A Travellerspoint blog

Part 5: The trip back to Lhasa

snow 6 °C

After recovering from our trek, we started the drive back to Lhasa, stopping overnight at Lake Manasarovar, one of the few high altitude freshwater lakes sitting at an altitude of some 4,560 metres. Although pilgrims come to the lake to dip into the icy waters to cleanse themselves, we forwent this pleasure and stopped off at the hot springs instead. The hot springs “resort” consisted of a small cement building divided into six rooms, each with a wooden tub straight off the set of some western movie. A keeper came around and placed a big plastic liner in each tub and pulled out the cork plugging a pipe sticking out of the wall. The mineral water filled the tub and what bliss it was to soak in the hot water as we had not had a shower or bath for well over a week.

Hot springs staff

Hot springs staff

L1070291.jpg

We stayed at a guesthouse on the shores of Lake Manasarovar, the most enjoyable being the time we spent in the tea house, drinking butter tea, eating fried potatoes with eggs and generally watching people. Goat droppings were used as fuel for the metal stove set in the middle of the tea room which was used for cooking and for heating. It was still raining and we discovered that the guesthouse buildings had some pretty impressive leaks, one of the best being right over the corner of Martin’s bed.

We most certainly did not expect snow the next day. The air was perfectly still, and the lake, surrounding hills and peaks into the horizon were all different shades of white and steel grey. After a breakfast of a hard boiled egg, tea and flat bread, Pius and I hiked along the shore of the lake and along one of the ridges. It was superb. The snow was pristine and the clouds gave the lake and surrounding hills a character and texture that a clear sky would not have given. By the afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds and we were treated to a glorious 360 degree view of the surrounding, snow capped mountains and the azure waters of the lake. A visit to the small monastery behind the lodge we were staying in allowed us to discover yet another medley of mani stones skulls and antlers. Unfortunately, despite the clearing sky, we could only see the bottom section of Mt Kailash.

L1070367.jpgL1070338.jpgL1070316.jpg

Lake Manasarovar

Lake Manasarovar

Lake Manasarovar flower

Lake Manasarovar flower

Our return trip to Lhasa followed the road to Paryang, crossing wide plains and following shallow rivers to Saga, where we stayed overnight. The next day was spent driving to Shigatse via Raka, Sangsang and Ngamring, arriving in Lhasa the next afternoon. One bonus was being invited into the home of a family living in a small village and being shown the weaving skills of the women.

IMG_2697.jpgIMG_2701.jpgIMG_2694.jpg

I very much enjoyed visiting Tibet despite feeling a bit conflicted about its political situation and the long car travel needed to get to Mt Kailaish. My 11 days in Tibet only provided a polaroid snapshot of the country and its people. But I came away remembering stunning scenery, the challenge of coping with high altitudes, the friendliness and laughter of the people we met on the road, and being invited as guests in their houses was a delight. Despite the distance, travelling by road was an ease and although living conditions were a wee bit basic, this just added texture and fabric to the trip. Dawah, our Tibetan guide, and our Tibetan drivers were a bundle of information, help and all round good fun.

IMG_2768.jpg

Posted by IvaS 04:09 Archived in China Tagged tibet Comments (0)

Part 4: The kora around Mt Kailash

snow 3 °C

Part 4: The kora around Mt Kailash

Mt Kailash - home of the gods, both Hindu and Buddhist. Pilgrims from Tibet, Nepal and India venture here to walk the 52 km circuit around the base of the mountain. Although we had had sunny blue skies our first few days in Tibet, the rain had set in not long after we got to Darchen and the mountains became shrouded in heavy cloud. Such is the weather in Tibet.

Darchen is a rather sad, soulless town devoid of personality but with a stunning backdrop of mountains. It’s the starting point of the kora around Mt Kailash and seems to be made up mainly of restaurants of varying standard, souvenir shops and stalls all selling the same procession of dodgy beads, brass bowls, dubious coral belts and other Tibetan trinkets. I, of course, got sucked into buying “ancient” beads and they are still sitting in a box at home.

Downtown Darchen

Downtown Darchen

IMG_2604.jpg90_IMG_2598.jpgIMG_2587.jpg

The highlight of Darchen is the intricately carved mani stones with a scattering of antelope skulls and row of stupas sitting adjacent to the monastery on the north end of the town.

Mani stones Darchen

Mani stones Darchen

As it is required for a foreigner to have a guide at all times, we were each allocated a local Tibetan who carried our gear during the kora. I found this quite uncomfortable as I am used to carrying my own stuff and I am not keen on having someone in servitude to me. However, I took the positive approach as I had no choice and recognized that at least my guide was employed and getting some money.

Sugi was my guide and the first thing I discovered was that despite the cold, he had no gloves or hat. This was quickly rectified as was making sure he had plenty of munchies and water for the trek.

We were staying in monasteries so I only needed minimum gear and as a result, my pack was very light. Sugi entertained me by chanting, recording his chanting on his mobile and then taking a break by playing his chanting back to himself. Luckily, he walked faster than me, so I didn’t have to listen to the chanting all day. And I did appreciate his looking out for me as the weather was cold and simply deplorable.

It is the circuit around Mt Kailash that is called the kora. Devoted pilgrims complete the kora in one day starting at dawn and finishing well after dark. Truly devoted pilgrims fully prostrate themselves along the entire 52 km route taking up to two weeks or more. Our plan was to take the standard touristo three days so that we could dawdle to a certain extent. We also knew that going over Drolma La Pass was going to be a slog and wanted to make sure we could take a well-earned rest on the other side.

Pilgrams Mt Kailash

Pilgrams Mt Kailash

Pilgrams Mt Kailash

Pilgrams Mt Kailash

Day 1: the well worn track which also acted as a road followed a valley surrounded by hills and peaks totally shrouded in cloud and mist. The wind was blowing down the valley and was quite cold, and there was a heavy mist. Each of us walked at our own pace and I usually did not see any one from my group until I stopped at a tea house, or at the end of the day. The walk was not overly difficult as the track was not steep, but I was humbled by the Tibetan family that walked past me and seemed to zoom off into the distance. My travelling four legged companion also impressed me with his wanderings from the trail to the yonder and back again. It was just a steady walk with a few inclines that required a wee bit of rest given we were at an altitude of about 5,500 feet.

Hiking companion Kailash kora

Hiking companion Kailash kora

Seventeen kilometers and about eight hours of trekking later, we reached Dri Ra Puk Monastery, sited halfway up a hill, where we overnighted in the dorm. A wander up to the monastery unveiled a small cave with a mural of a Buddha drawn on the wall and dimly lit only by a cluster of candles.

Dri Ra Puk Monastery wall and Mt Kailash

Dri Ra Puk Monastery wall and Mt Kailash

L1070205.jpg

Dinner consisted of whatever we had in our packs – in my case roasted pumpkin cup-a-soup, crackers, some cheese and a tangerine - and eaten in our rooms. Dawah turned up with a leg of dried sheep, which is really a jerky with, unsurprisingly, a very distinct mutton taste, which he shared along with tsampa (roasted barley flour which is mixed with butter tea to form a solid sort of paste) and butter tea.

By evening, a lot of the cloud cleared and we could see most of the surrounding mountains, but Mt Kailash must have been making its own microenvironment as the top remained stubbornly shrouded in cloud.

The dorm we stayed in had only been built that year and provided basic accommodation: a cement building with two single spring bottom beds in each room. There was no water or electricity, but a candle was provided. There was some solar power, but this only ran the light bulb of the monastery’s kitchen.

Day 2: We woke up to an overcast day with low cloud, wind, sleet, hail and rain. Joy. We started our trek about 0830 and it was pissing down rain. The trail to Drolma La Pass is a series of switchbacks on rough, rocky terrain. Drolma La means “Pass of Tara” (5,700 m) and is festooned with blue, white and yellow prayer flags. Although we were only ascending about 700 m from Dri Ra Puk Monastery, the walk was a slog because of the steepness of the track, the uneven ground and the altitude. It was a matter of watching your feet, putting one foot in front of the other and breathing. Regular pits stops and drinking heaps of water got me to the top where I crossed the pass in hail and sleet. The Hindu pilgrims, wearing their bright yellow down jackets and doing the kora riding Tibetan horses no more than 11 hands high, had to walk the last bit to the top and over the other side as it was too dangerous to ride the horses. We discovered that this was too much for one poor Indian soul who died of a heart attack at the pass.

The ascent to Drolma La Pass

The ascent to Drolma La Pass

A pooped Sugi

A pooped Sugi


Drolma La Pass

Drolma La Pass

Once I arrived at the pass, I circled around the prayer flags and mani stones three times, left my own little pile of stones (ovo) for my family, caught my breath and headed down the mountain pass. The descent into the river valley on the other side of the pass did not offer much reprieve from discomfort as the trail remained rocky and very steep, and played havoc on the knees. Coupled with the snow and ice on the trail, it made for some hazardous walking.

After walking the steepest part of the track we followed the river valley for the long, slow descent to the very welcome canvas tea house at the bottom of the pass where some instant noodles, butter tea and biscuits provided a fine fare. After an hours’ rest we continued to Zul Truk Puk Monastery, where we again stayed in the newly built dorm. We had hiked for about 10 hours covering only 22 kilometers.

Day 3: I was pleased to leave the monastery. The dorm was basic but comfortable, but the surrounding grounds were covered with litter, excrement and empty cans of Chinese Bull. We started the hike in non-stop rain and trudged through a long valley where we were very happy to fall in a heap in our beds at the Pilgrim Hotel five hours later. I was wet, cold and totally knackered and was asleep in seconds, getting up long enough to enjoy a really tasty Schezuan dinner in a local restaurant.

Mt Kailash

Mt Kailash

Posted by IvaS 20:04 Archived in China Tagged tibet Comments (0)

Part 3: The drive west to Mt Kailash

semi-overcast 23 °C

After three days in and about Lhasa, we started our road trip to Mt Kailash, some 1,230 km away from Lhasa. We piled our gear into the back of two land cruisers, myself being allocated to the back seat of the second car, and off we headed west to Shigatse, our first stopover.

My view from the car

My view from the car

The first high pass we drove over was Khampa Pass (4,730 m) which despite, being windswept and nearly devoid of vegetation, provided a wonderful vantage point of the snow covered peaks of the eastern part of the Himalaya mountains. On the top was an array of red, blue, white and yellow prayer flags flapping in the wind, sending blessing to the heavens.

Prayer flags on pass

Prayer flags on pass

Stupa at pass

Stupa at pass

On our descent, we passed by the turquoise colored waters of Yamdrok Lake, one of the holy lakes of Tibet. The lake is surrounded by majestic peaks that transform into open steppe hills that tumble into the lake and is visited by the busload by every visitor that comes to Tibet. On the western end of the lake is the Yamdrok Hydropower Station, the largest in Tibet and one that was surrounded by political and environmental controversy during its construction in the early 1990s . Hours later we arrived in Shigatse, the second largest town in Tibet, which itself was a non-descript concourse of grey concrete boxes. The hotel was clean and tidy, but seeped in Chinese decor.

Yambrok Lake

Yambrok Lake

The road to Kailash

The road to Kailash

Open steppe country

Open steppe country

We first visited the Palkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse which is noted for its highly decorated, multistory temple (chorten or Kumbum stupa) consisting of nine floors of interlocking chapels.

Kumbum Polkhor Chode Monastery

Kumbum Polkhor Chode Monastery

270_L1060759.jpgL1060868.jpg270_L1060857.jpgL1060870.jpg

The following morning we spent a couple of hours at Ta shi lhun po Monastery, founded in 1447 and now located on a hill in the center of Shigatse. This monastery was site of the death of the tenth Panchen Lama in 1989. The selection of the 11th Panchen Lama caused all sorts of kerfuffle between the monastery and the Chinese due to the choice made by the Dalai Lama as to who would be the 11th Panchen Lama. An outcome of this controversy was the introduction of a law in 2011 whereby Tibetan Buddhist monks must seek permission on the selection of living Buddhas from the Chinese regime so that reincarnation can be managed. The mind boggles.

Ta shi liun po Monastery

Ta shi liun po Monastery

Shigatse from Ta shi lhun po Monastery

Shigatse from Ta shi lhun po Monastery

Both Palkhor Chode and Ta chi lhun po Monasteries are still very much visited by monks who shed their slippers before entering the temples and pilgrims as they circumambulate the temples, turning their mobile prayer wheels and counting their beads as they walk. As an aside, one of the most kitsch, but enjoyable and cheapest souvenirs from Tibet are the entry tickets to the monasteries. The best are the 3D lenticular postcards that are supposed to give an impression of movement and depth, but don't.

It took us four days to drive to Darchen, during which we drove through the small towns of Old Tingri and Panyang, passed expansive stretches of flat and hilly steppe country, emerald green valleys contrasted with dry hills, snow covered mountains with glaciers, azure lakes, sand dunes, evidence of desertification and raging brown rivers. We followed some amazing windy, hairpin-turn roads cut into the sides of mountains, ascending passes over 5,000 m. We drove parallel to some of the highest peaks of the world: Mt Everest and Mt Shishabanga. As I was in the company of German mountaineers, any discussion of mountains, which was continual, did not involve names, but rather a number:

“That’s a 6,000.”
“No, it’s at least a 7,000.”
“No, I did a 6,500 in 1982 and I am sure this is only a 6,000, maybe 6,500.”

It finally took a dashing to my ego to ask what my fellow travelers were talking about and learned they were speculating the heights of the surrounding mountains.

Tibetan nomad

Tibetan nomad

We never had silence in our car. Dawah was very much a chatterbox and really liked to talk in both English and Tibetan, continuously moving his beads with his thumb as he chatted. However, too many times he was out -talked by our Tibetan driver, Tsering, who reduced Dawah to being able to only grunt a " yo yo " every so often. I am convinced that Tsering never needed to take a breath.

The nomads, scattered across the countryside, surrounded by their livestock of yaks, goats and sheep, live in dark green or brown canvas tents, unlike the felt gers in which Mongolian nomads live. We passed them carrying out their day to day activities of herding and milking, some spinning as they were walking. The countryside was generally devoid of wildlife although we were lucky to see black-breasted cranes, a black breasted stork, antelopes and a herd of wild donkeys.

Nomads

Nomads

L1070562.jpgL1070560.jpgL1070532.jpgL1070094.jpgL1070066.jpgL1070052.jpg
L1060693.jpg

Travelling across Tibet is an interesting exercise in bureaucracy as car travel is heavily controlled. On the first day alone, we passed through seven checkpoints along some of the best two lane bitumen roads I have ever been on. Sometime we had a few less checkpoints, sometimes more. Facilities at each checkpoint varied from a table under an umbrella by the side of the road to a bessa brick or cement building, with or without electricity. But at each station, the process was the same: the collection of our passports by Dawah, a quick look-see into our vehicle by the uniformed police, passports and mysterious entry papers checked and double checked. An intriguing aspect is that each car passing through a checkpoint can arrive and depart from the checkpoint at an allocated time. This explained the occasional line of cars we saw parked on the side of the road just before a checkpoint: they had gotten there too fast and would be fined if they tried to cross before their allocated time so the drivers slept or stood around smoking cigarettes, waiting for their appointed time. I never found out the purpose of this regulation: prevent people from speeding? Ensuring the checkpoint police are not overworked? Job creation? Even more total control of the passage of cars?

Despite the well built and maintained two lane road that cut across the countryside, watched over by sentry policemen and meticulously lined by low piles of barrier rocks, the poverty of Tibet became evident the further west we traveled. The towns, villages and settlements to the west of Shigatse were dusty and littered, there was no running water, toilets consisted of a hole in the ground, electricity was limited to one fluorescent bulb that gets turned on by pulling on fishing line, and there were the ubiquitous street dogs. Pool tables stood outside in the dust as a means of entertainment for young and old, and a quite ingenious solar heating mechanism which was used to boil water was commonly seen sitting on the sidewalk. The hotels we stayed in were basic with the rooms Weili and I shared consisting of two single beds and a washbowl with a colourfully painted flower flask of hot water sitting inside it. That was all the water we had for washing. The loo was shared by all and consisted of two holes cut into the cement floor and, many times, no roof. In some places, incense was burned in the loo to try and cover the smell of eau de poop, which really only resulted in a very rancid smell. Most times we only had a candle and our flashlight for light.

Cozy quarters

Cozy quarters


Solar tea pot heater

Solar tea pot heater


Pool entertainment

Pool entertainment

We passed small villages and settlements that really seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, almost like beads randomly strung along the asphalt ribbon: some being in better condition than others. Tibetan architecture is quite interesting in that many of the houses are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south. They are commonly made of a mixture of whitewashed rocks, wood, cement and earth. Little fuel is available for heating or lighting, so flat roofs are built to conserve heat and are used as a place for storing wood and heating dung.

Loading fuel

Loading fuel

IMG_2432.jpgIMG_2430.jpg

To help prepare us for the kora around Mt Kailash, at every pass we drove over, most being over 5,000 m, we would do at least a one hour trek up a hill, usually being quite pleased that we could have a good rest in the car at the end.

Sentinel of the roads

Sentinel of the roads

Posted by IvaS 23:18 Archived in China Tagged tibet Comments (0)

Part 2: A short stay in Lhasa

all seasons in one day 24 °C

Train Station Lhasa

Train Station Lhasa

We arrived in Lhasa at about three in the afternoon to a very busy, modern train station. After a security check we were able to leave the station and we were met by Dawah, our guide, who draped a traditional khata, a white scarf designating greeting and well wishes, around the neck of each of us, after which we were taken to our hotel.

Two mistakes people make when arriving in Lhasa is that because they took the train, they think they are acclimatized to the altitude of the city. Wrong. Second, they underestimate the intensity of the sun and that it takes only a nanosecond to sizzle.

Lhasa sits at an altitude of some 3,490 m (11,450 ft) and the 47-ish hours it takes to get from Beijing to Lhasa by train does not give your body a chance to adjust to the altitude simply because while travelling on the train, you are going up and down to different altitudes, not remaining at any one high altitude giving your body a chance to acclimatize. I discovered this when, upon arrival, I jaunted up three flights of stairs at the hotel and just about needed resuscitation at the top. I took it a bit easier the first few days we were in Lhasa and just walked around as much as I could, also discovering that standing up quickly was not a good idea.

The first thing that struck me when I exited the train station was the intensity and clarity of the light. I gather this has to do with there being less dust, water vapour and other grunge in the air, and the UV radiation being higher due to the altitude. This intensity results in the sunlight of the city to be very bright, and colours of the city being very bold and fiery, especially the reds, oranges and yellows. The higher UV radiation is dastardly and it does not take long to get utterly sunburnt. A +50 broadband sunscreen, clear zinc cream, sunglasses and hat are crucial. As is drinking heaps and heaps of water.

Our first few days were spent exploring the old town of Lhasa, mainly visiting the Barkhor area which surrounds the Jokhang Temple with its continuous line of pilgrims circling the temple in a clockwise direction, spinning their portable inscribed prayer wheels or spinning the prayer wheels lined up on the walls, chanting the entire time. Many pilgrims were prostrating themselves in front of the temple, lighting, blessing and burning joss sticks.

IMG_2366.jpgIMG_2224.jpgIMG_2212.jpgIMG_2203.jpg
IMG_2232.jpg

Early morning Barkhor Square

Early morning Barkhor Square

IMG_2392.jpgIMG_2222.jpg

The old section of Lhasa imitates the architecture once found in the city and you can't help but think that it still exists only as a showcase. Once you venture outside the old town, you step into a mirror image of mundane, boring, flat and architecturally devoid Beijing.

One pleasant surprise was when Martin, Pius and I ventured to the south east of Jokhang Temple towards the Lhasa mosque which sits on the edge of the Muslim section. We got there following a labyrinth of streets lined with shops selling every conceivable good and we would never have found it without the guidance of Dawah. We were not allowed into the walled area of the mosque. A short distance away, we did have the opportunity to visit the Tsamkhung nunnery, one of the three nunneries in Lhasa, imbibing in a rather tasty yak-butter tea in its tea house which seems to be a very popular gathering place for family groups.

Nunnery teahouse

Nunnery teahouse

We visited a few of the many monasteries and palaces in the vicinity of Lhasa: Drepung, Sera, and Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dahli Lama. My favorite was Drepung because of the way the buildings were nestled within a surround of peaks and the open grounds with trees casting shadows onto the ground giving a respite to the sun. Inside the temples, we passed through a maze of dark rooms, each poorly lit and dedicated to different deities and dalai lamas. Outside in the courtyard, the monks in their red robes were ‘debating’ which consisted of a senior monk asking a seated junior monk a question about Buddhist scripture. Once the question was asked, the monk lifted his foot followed by stomping his foot on the ground and clapping at the same time. This was the signal that the junior monk was to answer the question.

IMG_2271.jpgIMG_2288.jpg

Debating monks

Debating monks


Debating monks

Debating monks

The whitewashed Potala Palace is the monastery most people associate with Lhasa and Tibet. It was easy to see the wealth in the palace, as many of the stupas and buddhas were gold plated and set with semi-precious stones, coral and amber. It was another labyrinth of dark aisles and rooms: the chambers we visited were dark with incense burning in brass bowls and yak butter lamps and I confess I lost track of what deity or lama was who after a while given their very long names and especially given all the other monasteries we had visited.

IMG_2750.jpgL1060323.jpg

L1060337.jpgL1060392.jpgL1060237.jpgL1060475.jpg

As part of our acclimatization process, we did a short kora around Ganden Monastery which is about 40 km outside Lhasa which was at the top of a road with some rather impressive hairpin turns. The monastery was totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but slowly rebuilt forming a lovely amphitheater on the top of the hill.

Ganden Monastery

Ganden Monastery

L1060588.jpgL1060555.jpg

Ganden Pass

Ganden Pass

We first did a tour of the various buildings within the monastery and then walked the kora around the monastery. The kora gave us stunning views of the adjacent hills and valleys, and also the chance opportunity to view a sky burial as this was being carried out adjacent to the trail. Out of respect to the deceased and their family, we did not loiter but the remains were evident on the rock slab and the area was surrounded by vultures, both on the ground and circling around in the sky. We then made a four hour trek over Ganden Pass which sits at an elevation of about 4,400 m. We were not totally exhausted by the end of the trek, but we all appreciated and enjoyed the butter tea served to us at the end of the trail by a local family.

The end of the Ganden Pass trek

The end of the Ganden Pass trek

Posted by IvaS 04:04 Archived in China Tagged tibet Comments (0)

Part 1: The train from Beijing to Lhasa

sunny 21 °C

Part 1: The train trip from Beijing to Lhasa

To call the West Beijing Train Station crowded was a gross understatement. Every square inch was taken by a crushing mass of arms, legs, black hair, people standing shoulder to shoulder, constantly jostling for space, not only for themselves, but also for their babies, children and baggage, many managing to eat instant noodles or munch on Chinese snacks at the same time. Occasionally the crowd would part to allow the passage of a pilgrim prostrating themselves through the hall or asking for alms, but the opening would disappear just as quickly, as if an invisible zipper were pulling the people back together and the pilgrim had disappeared into the floor.

West Beijing Train Station

West Beijing Train Station

While I was living in Mongolia, several of my hiking buddies and I talked often about doing the kora around Mt Kailash, the centre of the Tibetan Buddhist universe. This dream was finally realized in June 2013 when our group, consisting of a mixture of six hikers and mountaineers, five from Germany and myself from Australia, arranged to take the train from Beijing to Lhasa, travel west across Tibet by jeep and undertake the kora around Mt Kailash.

There is virtually no allowance for independent travel in Tibet. So that we could get our Tibet Tourism Bureau Permit, we worked with a Tibetan agency to develop our required itinerary to enter into and travel through the country. The agency also booked our train tickets from Beijing to Lhasa as these tickets are extremely difficult to get, mainly because of the masses of Chinese travelling to the exotic Tibet and who have priority for tickets over foreigners.

Finally, our train station gate opened and we slowly shuffled with our baggage in tow towards the two young uniformed Chinese ladies to present our tickets and to find our carriage. Travel on the train between Beijing and Lhasa (the section between Xining and Lhasa being referred to as the “Sky Train”, “Rocket to the Rooftop of the World” and the Qinghai-Tibet Train”) is an interesting trip in statistics: the route from Beijing covers a distance of some 3,753 km passing over an average elevation of 4,500 m above sea level. The highest point is Tanggula Pass at an elevation of 5,072 m. About 500 m of the track is built on perma frost and it passes through some of the longest tunnels in China.

Our tour agency was able to obtain first class tickets ('soft sleeper') for our overnight trip from Beijing to Xining (Qinghai) costing 556 yuan (about US$88). First class consisted of four bunks to each cabin with two sheets, a quilt cover and a cement bag pillow provided. Some rather insidious, non-melodical Chinese music played over the intercom, occasionally interrupted by what could only be advertising or propaganda.

As there had been a fire on the train the previous day, there was no electricity which amusingly (to me anyway) caused great consternation to the Iphone and Ipad brigade who happened to have dead batteries. It also kept everything on the train pretty well in the dark. The train itself could not have more full - every berth and every seat was taken. My cabin mates consisted of two Chinese and two of my hiking buddies. There was very little room for baggage, so I had to make do with my backpack being stored at the foot of my bunk and my little daypack became a part of my pillow.

My one piece of advice for travelling on the Beijing-Lhasa train: be organized, be very, very organized. Accessing your baggage during the trip to even find your toothbrush is near impossible due to too many bodies and total lack of space. I crawled, climbed and dragged myself to my top bunk and accessing the stuff in my backpack bordered on hopeless because of the restricted space.

The train moved over the track amazingly smoothly - there was no swaying and no chuck-a-chuck-a chuck train sounds so I slept very well the first night. The countryside was one continuous, flat construction site with masses of 30-40 floor apartment buildings being built everywhere. There were some cultivated fields of rice and corn dispersed between the concrete jungles. And rarely was any blue sky seen through the grey smog of pollution.

It did not take long to figure out the bathroom protocol for the train: the bathroom is locked at the stations, the floors are disgustingly dirty and wet so thick soled shoes and rolled up pant legs are a necessity, you need to bring your own toilet paper, you need to learn to squat, touch no surface and tolerate the draft coming up through the toilet bowl.

Breakfast the next morning in the dining car consisted of a hard boiled egg, white untoasted bread and green tea and we arrived in Xining at 0900 in the morning. As we had a five hour wait for our connecting train to Lhasa, Weili negotiated a good deal with a local taxi driver to take us to the Kumbum monastery which was a 40 minute drive outside Xining. The good deal was a result of Weili catching out a cohort of the taxi driver taking our taxi money out of her back pocket while she was busily organizing the taxi. The two dodgy ones reckoned that the money had fallen out of Weili’s pocket, but to redeem themselves, we got the taxi for a very good price.

Stupas Kumbum Monastery

Stupas Kumbum Monastery


270_L1060120_-_Copy.jpgL1060114.jpg

We were only able to get 'hard sleeper' tickets for the overnight trip to Lhasa (484 yuan, about US) which meant being in a cabin with six claustrophobic inducing bunks.

With my usual luck on trains, I scored the stratospheric bunk with headroom of about 10 inches from the ceiling. The train was cramped, crowded and noisy, and you not only slept with your luggage on your bunk, you were forever stepping over luggage placed on the floor in the cabin and in the aisle way by the other passengers. In addition, as I later discovered, there were substantially more snorers than not so there was a cacophony of noise day and night. The toilet protocol was even more required as there were more people using the two loos. Incessant Chinese music was played over the intercom with the occasional interjection of information tidbits such as “the train was built for the health and happiness of the Tibetan people. It provided for the liberation of Tibet. The construction workers were well looked after – no plague was caught and the heated toilet seats helped the workers not get a cold. The train will help Tibet develop in a rapid, scientific and harmonious way.”

There were small pull down tables each with two seats lining the windows of the carriage of which we seconded one and never left, rotating between the two stools, our bunks and the dining car. It made no mind to any of the Chinese to lean over us and our table without apology every time they wanted to take a photo with their rather impressive Nikons and Canons and 500mm telephoto lenses, taking pictures like overzealous paparazzi of every blade of grass and hillock, obviously not minding the reflections of the inside of the carriage on the window.

During the Xining-Lhasa portion of the trip, the train passes over the highest point of the route, Tanggula Shan Pass, at an elevation of some 5,070 m. Passengers have been known to succumb to altitude sickness while on the train, and particularly over this pass. Oxygen is fed into the carriages in anticipation of the high altitudes and if a passenger starts gasping or turning blue, they can use an individual oxygen tube which is provided in each carriage. We travelled over the pass at about midnight and I found that I suffered a slight headache and my heart was beating a wee bit faster than usual while we were ascending to the pass, symptoms which stayed with me until we started the descent to the other side. Although I put this down to the altitude, the heat and stuffiness in the cabin did not help.

IMG_2179.jpg
IMG_2168.jpgL1060170.jpg

In the morning, I was transported to the grass, undulating hills of the steppes, endless deep blue sky with its fluffy white clouds of the Tibetan plateau. Yaks, gazelles and antelopes were sighted, we passed Namco Lake, and travelled parallel to the brown, slow moving Lhasa River as we neared the city of Lhasa.

IMG_2163.jpg

Posted by IvaS 01:16 Archived in China Tagged tibet Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]