L. is a US citizen in her early thirties. In January 2015 she moved to China to work as an English teacher in a public high school in Shenzhen. Her life in China was good. She had already lived in foreign countries such as Russia and South Korea, so she had learnt to adjust herself to new cultures and customs. She liked her new job and her flat. She loved her students. But it all came to an abrupt end after she decided to travel to Tibet.
Tibet Autonomous Region is unlike any other part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Foreign nationals cannot go there with a simple Chinese visa. They must organise their trip via an authorised tour operator and travel with a tourist group. The agency applies for a Tibet Travel Permit issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB). The application must include a route plan of the areas of Tibet one wishes to visit. However, foreign travellers enjoy freedom of movement only within Lhasa city.
If you want to leave Lhasa you need another document: the Aliens’ Travel Permit, issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB). This permit allows you to visit ‘unopened areas’ of Tibet, like Mount Everest or Samye Monastery. Another kind of permit, the Military Area Permit, is required for sensitive areas such as Mount Kailash or Rowok Lake.
Such restrictions testify to the political instability of Tibet, which the central authorities struggle to bring under control. As the website tibettravel.org explains, “Tibet occasionally sees political tension and social unrest. When there are important political events or any indication of such political or social unrest, the government may not issue Tibet Travel Permits.” Despite all this, the website reassures that such events happen rarely. Any “unofficial information you find on the Internet or hear from other people, even from travel agencies, can be considered as rumor,” the website states. “Please do not believe it unless you get an announcement from the government.”