Golmud was surreal in the most disappointing of ways. We arrived at 4:45 a.m. China's transportation system is miraculously, and magically, designed so that no matter what the distance to one's destination, and no matter what mode of transportation is used, the arrival time is always just before dawn.
We spilled out of the over-night bus and stood at a dark intersection just a block up from the massive train station. It stood there silent and empty.
One Chinese man who spoke good English asked us where we were headed as we gathered our bags from underneath the bus. We said that we were going to find a hotel here in Golmud, but were not yet decided on one.
He looked surprised and asked, "You are not going to Lhasa?"
"Uh, no, not yet. Hopefully, next week."
"Alright. Well, good luck." He waved his hand as he pulled his bag (on rollers) in the direction of the train station.
It was at this moment that I realized the ban on travel permits to Tibet applied only to foreigners.
Tom and I found a taxi and showed him, in Chinese, the hotel we wanted him to take us to. We piled in and we were off. The first hotel we went to said they were full, although the large parking lot was completely empty. The next two hotels also said they were full despite appearing totally abandoned. By the time we found a hotel that was willing to give us a room, the sun was rising.
Golmud, at sunrise, is reminiscent of something from a science fiction movie: it is perfectly flat, the streets are flawlessly straight, and the blocks are all precisely the same length. Even the buildings are all the same height and shape. It has the feeling that it was entirely built before anyone actually lived there, possibly even dropped there from a prefab factory. Eerie.
We got our room and slept until noon. I was the first to wake.
"I'll go scout around, you sleep," I said. Tom was not about to get out of bed.
We needed to find a way to get our permits and find a couple to join our Tibet tour while in Golmud. I walked for a good thirty minutes in a counter-clockwise circle. I found an internet room, a couple of noodle restaurants, and a handful of hair salons. All of the other places were strictly industrial.
Golmud is a mining town, and for all intents and purposes, it is perfect for what it is. What WE needed it to be, on the other hand, was something else.
Via the internet, we found the location of the two tourist offices in Golmud. Either of these places are authorized to arrange tours into Tibet.
We took a taxi to the first one and found a man sitting behind a desk smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Once he saw us, he motioned for us to sit down and made a telephone call. After ten minutes, a young woman entered and informed us that the office was "closed" until October 9th; the other tourist office would also be closed until that date.
However, she was amiable and made a few phone calls for us. She told us that the passport office was open and that they were able to make arrangements as well. She wrote down the address for us and we went to get a taxi. This was another instance which confirmed my belief in the lack of efficiency of taxi drivers in China.
The man had an address, written in his mother tongue, in his hand and he still could not find where we wanted to go.
He eventually dropped us off in the area he thought it was and drove off. We showed the address to store clerks on every corner until we finally found one who pointed us in the right direction. By the time we arrived at our destination, it was closed. The man in the shop next door said it would be closed the rest of the week, until October 9th.
The frustration that I felt at this time was nearing its pinnacle.
I went and got my hair cut. That's right. I got my hair cut in Golmud, middle-of-@*!&$#@!-nowhere, China.
Thomas and I had some serious deliberation to attend to. Contrary to what I was told to believe back in Cheng Du, it would not be possible to start the permit application before October 9th. Our understanding at that time was that travelers would be allowed to go on the 9th or after. This was not true. The process would not be allowed to start until the 9th; therefore, the soonest anyone would be going to Tibet would be the 13th.
The options were: 1) stay in Golmud for 5-8 days and try to find tour partners via the internet or 2) get the train back to Cheng Du where most of the Tibet travelers meet to form their tour groups. For me the decision was simple. Cheng Du. It didn't take too much discussion to get Thomas to agree.
That night we were on a train back to where my China adventure had originally started, and this time....we were going to go to Tibet.