top of the world, ma

New business model: I shall hire myself out as Official Expedition Recorder to extremely wealthy travellers embarking on challenging expeditions. I mean, hey, I'm young, I'm fit, I've been around the block, I'm an accomplished writer, I'm a sometimes-useful techie, I take the odd good picture - who else you gonna hire? All I need is a Rolodex of centamillionaires with a yen for adventure travel and an eye on posterity. And if you could all just get right on getting me that, that'd be great, thanks.

shining-bridge train-bend shining-peak yaks-grasses

So, yeah, I'm in Tibet.

I'm going to described the train ride in rather excruciating detail, as there's not a whole lot of info available online for would-be passengers. But first of all, here are the pictures.

Riding High on the Rails

Preparations are pretty straightforward. I arrived in Beijing and headed straight to BTG Travel (recommended by Lonely Planet, right next to the Gloria Plaza Hotel) in the I-thought-forlorn hope of scoring both Tibet permit and ticket inside of a few days. Couldn't have been easier. The permit required 72 hours to arrange (and cost a whopping 900 yuan, more than $100 US); the train ticket was 1216 yuan for upper-berth soft sleeper; the flight from Lhasa to Shanghai was 2580 yuan; and BTG themselves charged me a mere 100.

Three days later, I turned up at BTG and got my tickets and two A4 sheets of paper covered with official stamps certifying that I was an Official Tour Group that was Officially Permitted to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. (At least so they told me. I don't read Chinese.) The letter of the law1 still states that only tour groups can go to Tibet, but in the last few years said law's interpretation has been relaxed to include tour groups such as mine (# of members:1. # of guides: 0) and in fact if you fly into Tibet you will probably never actually see the permit.

1"decree" is probably more accurate.

I understand this permit process would have been much, much trickier if I had applied for a Tibet permit at the same time I applied for a China visa, rather than after I was in-country, or if I was in-country as a journalist or diplomat rather than a tourist.

A train to Lhasa leaves Beijing every night at 9:30 PM. (Trains to Lhasa also depart daily from Guangzhou and, soon, Shanghai and Chongqing as well; their cumulative passenger capacity will be 3000 people per day.) I arrived early at the Blade Runnerish hive that is Beijing West Railway station, stocked up on supplies (AA batteries were surprising difficult to dig up), and at the appointed hour, filed with hundreds of other people through the Ticket Inspection checkpoint.

The ticket-takers barely glanced at my permit, then directed me to someone else, who directed me to someone else, who gave me a Chinese form and managed to translate its necessary fields into English. Down to a clean, spacious, modern platform and onto a clean, spacious, modern train.

What the Chinese call "soft sleeper" is their equivalent of "first class." Each soft-sleeper car has eight four-berth compartments, plush and comfortable, although the upper bunks are a bit tricky to get into if you're typical Chinese size. These bunks even had a TV at the foot of every bed (four Chinese channels, you had to plug your own headphones in. They showed House of Flying Daggers at the very end of the journey, which was a welcome diversion.) First class even includes complimentary slippers. Oh, yes. And a nasal oxygen cannula.

Contrary to wild rumour, the trains to Lhasa are not pressurized. (I heard loose talk of a "tourist train" next year that will be, but I'm skeptical.) Contrary to my previous post, they do not reach an apogee of 4700 metres. In fact the journey tops out at 5070 metres - more than five kilometres above sea level. There are nozzles labelled OXYGEN, in Tibetan, Chinese and English, next to every berth in soft and hard sleeper, and beneath every seat in soft seat and the dining room. Some of them hissed apparently without provocation once we hit the Tibetan Plateau, upping the O2 content of their compartments; most had to have a cannula plugged into them before they fired up. Or so I surmise - I'm pretty good with altitude and, like most of the Japanese, never used mine. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We rolled out of Beijing at exacty 21:30, right on time, moving so smoothly at first that I didn't realize we were under way for at least a minute, and soon accelerating to speeds of over 150 km/h. Each compartment has scrolling LCD displays at either end that informs you (in Chinese and English) of the train number, departure station, terminal station, next station, speed, outside temperature, date and time, along with a couple phone numbers (labelled only in Chinese), along with the frequent exhortation "Have a good trip!" We didn't stay at 150kph the whole trip, though; across the Tibetan Plateau, we averaged more like 90 (still pretty impressive.)

There are two toilets at the end of every car except the dining car - one Chinese (ie squat) and one Western, for soft sleepers; two Chinese, for all others. The soft sleeper has three sinks with soap outside the toilets, along with an automated samovar dispersing boiled water. Of the 15 cars in my train, one was a dining car; two were soft-sleeper (capacity 32); four were soft-seat (nice but still uncomfortable for a journey of this length, if you ask me - capacity 98); and the remaining eight were hard-sleeper (compartments with triple-stacked bunks, perfectly serviceable, capacity 60, except one that had a disabled toilet and was capacity 54.) Hard-sleeper was 836 yuan, if I recall correctly. I would have been perfectly content with it, but figured, go in style. I would have been less perfectly content with soft seat.

The dining car served food that ranged from edible to pretty-good for very reasonable prices: circa 20 yuan for a meal, 5 for a Coke, 10 for a Budweiser, which alas was the only beer they served even though China's Qingdao is far better. (It's about 8 yuan to the dollar.) Their menu was only in Chinese, but pointing-at-random served me reasonably well, and pointing-at-what-looks-good even better. The staff were typically brusque, and kicked passengers out for a few hours each day so they could have the car to themselves. There were also a couple of food carts that rolled up and down the length of the train every so often.

From Beijing, the train was about half-full. There were three Westerners; me and an Austrian-Slovakian couple who had been working in China for several months. When we reached Xining some 24 hours after departing Beijing - more people flooded on, including a large Japanese tour group that took over almost my entire car, and another eight Westerners. The soft-seat cars were mercifully empty enough that many people were able to sprawl out over three chairs, and a whole hard-seat car was deserted - strangely, no one seemed to take advantage of this.

The train was well-windowed, and though the windows grew streaked over the course of the journey, the (usually spectacular) views were rarely if ever obscured. All the corridors are on the same side of the train, and each car has a half-dozen fold-down seats that let you sit by a window and watch the world go by (there's just enough room for someone else to squeeze by.) (I think I may be setting some personal best for the number of parentheses in a post here.) At the junction areas between cars windows open to either side. A few windows in each car theoretically folded down a little, but seemed locked, so at first I thought that I'd only be able to take pictures through the windows. However, it turns out that the windows in the bathrooms do fold open a little - in fact, just enough to permit the egress of a Canon PowerShot A620 and a pair of hands. Good thing I never got that SLR.

OK, now onto the journey itself.

By the time I woke up and drank my Nescafe we were almost in Xi'an. We stopped there only briefly and weren't allowed off the train (far as I could tell, of the half-dozen stops the train makes en route to Lhasa, you can get out only at two of them; Xining, midway, and Naqu, 4.5 hours before Lhasa.) Westwards through furrowed green highlands, steep river gorges, and loads of tunnels, making a couple of stops whose names escape me, before we reached the mighty Yellow River and followed its wide flow for some time. We arrived in Xining at about 9PM, if memory served, after an unusually scenic but otherwise typical train ride across China.

Day two was anything but typical. At first, as we climbed gradually through the [side note: grr. I wanted to look up the name of the mountains to the north of the Tibetan Plateau, but the Great Firewall of China blocks that Wikipedia page. I am exceedingly proud to report that also seems to block my pro site's blog page, probably due to my 1997 China entry. Ah, there we go.] Kunlun mountains, there was absolutely nothing around the train but stark, ragged rock, not even lichen, it was like riding a train across the moon except for the snow-dusted mountains visible in the distance.

There was also a road. There would be for most of the journey; the train was mostly built alongside the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. Cargo trucks, a few passenger cars, and a bizarre convoy of more than 50 empty military trucks passed us as we continued through the Kunlun and emerged into the Tibetan Plateau, which although higher, is more bountiful than the mountains. Though not much. Only lichens and a few hardly grasses can survive this high. Amazingly, that's enough to support human habitation; Tibetan nomads wander with their herds of sheep and yaks throughout the entire plateau - usually by motorcycle, with modern tents, though I saw a few on horse and foot, and some yak-hair tents.

The terrain doesn't vary much - vast fields of furrowed hills of permafrost, barren but for clumps of brown grass and dark lichen, sometimes with a few snow-capped mountains in the distance - but it's beautiful, in the way a desert is beautiful. I was happy to spend hours sitting and staring out the window. (Mind you I also read two books on the train.) Mostly the train rides on a huge raised embankment walled by green metal fences (though the fence isn't yet complete, and workers constructing it were visible in some places.)

At about 1PM we reached our maximum altitude, the 5072-metre-high Tanggula Pass. There was no announcement, and no real sign in the landscape, but I felt it coming. Even with the extra oxygen they pipe in, the altitude was hitting everyone on the train. I'm pretty good with heights, and I felt dizzy, headachey, full of malaise. I forced myself to get up and walk through the train. Everywhere people were slumped on their bunks or their seats, staring dully and miserably out at nothing. Many were breathing through their cannulae, and one of the staff was administering medicine to an old Chinese woman. It felt a little like we were all fleeing some disastrous battle, or like the entire train had been poisoned. A couple hours later we were back down to 4600 metres (according my Japanese compartmentmate's altimeter) and life had returned; people were drinking beer and cracking jokes in the dining car (until the staff kicked them out.)

There were occasional towns en route, if you can call them that; a few low barracks huddled slovenly on the steppe, maybe with a PetroChina gas station. There were enormous numbers of rivers and watercourses, mostly very wide and shallow. In some places water snaked through a few creases in those beds; in others, it was frozen solid. Birds flew past, black kites, and I saw some kind of crane next to the huge lake we hit at about 3:20. At about 5:20 we reached the first outcrops of the Himalaya proper; an hour later, we hit the outer ring of the towns that the surround Lhasa, and the traffic on the road beside us began to grow livelier. The sun set at 7:30, and then there was nothing to do but wait and watch House of Flying Daggers before we rode into Lhasa.

The train station is a good 10K away from Lhasa proper; fortunately - depending on your point of view - I was greeted by my Official Driver, who took my permit, drove me to Lhasa (for free, or at least for included-in-the-permit), waited to see me check into my hotel, and then drove away. Presumably to make it easier to keep tabs. I don't expect to see him again - getting out of Tibet is straightforward - and that suits me just fine, I was a little creeped out about the whole government-minder thing.

Pictures, again, available here.

As for Lhasa, more tomorrow, I'm beat. (Although the altitude isn't affecting me as much as I'd feared; one nice side effect of taking the train, it helps you acclimatize.)


Earthstar said…
Useful post and very timely for me! Will board train in Xining later this week, so delighted to find your blog!

I'm interested somewhat in crystals -- is it true that kids will rush up to people in the street with crystals to sell?
Jon said…
Crystals? No kid street vendors of 'em in Lhasa, far as I saw - but plenty are available in the tourist shops in the Barkhor Circuit around the Jokhang.

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