Since China launched the first train service to Tibet in July 2006, the Qinghai – Tibet Railway has carried thousands of awestruck tourists across the excruciatingly beautiful Tibetan Plateau. Considered an impressive feat of modern engineering, the railway was built despite the technical difficulties of building on permafrost, not to mention the challenges of constructing at high altitude and concerns surrounding environmental impact.
Known as the world’s highest railway, the Qinghai – Tibet Railway runs through the Tanggula Pass which at 5072m (16,640 feet) above sea level, literally makes your head spin due to the effects of altitude. Extending 1956km, the railway has 675 bridges, 10 tunnels, (two of which are the highest and the longest in the world) and specially designed carriages that pump in more oxygen, much to the relief of all its light-headed passengers.
Although miraculous in its achievements, not everyone is impressed. Pro-Tibetan groups see the railway as a political knife, slicing through the heart of what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region, in an attempt to dismantle its unique culture and quash any hope of independence. The Chinese Government on the other-hand remains adamant that the railway brings prosperity to the Tibetan region, claiming the increase in tourism and trade benefits a struggling Tibetan economy. With Chinese migrants now outnumbering Tibetans, Lhasa’s unique charm slowly being chiselled away and the presence of an imposing railway through a once untouched and fragile wilderness – it remains to be seen whether Tibetans have benefitted at all.
In the meantime, although politics constantly hovered in the air, Asad and I had other things on our mind.
It was 7.30am and we had just arrived at Lanzhou after catching the midnight train from Zhangye where we had seen the amazing Danxia landforms. Having had only four hours of fitful sleep, we were exhausted. To make matters worse, we had five hours to kill before boarding the train to Lhasa. Nevertheless, despite the fatigue, we were excited! This was going to be the start of our final adventure. An epic train journey across the rooftop of the world, followed by eight days in Tibet and a walk across the Friendship Bridge back to Nepal, where we’d started our travels so many months ago.
Lanzhou was surprisingly developed. We were greeted by the usual Chinese construction of imposing high-rise buildings. There was a heavy military presence and as we sipped our coffee in one of the many fast-food chains, we watched groups of army personnel march too and fro, machine guns at the ready. There had been a serious of mass stabbings at railway stations in Kunming and Guangzhou, where knife-wielding gangs had gone on an indiscriminate stabbing rampage, killing many. As a result security had been tightened all over China.
Five hours later and we joined the swarm of people scrambling to get on the train. A mixture of Tibetans, some nomadic in appearance, Buddhist monks in burgundy robes, Chinese business men and of course tourists. We were among the handful of western tourists. We boarded the train, showing the ticket and Tibet permit to the conductor and headed for our hard-sleeper compartment. Hoping to get a lower berth so that we could sleep and sit in relative comfort, we looked at our tickets only to realise that it wasn’t meant to be. I had the top bunk (again) and Asad had the middle. Oh well, I thought, trying not to let fatigue turn to irritation, it’s going to be another night of staring at a ceiling inches away from my face!
The train rolled out of the station and away from the urban sprawl of Lanzhou. There was little to do but sit back and enjoy the view. The carriage was narrow, with the beds taking up the majority of the room. With only two window seats outside of each compartment, we made sure we claimed them. Armed with my camera I didn’t want to miss out on the amazing views that were yet to come. The landscape from Lanzhou, said to be one of the most polluted cities in China, had started off grey and industrial, changing to mountainous sandstone with layers of varying terracotta hues. Rural scenery unfolded slowly before our eyes but was tainted by industrial chimneys belching out black smoke and vast bridges that cut through mountains. The speed of construction was visibly shocking. Climbing higher we saw temples masked by block rectangular buildings and high-rises. It seemed the ancient ways were being wiped out at an immeasurable rate. Once in a while a minaret would glisten in the sun. A silent signal competing for recognition against the cacophony of communistic development. Mountains lay broken and crumbling, ravaged by development that revealed layers of cretaceous history. Cities were being built whether anyone liked it or not.
A curious walk through the train several hours later revealed various classes of accommodation. Business men lounged on soft sleepers, two of the second class carriages were full of army personnel. They eyed us as we walked through, young men with blank expressions. Some stern. It was all too serious for us so we decided to break the ice and said “Ni Hao” to everyone as we walked past. After that the serious faces dissolved into laughter and lots of hello’s. Some sniggered like school boys, showing their age whilst others eyed us curiously. China had been confused by our British accents and Asian features. We called ourselves “Yingguo” or British, if anyone asked where we were from. It was like the penny dropped when we said that word only to be followed by a confused look when they pointed to our hair or skin. They were curious about our origins. Asad said we were foreign foreigners!
We headed back to our compartment and chatted with our jolly room mates. Middle-class Chinese tourists excited about travelling to Lhasa. Somehow we managed to hold a conversation thanks to their English being better than our attempt at Chinese that drew squeals of laughter from the girls and confused looks from the guys. The Lonely Planet phrase book wasn’t working! For some reason they thought we were university professors – how nice!
It was getting dark. A trip to the hot water dispenser to fill up some pots of noodles sufficed as dinner. I scrambled onto my top bunk that night in an attempt to sleep and looked down at Asad. He looked as if he was fast asleep, but then opened one eye and looked at me, smiling. We would be travelling through the Tanggula Pass that night and I thought to myself, I’d be higher than Asad when we’d pass through it! I wondered when the symptoms of altitude sickness were going to hit us. We’d been okay so far.
Morning revealed glorious sunshine in an achingly beautiful blue sky and the start of a headache. After reaching 16,640 feet during the night, it was inevitable that being catapulted this high and so quickly was going to have an effect on us. We drank as much water as we could. Brushing my teeth in the open wash basins with other people was a revelation. I’d left my self-conscious self behind in the UK and adapted pretty well to washing in public. We did this a lot during our trek in Nepal. There was a lot of clearing of throats and spitting which we’d become accustomed to. I understood why they did it. Asia was pretty polluted. The trip to the toilets that now overflowed and sloshed around wasn’t so great and involved hiking up my trousers and tiptoeing around with a look of horror on my face. Everyone else seemed amused. I hated wet floors. A tinned can of coffee did the trick in waking us up and as we sat by the window, nature unfolded before our eyes to remind us why it should have remained untouched.
The landscape revealed a smooth carpet of greenery. Sheep dotted the hillsides – stone walls reminiscent of an English countryside. Nomadic herders watched as the train passed by, their Yaks grazing on the greenery. I’d watched scenes like this on TV and never thought I’d see it for myself. It was like watching a documentary. Faded prayer flags attached to nomadic tents or rocks fluttered in the wind. A reminder of Gods presence. Passing through a station we spotted a guard who saluted the train until it rolled away and we couldn’t see him anymore. Eagles drew large circles in the sky and I almost dropped my camera in amazement as what I thought was a Tibetan fox revealed itself among the camouflage of browns and ochre that made up the colours of the vast plains. We all pressed our faces to the windows in awe.
Huge mountains ranges now came into sight. A magical fantasy of nature. Meringues dusted with icing sugar. Set against a beautiful sky, it felt surreal. A dreamlike vision. We breathed it all in – each and every moment of it.
When we thought we’d seen it all, we travelled past Namtso Lake, the largest salt lake in Tibet. Surrounded by huge mountains it literally took our breath away!
By midday we were withering away. My headache had gotten worse. Having had just only a few hours sleep that night and the night before, we were again exhausted. Oh well, we only had four more hours to get through! The lack of space was beginning to get to us and I just wanted to get off the train and run across the plateau! Luckily the train stopped at Nagqu station for five minutes and we got off thankful for some “air” and space before the guard ushered us back on again.
By now altitude sickness was affecting many on the train. A walk through the train revealed a lot of people were ill. Some vomited in the wash basins, whilst others sprawled lethargic on floors as they probably could only afford standing tickets. A young Chinese girl came up to me and asked if she could have my bed to sleep in as she wasn’t feeling well. She looked pale and we could tell she had a headache from hell. I of course obliged as suddenly a trickle of blood appeared from her nose. That’s when I got worried. Several rolls of tissue later and a consoling hug, she flaked out on the bed then reappeared looking much better. We opened the oxygen outlets and breathed deeply trying to ignore the smell of cigarette smoke secretly coming from the toilets! The human body was not meant to climb so high and so quickly.
Four hours rolled by pretty quickly and before we knew it we had arrived in Lhasa.
Asad and I are both lovers of train journeys and this was certainly an experience. It was so different to some of the other train journey’s we’d taken throughout South East Asia. It’s obviously a modern spectacle so lacks the nostalgia associated with the past. A lot of what we saw from the window actually felt like the past being slowly erased. That aside, it was an unforgettable experience. We met some great people and saw some of the worlds most outstanding scenery.
In the end, the railway is an amazing example of modern Chinese engineering. However, I can’t help but think that it comes at a cost, not only to the cultural and religious independence of Tibet but also to the sanctity of the fragile environment that is the Tibetan Plateau. Like the thousands of light-headed passengers, perhaps skyrocketing to these altitudes for the sake of modern development and political investment, may in the end prove to be a headache the government just can’t get rid of.
We booked the tickets through China DIY. The website is run by an expat couple who live in China and make the process of booking transport so easy. In fact we used them for all our travel in China and thoroughly recommend them to anyone.
Useful tips for the train journey
1) Drink plenty of water before and during the train journey to help with any symptoms of altitude sickness
2) Read up about altitude sickness and consult your doctor if you’re not sure of anything. At the start of the journey you will be given a form to fill which basically clears the staff of any responsibility if you are seriously sick. I thought this website gave a good explanation about altitude.
3) Bring plenty of toilet roll and wet wipes. The toilets start off clean but quickly turn into a living nightmare
4) Bring lots of snacks for when you get hungry. There is a restaurant carriage on the train but for some reason there wasn’t much food available, other than noodles.
5) Last but not least – enjoy the view!