Although we do have internet, the restrictions are even tighter than they were in the rest of China. We can’t access Photobucket – which we used to post our photos. The internet proxies we were using in the rest of China mysteriously stopped working upon our arrival in Tibet, too. We have since updated the posts to include photos.
Tibet is a beautiful place. And the train journey lived up to all the romantic impressions we had about Tibet.
Our Journey Across China Aboard the Highest Train in the World
We boarded our train in Beijing on April 1st. It took 44 hours and carried us across China up onto the Tibetan Plateau via Tanggu La, the highest railway pass in the world at 5072 metres.
The view from the train was incredible. The journey exceeds any romantic expectations of what you could imagine a train trip to Tibet to be. But no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t capture it on film. Vast open spaces, rolling hills and high mountains, herds of yak and sheep, temples and prayer flags dotting the landscape – Dear me, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more. At times, you just sit there, staring out the window in wonder at the fact that you’re on a train running at 120 km/h across permafrost… in Tibet.
Getting to the train was unexpectedly easy. It was suggested that we get to the train station at least an hour before departure because Beijing Xi (West) station is so big. We were also advised to leave for the station early because traffic is so bad in Beijing. We decided to give ourselves 2.5 hours to get to the station and find our departure platform. Despite heavy traffic, we arrived with 90 minutes left to find our waiting room and platform.
Nervously we entered the massive Beijing Xi station. It was chaos as people pushed and shoved through the entrance gates, dumping their bags onto the bed of an x-ray machine. But we persevered, and just got in there with everyone else, elbows up. We grabbed our bags off the conveyer belt and, throwing them on our backs, followed the crowd up the escalators to look for a departure board. You know, like the ones in an airport like Heathrow. Some sort of monitor that showed all arrivals and departures. What we found was a massive monitor — more like a stadium Jumbotron brightly lit in green Chinese characters. There were hundreds of trains listed, all in Chinese. We looked for our train, T27, to find our waiting room and platform. There it was!: Gate 11. Now to find Gate 11… There was gate 9 to our left, right beside 10 and there, immediately to our right, was gate 11! It took us exactly 10 minutes from taxi to waiting room. No problem.
As the departure time crept closer, and hundreds of people continued pouring into the waiting room – a giant hall that could comfortably seat 400 people – we counted just three other non-Chinese passengers. But, as our tour company explained, the Chinese government denied hundreds of permit applications. Eventually, we learned that there were about six lucky foreign travellers with permits for Tibet boarding the train in Beijing. No matter what happened from here on in, we couldn’t help but feel we’d won a lottery.
Two middle-aged Chinese couples sat beside us in waiting room. At one point, one of the women was pointing at Karen’s back pack, clearly making reference to us. We smiled. She stood up and patted Karen’s pack, indicating she wanted to try putting it on. She then pointed to her own suitcase — the standard kind with wheels and made a yucky face, waving her hand at it dismissively. She wanted to try Karen’s. Sure! But she was quite small, and Karen’s pack weights 20 kg. Many taxi drivers struggle to lift it out of the trunk. Scott tried to tell her to be careful of her back. How do you convey that with hand signals? But the woman just picked it up and threw it up on her back as if it was no heavier than the average Coach purse. Laughing, she marched around, telling her companions and her husband that she wanted a backpack instead of her luggage. Scott tried to take a photo but she suddenly got very shy – still you can see a blurry shot at the link below. It was the sweetest thing.
Boarding time. We found our car and cabin, and met the passengers we’d be sharing the cabin with: Elly, a fellow Canadian who lives in Vancouver, and who is Hong Kong-born. She was on a one month trip through China. And Dennis, a Dane (and a Great one at that) from Copenhagen who put his work on hold (he’s the owner of a Landscape business) so that he could travel for five months through Asia.
Together, the four of us had a very close-quartered opportunity to share the 44-hour soft-sleeper train journey through the amazing lands of China and Tibet.
So, what’s it like? It’s totally worth it. The sleeper car experience in Asia is something everyone should try. The view out the window is fascinating. With good cabin mates (like we had) it’s a lot of fun. The food is a wretched pile of suffering. Bring supplies. The Chinese totally stock up before getting on. They know what we noobs did not. We stocked up on sweets, but should have brought more noodle bowls and some bread. Oh, well. We survived just fine.
“He’s not sick, remember, he’s just gross…”
The view of life going past the windows (and past our cabin) was fascinating. The public health issues were not. Karen, the public health champion, was hyper vigilant. Lengthy train travel is a very efficient way to spread disease. Much worse than buses or airplanes. Door handles, the ‘kitchen’ and dining car, and just the sheer mass of people getting on and off a train carrying a plethora of bacteria and disease. But the bathrooms. Oh, dear god, the bathrooms. What has been seen, can’t be unseen. It was a horror show at times. You only need to read about Norwalk spreading like wildfire on Via Rail trains in Canada to understand Karen’s concern in China.
But there are two particular issues which ramp up the public health challenge of train travel in China: smoking and spitting.
Our neighbour in the sleeper next to ours was particularly fond of and skilled at both of these habits. He smoked continuously, and he had very loud, very deep horking sessions. God knows where the product of those sessions ended up… He had the weirdest cough-sneeze action we’ve ever encountered. It was “juicy,” almost tubercular. Karen was getting worried about “vectors of disease,” yada yada. But Scott simply reminded Karen of what was really going on. “Honey. He’s not sick, remember. He’s just gross. There’s a difference.”
The Chinese government is the main pusher of tobacco, with China Tobacco pulling in annual revenue that exceeds that of Big Oil. Wow. Therefore most people in China seem to smoke. And constantly. Everywhere you turn someone is lighting up. It’s almost impossible to get away from it. Although the train is non-smoking and smokers are asked to smoke in one small section of the train, near the door, they smoke in their rooms, in the dining car… anywhere, really. Rules here are just ignored. In Canada, if you smoke in a non-smoking area, there are heavy penalties. Not in China. Several small signs, politely asking people to not smoke. That’s the extent of enforcement. There are no consequences (other than one’s own early death). You just have to accept pathological chain smoking is also part of the experience of China. Allergic to cigarette smoke? Choose another country.
That brings us to spitting (and horking, etc). We believe it’s the rampant smoking (and pollution, as well), that underlies the spitting. Have a strong aversion to the sight and sound of horking? Choose another country.
Lhasa and the Beautiful Land of Tibet
So, after a long and mostly entertaining train ride, we arrived in Lhasa a little apprehensive, but also excited. We had been warned that permits here would be checked constantly. But when you get off the train at Lhasa Station (sorry, photos of the station are now illegal), you enter a very different world: the military presence is utterly overwhelming.
Our passports and Tibet travel permit scans were taken from us as we exited the train station. We were told to follow a uniformed soldier (they are all very polite) who did some checking and wanted us to take him to our tour guide (as proof we had one — foreigners cannot travel in Tibet without a tour guide). Thankfully, Chong Lha, our guide, was waiting for us, holding a sign with our names on it. Flashing a huge, charming smile, she took control immediately, showing the officer our permits and her credentials. Once the others from our small group were all collected together, we were each given a kata, the white scarf that is ubiquitous in Tibet, and greeted with “Tashi de le,” or welcome.
Piling into the minivan that would take us to our hotel, Chong Lha explained some of the rules in Tibet: no photos of police or military or their installations or buildings. Don’t talk about politics. Don’t ask questions about the Dalai Lama.
We spent our first day drinking water and resting in our hotel. Despite a relatively gradual increase in elevation over two days on the train, you feel the change in altitude. Like a bad hangover. Lhasa is at 3653m in elevation. And you feel it. You need time to adjust. Sleep and water and diamox help a lot. Our first real look at Lhasa would start the next day.