come and pick them up. Since it was evening, we told the police that we would be there first thing the next morning, which the police were fine with. We told the group of 6 to please stay inside the nice hotel and that we would be there early the next day to take them back to Lhasa.
One of our drivers and guides arrived the next morning to find that the group had snuck out of the hotel in the middle of the night with their bikes. The police in Tsetang were furious with the group of 6 and at us. The police spent the next few days trying to find this group, but never found them. I sent the group several emails kindly asking them to turn themselves in as the police and Tibet Tourism Bureau were threatening to close our office. The emails went unanswered. The group was never to be found. The Tibet Tourism Bureau handed us a fine of 50,000 RMB (about $7000 at the time), but we were able to negotiate it down to 10,000 RMB ($1400). Nothing happened to the group that were cycling illegally after their tour ended, but we got stuck with the fine!
Bumpy Road…I want a refund!
Though the road conditions in Tibet have improved dramatically over the past 10 years, there are still some areas where roads are quite rough. One section of road that is still dirt (at least for now) is the 100 kilometers or so from near the town of Baber to Everest Base Camp. This road is dirt and is quite bumpy. No matter what type of vehicle you take, you are going to feel the bumps!
A couple years ago, a good friend of mine in Lhasa who owns a popular travel agency, arranged for a group of 2 to take the classic overland route from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and back to Lhasa. The trip went well…until the group took the road to EBC. This group of 2, which were informed before they left for Lhasa that the last stretch of road to EBC was not good, yelled at the driver and guide the entire length of the journey from Baber to EBC. When the group returned to Lhasa, they demanded that my friends agency give them a substantial refund due to the poor road to Everest. Keep in mind that to reach the Nepal side EBC, you need to TREK! On the Tibet side you can literally drive all the way. I have been all across Tibet and there are many roads that are FAR worse than the road to EBC. My friend ended up giving the group a partial refund, even though he told them clearly that the road to EBC was dirt.
Fight with customs officials in Dram (Zhangmu)
I promise I am not making this next one up! One of my good friends has been a guide in Tibet for the past 6 years. She is well known as being one of the best female tour guides in Lhasa. She was leading a group of people from Lhasa to the Nepal border. Overall, the trip went very well. However, at the Nepal border in Dram (known as Zhangmu in Chinese), there was a slight problem with the groups travel permit. This isn’t completely unheard of and usually it can be fixed in 30 minutes to an hour. It usually requires the guide filling out a few documents, answering a few questions and then everything is fine.
The guide asked her customers to please give her a few minutes to talk to customs officials and explain what the problem was with their permit. But, after about an hour, the foreigners decided to take matters into their own hands…literally. This group grabbed one of the Chinese custom officials and hit him a several times. Other guards and custom officials came and broke up the fight. While the group was eventually allowed to cross into Nepal without any problems, my friend who was guiding them was fined 1000 RMB ($160) and her travel agency was fined 2000 RMB ($320). Foreigners are very rarely fined in Tibet for their wrongdoings, but the guide and travel agency almost always will be fined if their customers break the law.
Screaming at a young waitress at a restaurant
Recently I was leading a group of photographers from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp. We stayed the night in Old Tingri at a popular hotel there. The hotel also has a restaurant that is quite popular with travelers. That night while I was having dinner with my group, a group of 8 were sitting a couple of tables away from me. The young Tibetan waitress working at the restaurant came and took their order. The restaurant offered many dishes and the menu was translated into English. In this isolated part of Tibet, the young Tibetan waitresses can speak basic English but are definitely not fluent.
This group gave their order to the waitress. The group gave their order to the girl quite fast and she was trying to write everything down as quickly as possible. When she read the order back to the customers, it was discovered that she had missed 2 of the items that the group had ordered. Instead of kindly telling the waitress that she didn’t get all of the order written down, the group began yelling loudly at her. The way the group was yelling at this girl, who must have been only 17 years old, you would have thought the girl was a murderer! This group of people were extremely rude to this young waitress. Tibetans, like anyone else, do not appreciate being screamed at, especially in public and especially for a simple, honest mistake. The groups order came about 20 minutes later, without any problems.
Looking for prostitutes rather than enlightenment
Last year, a friend of mine who has been working as a guide in Tibet for the past 5 years had a group of young guys she had to guide around. On their second night in Lhasa, the group asked my friend, a female Tibetan in her early 30’s, to find them some prostitutes. At first my friend thought they were joking….they weren’t. Talking about sex with Tibetans, especially with a women, is culturally taboo. Asking your female Tibetan guide to find prostitutes for you is completely unacceptable. If this is the reason you are coming to Tibet, stay home.
Thanks for the discount, but I actually want the tour for free
Recently a friend of mine who is the owner of a popular travel agency in Lhasa received an email from a group of 4 budget travelers. This group was on a VERY tight budget and actually didn’t have enough money even for a budget tour. However, my friend had pity on them and gave them a tour below cost….meaning that my friend arranged their tour knowing that he would actually be LOSING money on the tour. He explained this to the group, who were very happy that they would be able to go to Tibet.
My friend arranged for the group to stay in budget dorm-style hostels and guesthouses for the entire journey. In Lhasa, everything was fine. However, when the group got outside of Lhasa, they complained to my friend that the accommodations he had arranged for them were not adequate (keep in mind that my friend gave them a MASSIVE discount and actually lost money on this tour), even though the group had asked for the cheapest possible accommodations. My friend, with his very kind heart, paid out of his own pocket for them to stay in a nice 3 Star hotel, a huge upgrade to the dorm rooms they had requested. At the end of their tour, the group emailed my friend and threatened to write bad reviews of his company on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet unless he refunded them a large portion of the tour price! The group made zero complaints during the tour (except wanting to upgrade from the dorm rooms, which they had asked for) and the Tibetan guide reported that the group had a great time. However, they threatened my friend with bad reviews unless a refund was issued.
Not only did my friend arrange this tour for BELOW COST, he paid for them to stay in a nice hotel and went out of his way to get this group of people to Tibet. Talking to the guide, my friend told me that the trip went well. There were no problems and no complaints from the customers until after the tour was finished. My friend ended up refunding a portion of their tour and overall lost more than $1200. My friend isn’t some huge government supported company, but just a locally owned small business. He tried to help these guys by having pity on them, but the group turned around and bit him…hard.
Driver, stop here! Not here! Five meters in front!!
Last year, a friend of mine arranged a bird watching tour for a group of 2 photographers. This Tibetan friend owns a successful travel agency in the Amdo region and is very familiar with that region. The group had quite a long itinerary for their bird watching tour. My friend carefully worked with them to create the perfect itinerary. All of the email correspondence went well and the couple seemed like very nice people.
Shortly into their tour, the group called my friend to complain about the driver. Apparently, they were not happy with how the driver would stop his vehicle. The customers told my friend that when they asked the driver to stop, he would take too long to come to a complete stop. The driver, who has nearly 2 decades of experience driving tours, said that he was stopping his vehicle like he has always done: quickly, but safely. The customers complained that when the driver stopped the vehicle, they would have to walk 5 to 15 meters in order to get the picture they wanted. Really? Five to 15 meters of walking and you are complaining?? Wow.
So, in order to make the customers happy, the driver started stopping his vehicle more quickly by pressing harder on the brakes. The driver didn’t like doing that as it wasn’t safe to make such a stop when traveling 60 to 80 kilometers/hour, but it was what the customer wanted. So, the next day the customers called my friend again to complain that the driver was now stopping the vehicle too quickly (as compared to too slowly before)!! It was impossible to make these customers happy. The driver either took too long to stop the vehicle and the had to walk 5 to 15 meters or the driver stopped too quickly. In the end, this group asked my friend for a refund on the tour basically because they had to do “too much walking” because of the driver. In the end, my friend lost considerable money on this tour. He continues to use this driver as this driver is one of the safest and most popular drivers he uses. If you can’t walk 5 to 15 meters, you probably shouldn’t come to Tibet!
Give me a 5 RMB discount or I am leaving!
Several years ago, I worked as a manager at a popular guesthouse/cafe in the Kham region. We offered private rooms, dorm style rooms, breakfast, dinner, drinks and all of the free travel advice you could ever need. One summer, a group of young men came in wanting to stay for a couple of nights in our dorm rooms. We had just the right amount of beds left for them (in the high season, we were full nearly every night). When I told them the price of each dorm bed, 35 RMB/$5.50 per person, they quickly became rude and demanded a lower price. They began raising their voices at me, accusing me of cheating them.
The group, which had not made a reservation, were looking at an outdated copy of Lonely Planet’s Tibet guidebook, which listed the dorm room price as 30 RMB/person. I kindly told the group that since that guidebook had been published, our rates had increased slightly by 5 RMB ($0.75) per bed. I went on to tell them that our website clearly stated the price of the dorm beds. This wasn’t good enough for them. They continued to yell at me, accusing me of trying to rip them off of 5 RMB ($0.75). They then told me they were going to leave. Really? 5 RMB? You think I am ripping you off of 75 cents?? I kindly replied to the group that there was another guesthouse nearby that they could go to, however, the price there was 45 RMB per person. If they wanted, they could go there.
The group ended up staying, as our guesthouse was very comfortable and cozy. If the group had kindly asked me for a discount, there is a good chance I would have given it to them. Instead, they yelled at me and accused me of trying to steal from them. This type of thing happens REGULARLY across Tibet with foreigners becoming rude with hotel staff and demanding (rather than kindly asking) a cheaper price. I have heard numerous stories of travelers yelling at guesthouse/hostel staff because they charged 1 RMB more for a can of Coke than the shops outside did! If you are an extreme budget traveler, don’t yell at hotel/guesthouse staff to get a cheaper price!
Please don’t take pictures of soldiers.
Most travel agencies will let their customers know that it is inappropriate to take pictures of soldiers and police in Lhasa. One of my friends, who has been guiding tours in Tibet for over 10 years, reminded his small group as they were walking around the Barkhor in Lhasa. The group though, disregard him and kept trying to take pictures of the many soldiers walking around the area. A group of 4 soldiers came up to the group and made them delete the photos from their camera’s. The group tried to argue with the soldiers and refused to hand over their cameras. The guide tried to kindly persuade the group to listen to the soldiers, but they refused. Finally, after nearly 20 minutes, the soldiers succeeded in getting the group to delete the photos. The soldiers then demanded to see my friends guide license. They yelled at him for several minutes and reported him to the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The Tibet Tourism Bureau then told my friend that he would be fined 3000 RMB ($480…a substantial amount of money since most guides only have work during the short tourism season) and could possibly lose his guide license (which would mean he is out of a job). Through a connection, he was able to negotiate the amount of the fine to a lower amount and was able to keep his license.
Nothing usually happens to foreigners when they take pictures of soldiers. However, your guide could be fined and lose his/her job.
Please put on your clothes, sir!
This is another story from when I was managing the guesthouse in Kham. One day, we had this customer staying at our guesthouse who needed to do some laundry. We showed him where the washing machine was and explained to him how to use it. A few minutes later, he came back with a load of clothes to be washed. A couple of our Tibetan staff, 2 young women from nomadic areas, were cleaning up around the guesthouse. Suddenly, the 2 young Tibetan staff came running up to me telling me that one of the customers was walking around the guesthouse….naked!
I got up from the front desk to investigate. Sure enough, the guy who asked to do laundry was walking around in just his very small (and very tight) underwear. I asked the guy what he was doing. He replied to me like nothing was wrong. I went on to explain to him that he couldn’t walk around without any clothes on. In Tibetan culture, it is inappropriate to do this, especially in front of Tibetan women. He was very agitated with me and told me that he had been doing this all during his travels across Asia and in Mainland China without any problems. Tibetans are very modest…especially women. Walking around a hotel/guesthouse lobby in just your underwear is not only inappropriate in Tibet, it is inappropriate in much (most/all) of the world. After explaining a little about Tibetan culture to this guy, he finally put some clothes on!
Sorry, we don’t have money to pay for the rest of our tour!
Several years ago, a friend of mine arranged a 10 day tour across the Amdo region for a group of 4. This friend owned a popular travel agency focusing on tours in the rugged regions of Amdo and Kham. This group came into his office one day and wanted to take a tour out to the source of the Yellow River, located in the ultra-remote region of western Golok prefecture.
Though one or two old guidebooks on Tibet say that you should only pay for half of your tour up front and pay the remaining portion when you return, this is actually NOT standard. Almost no travel agency will do this….and here is why. The group of 4 said that they wanted to do the tour, but only wanted to pay for half of the tour up front. My friend told the group that, like an airplane ticket, they would have to pay for everything before they took the tour. It wasn’t possible to only pay for half the tour up front. The group pleaded with my friend for 2 days and then my friend finally gave in and let them do the tour with only paying half the tour fee up front. Since this was a 10 day tour to far away, remote areas, the cost of the tour wasn’t cheap. The cost of the tour was around $2000 ($500 for each person).
According to the driver, who my friend had been using for many years without any problems, the tour went very well. The customers had a great time and really enjoyed the rugged beauty that the area offered. However, when the group returned to the city, they told my Tibetan friend who owned the travel agency that they were not going to pay the remaining balance of their tour. The group said that the tour didn’t go “as planned” so they were not going to pay the rest of the price. When my friend asked the group what specifically went wrong, the group gave short, vague answers and refused to talk about it. Finally, after a few hours of discussion, the group admitted that they didn’t have the money (or had the money and didn’t want to pay) for the remaining portion of the tour. There was nothing my friend could do. If he called the police, the police wouldn’t/couldn’t do much. In the end, my friend,who owns just a small family owned travel agency, lost over $1000 on the group.
Over the years, I have heard of several dozen similar stories to this…of people demanding to only pay for half the tour up front and then making up excuses when they return on why they will not pay the remaining tour balance. Many of these small, local Tibetan owned travel agencies have lost considerable money from this happening to them. This is why you probably won’t find any travel agency that is willing to only accept half of the payment before the tour starts….they have been ripped off/robbed too many times by foreigners.
It was cloudy…I demand a refund!
Nearly every guidebook states when the best seasons for visiting Tibet are. I have several posts on my site that clearly say when the best months are to get good views of the mountains. Even so, it is impossible to predict the weather! One group of foreigners used my friends travel agency to book a tour to Everest Base Camp in the autumn. Usually the weather from October through the winter provides good, clear views of Everest….but NOT always! There is an occasional storm that will come producing cloudy weather at base camp.
This certain group had a good trip, but unfortunately clouds moved into the Everest Region just when they arrived. So they were not able to get a clear view of the world’s highest peak. When this group returned to Lhasa, they demanded a partial refund because the weather blocked their view of Everest. My friend explained to them that there is NO guarantee of clear weather at Everest. My friend never told this group there was a 100% chance of clear weather. It was no use….the group still demanded a partial refund or they would write a bad review of his company on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. So, my friend gave them a partial refund and ended up losing money on the tour.
Sites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum are excellent resources for planning a trip to Tibet. However, many times over the years I have had friends in tourism tell me that customers have threatened to go and write a horrible review of their company on Trip Advisor unless they either reimburse them the total tour price or at least give a substantial refund. Now sometimes these demands for refunds are justified. But, many times people threaten these small Tibetan owned agencies for extremely small issues that are way beyond the control of the travel agency or for issues that are just absurd. Several times over the years I have gone on to travel forums to write a defense for a travel agency that got a bad review.
I know just about all of the travel agencies in Tibet and can tell you that 90% of them are extremely hard-working people who genuinely care for each of their clients. They often get taken advantage of by rude and deceitful foreigners who are looking for a free tour.
Please don’t come to Tibet with the intentions of cheating Tibetans, verbally abusing them, being completely ignorant about their culture and with intentions of getting them into trouble. This post covers just a small handful of the horrible stories I have heard in the past. Please be respectful to Tibetans (and other people in other lands) and enjoy their unique culture and beautiful land!