train to the roof of the world

jokhang temple lhasa tibetIntrepid’s Tara Kennaway has spent a fair portion of her life on trains, both in her role as a tour leader in Russia (multiple Trans Siberian laps!) and in her own travels. So she’s decidedly qualified to judge the T27 from Beijing to Lhasa, and what a train journey to Tibet it turns out to be…

“I can say that this is definitely the nicest, cleanest and most modern train I’ve travelled on by far! Clearly built and planned with the tourist traveller in mind, the soft sleeper cabins are spacious and beds actually soft. Toilets, one western, one squatter, are regularly restocked with toilet paper (imagine!) and whether it is that the carriage is not so full or the passengers observe some kind of reverence for the journey they are taking, the sink area seems to be remarkably spittle free.

Inside the compartment I have the choice of a wheat husk pillow or a plush one, a TV screen at the end of my bed (which I’m unlikely to watch as it shows scenes of Tibet and Mr & Mrs Smith in Chinese on a loop), a reading light, ample storage space and, another luxury for those used to Russian trains, a power socket IN the compartment. No hanging out in the corridor with your phone swinging suspended from the shaver socket near the roof or having to plead with a provodnitsa for a recharge!

A display at the end of the corridor welcomes me to the train, informs me of the next stop, the time and date in sequence. From the loudspeaker I can choose to listen to announcements telling me facts and tips about Tibet in Chinese and English. Apparently I should be aware of plateau pulmonary blood restrictions, don’t touch or chase lamas and not to worry, because Tibetans don’t eat dogs, donkeys, cats, frogs or snakes. I switch it off.

We roll out of the Beijing West Train Station in the evening. It will be around 45 hours from here to Lhasa. My compartment companions are three Americans, two who live in Bangkok and a son. They are well-travelled, worldly and friendly, offering me candy and yak jerky at regular intervals.

Night time, a busy week behind me, so I go off to sleep quite quickly. It’s a comfortable night and even though I wake up a few times I just realize how comfortable I am and that I would like to go back to sleep and I do. Sleeping on a train is always filled with that blissful sense of achieving something without even trying. Close your eyes in one place and open then 1000km away, no effort expended.

I sleep through the stop in Xi’an as I’ve been there many times already, but wake up later to watch the landscape panorama past the window for the rest of the morning. The sky is grey, mottled with damp clouds. When we pass the provincial towns the grey seeps to the ground adding to the already grey, soot covered buildings (this is coal territory) and the monotone of the railway workers clothes and expressions. But in the rural areas the same sky provides a backdrop for the colours below: red earth crumbling from hills like soft cake; green fields of fat cabbages bursting out of their leaves; vibrant yellow corn cobs laid out to dry on rooftops.

The train seems to travel dead straight. No weaving around mountains or following the curves of valleys. Instead we plummet directly into the dense mountainsides, sometimes tunnelling through for minutes at a time. Brief spurts of daylight before boring our way back through the next. I imagine the workers who constructed the tunnels emerging from the darkness after weeks inside with relief, only to be confronted with another mountain leering at them only metres away, also expecting to be tunnelled through.

We stop in Lanzhou, the cross roads of journeys along the Silk Road and the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. In the book I am reading (Shadows of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron) the author is also here. He spends more than the few minutes I do on the platform but is greeted by the same sparkle of snow, the same impression of an ancient city still at the crossroads but wiped of its antiquity by industry and progress.

Before nightfall we reach Xining. How can I know so little about this immense city? What is fuelling this gigantic growth spurt that is spreading suburbs of towering apartment blocks, hundreds of them under construction, far from the city centre, whole swathes of land being prepared for more? Surely they are not future homes for the Tibetans who as soon as the train stops swarm from the station with shuffling steps. They are burdened by babies strapped to backs, layers of clothing concealing bundles of possessions, more boxes and packages carried on shoulders and heads. It’s impossible to guess what is inside by their shapes. They head to the general seating carriage en mass, jostling excitedly, seemingly happy to be on the move, finding fun in trying to squeeze through the same door at once although fiercely competitive over grabbing the best spot once inside. They are clearly of another time and place, nothing about them meshes with the modernity of the train or the sleek glass and tile of the station where they spilled from. But I’m travelling the same journey as they are, that much we have in common. And I’m sure I’ll learn more about their land and culture when we finally disembark together in Tibet.

I’d been told by others who have taken this journey that the second night on the train is hard to sleep, that I was likely to have strange, vivid dreams and wake up during the night with my heart racing to catch up with the altitude. But in fact I sleep better than the first night and when I do wake up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet my breath is taken away not by the lack of oxygen but by the incredible views outside. Passing by the large compartment window as if on a movie screen is a greyscale landscape illuminated by a subtle moonlight. Lush snow settles on black cliffs like a fur ruff on a winter coat. Snow sweeps down slopes almost vertically towards the tracks, on the next mountain topping a jagged peak, on the next a lacework of patterns. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is shadow from the snowy mountains and what is simply negative space. We glide, almost soundlessly across this spectrum of every shade between black and white, a colourless picture but perhaps all the more evocative for being so. We enter a tunnel so unbelievably long I’m not sure if my senses have been suspended.

In the morning the snow has faded to a dusting on the mountainsides in the distance and on each side of the train spreads a wide, brown grassland complemented by terracotta foothills. There’s a speckling of grazing yaks, sheep and goats and the occasional punctuation of lakes and streams. Where the water reflects the sky it is a deep, rich, blue, deeper than the reality of the sky which is a cloudless azure like the dome on a mosque. This same landscape, only sparsely populated by clusters of brick village houses, treeless and vast, accompanies us nearly all the way to Lhasa.

We eat lunch today in the dining car where only a set meal of yesterday’s leftovers is available. The waitress tells us it’s impossible to fry food given the altitude. As we watch the afternoon slip past the railway tracks we have occasional visits from Tibetans, just looking in, curious and quiet, inquisitive but not intrusive.

We roll into Lhasa’s mammoth new train station, bulky and square against the angles and curves of the mountain ranges to the north and south and we tumble off the train. We blink in the bright sunlight, breathe in the clear, sparse air and have arrived, finally, in Tibet’s holiest city.”

Tour China and Tibetwith Intrepid on trips like this great small group adventure:
Mountains and Monasteries – 18 days Beijing to Kathmandu

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* photo by Daniel Elsner – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Christian Friborg / Reply

When I went to the Philippines, I’ve tried riding on top of a jeepney! Great scenery, fresh air, clear sky, sun against my skin, what an amazing experience.

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