05.06.2013 - 23.06.2013 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.
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.
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.
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.