China - Lhasa, the Heart of Tibet

Lhasa, now more Chinese than Tibetan, still remains the timeless symbol of Tibet and its people.

Riding the Iron Dragon - The Trans-Tibet Train

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Sierra on June 7, 2008

Many years ago, a book by Paul Theroux named Riding the Iron Rooster fed not only my interest in China, but my desire to take a journey in China via train. My journeys through China took me on several trains, in fact; but the one I will always remember most is the Qinghai–Tibet railway - more commonly known outside of China as the Trans-Tibet Express.

The Qinghai–Tibet railway was completed in 2005 and opened to public use on July 1, 2006. The Chinese government has faced criticism over the construction, which ranged from socio-economic issues to environmental ones. Part of the train's path extends over hundreds of miles of "barely permanent" permafrost - that is, permafrost that has a top layer that partially thaws in the summer months. It presented a special engineering challenge, but special refridgerated support structures were built. People have also criticized it as a method to extend the iron dragon of Chinese influence into Tibet. (In 2008, it was announced that train service would be built towards the Indian and Nepalese borders; construction is expected to be completed around 2013.)

In addition to the controversy, however, there are also the benefits of the train: namely, it is easier to move supplies (including food and medicine) to the region, and it promotes tourism, which brings money to the region. And Tibet is proving a popular draw among both Chinese and foreigners.

The train cars are specially constructed, designed to have extra oxygen pumped through them for much of the journey, and to withstand the extra ultraviolet radiation at higher altitudes. More than 80% of the stretch from Golmud to Lhasa is at an altitude of over 4,000m (over 13,100 feet), including the Tanggula Pass, which at 5,072m (16,640 feet) is only 1,000 feet shy of the elevation of Everest Base Camp. The rail line not only claims the highest elevations but also the highest railway station in the world - Tanggular Mountain station, at 5,068 m. (The highest that passengers are allowed to step out for is NaQu, 4,526 m [14,850 ft]).

It is now possible to board trains to Tibet from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xining and Lanzhou. The journey from Beijing takes 48 hours. We took the evening train from Beijing, leaving from a station on the western side of the city around 9pm. All of China is on the same time zone, so although we would cross 2-3 time zones worth of territory in our trip, we would remain on Beijing time.

I was headed to Tibet with 14 other like-minded travelers on a G.A.P. Adventures tour called "Tibet Adventure". (Unfortunately, due to recent issues in Tibet, travel there is currently restricted; be sure to check current conditions before you go.) Our tour guide was originally from New Zealand; when we reached Lhasa, our group would gain a second, required local Tibetan guide who would remain with us until the Nepalese border.

There are found kinds of seating on the Trans-Tibet, just as there are on trains throughout China: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Soft sleeper is obviously the best, with only four beds per compartment and individual TV screens for each person. We were traveling the week of National Day, which meant the trains were packed, and we had hard sleeper - six beds per semi-private (no door) compartment. (Those riding in the top bunks told us that those bunks got very chilly at night, due to their proximity to the roof and the freezing outside temperatures at those elevations.)

Our group took up two full cabins and half the bunks in a third. Since the first half of the train's journey, from Beijing to Golmud, goes through more heavily populated areas of the country, you may find that your fellow passengers in your compartment change overnight. From Beijing to Xi'an, the trip was relatively uneventful; the train rolled through the darkness past rainy farmlands and factory towns. Our only cabin companion for that stretch was a 20-year-old Chinese girl who was a student in Beijing, on her way to Xi'an (elevation 1,330 feet) to visit friends and family during the National Day holiday week.

When she left at Xi'an the next morning, an older Chinese couple took the lower and middle bunks. The husband was clearly startled to find foreigners in the same compartment as he was in. His wife seemed nice; I think the woman thought I was traveling by myself since the other two from our group weren't usually in the cabin. So she gave me a piece of her pomegranate; and later, she gave me a whole one for myself. Somewhere between Xi'an and Golmud, our cabin was rounded out with a single Chinese guy, probably around 30, who had a bunch of boxes strapped up with tape, who quietly tucked his boxes under the bottom bunk, and spent his time either napping, or away from the cabin.

When the couple got off the train in Golmud at 5:15am, I was awake, so the woman bid me a warm "bye-bye!" and off they went, into the pre-dawn darkness.

Golmud's elevation is just over 9,200 feet, which means an average hourly elevation gain just over 560 feet per hour since leaving Xi'an. That might not sound like a lot, but you have definitely begun to feel it by then. I certainly felt it overnight; I had a dream in which I was in my house, caught in an earthquake and it was sliding downhill. I awoke, disorientated in the dark, to the rattling and shaking of the train, trying to figure out if I was, in fact, in an earthquake or still on the train.

The second day on the train is truly spectacular. Near Golmud, it is rather flat; but as dark breaks over the train, you roll into gentle, cocoa-colored mountains. Because you are so far west, but the whole country still is on the same time zone, the sun comes up around 7:30-7:45am.

From there on out, it is impossible to stay away from the windows. Wide-open steppe rolls away to meet rounded hills. Every so often you get a glimpse of distant snow-capped mountain peaks between the hills. Much of this countryside - close to the desert lands of Inner Mongolia - is desolate, with only the occasional couple of yaks or sheep to break the monotony. There are sometimes roads, and you seldomly glimpse a truck or bus or lonely car. Once we spotted a car that had broken down by the roadside, with two guys sitting beside it, waiting for the next vehicle to pass by to give them a ride.

The views are awesome... rust-red hills giving way to more chocolate-colored ones, frosted with snow as we passed into the higher elevation. Skies so clear and bright as to seem unreal; lakes shimmering on the ground like magic mirrors embedded in the soft mustard-yellow and olive-green lichens.

I have to admit I spent far more of this trip asleep or laying down than I thought I would have. I never had much issue with altitude, either at school in Colorado, or any time I went skiing. But then, I wasn't at 14,000+ feet, either, and much of this train ride between Golmud and Lhasa is spent nearly three miles high.

To fight off elevation sickness, you have to drink water - and lots of it. Most of us had boarded the train with three days worth of instant soups, fruit and water bottles. (There is also a dining car available.)

As a result, I also had to use the bathroom way, way more often than I would have liked on the train; you could've set your watch by my regular 90-minute trip down the passageway. There are only "Western-style" toilets in the soft sleeper cars; the rest have "squatter" models. The train personnel are also very strict about checking tickets of passengers who want into the soft sleeper cars! Let's just say that by the time we rolled into Lhasa, the squatter-style toilet had become old hat.

I spent all the hours of the last day on the train gazing out the window, at the lovely mountainous countryside, with farmlands lining either side of the tracks, lakes, the barren plateaus. Big herds of yaks, occasionally sheep or goats, and colorfully dressed Tibetans occasionally appeared alongside the tracks, but at our speed, they and their small settlements quickly disappeared. The final miles, we followed a winding river valley into Lhasa. A bruise-colored sunset gave us a spectacular welcome as we pulled into Lhasa.

In some ways, it was a surreal journey - leaving the modern, neon-lined bustle of Beijing, crossing fantastic and sometimes somewhat archaic countryside, and then emerging two nights later into the half-Tibetan, half-Chinese Lhasa.

Our Tibetan guide greeted us at the station with beautiful smiles and white khata scarves (also known as Jael-dhar) for each of us. Tashi dalek - good luck and welcome to Tibet!

Getting Petted at the Potala

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Sierra on July 15, 2008

Or, How I Learned To Laugh About Myself Under Scrutiny From The Locals

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Until recent times, Lhasa was the gateway to the Tibetan frontier. Today, travelers usually come into Tibet either through Lhasa or Chengdu, to the southeast; but Lhasa has the far more romantic draw to it.

The Chinese have made Lhasa their own, however, as hundreds of thousands of settlers have moved west to this city in the sky, and today, you are probably more likely to see signs in Chinese than Tibetan script. The city could almost have a clear line drawn through it as well, differentiating the older Tibetan sections of the city from the new Chinese sections.

In the center of the city, the Potala Palace (in Tibetan, Budala Gong) still rises proud and serene; but the Chinese have turned it into a museum. While still holding religious significance, it feels strangely empty – perhaps because its rightful denizen, the Dalai Lama, is in exile. It has been restored and looks as beautiful and regal as ever, reminding every visitor about the city’s – and the region’s – history and religion.

Across the street, the Chinese created a vast, flat cement plaza (now called Potala Square) dominated with a memorial to Communism or the motherland or something. To anybody who knows their Tibetan history, it seems incongruous to have the bastion of Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese flags waving at its feet.

Lhasa sits along a river valley, ringed by mountains. The air here is thin and still relatively clean by Chinese standards, with plenty of sunshine and great views. The Potala is the most potent reminder of Lhasa’s past; but certainly not the only one. I spent a lot of time walking around Lhasa, as we had a few days there to acclimatize ourselves to the thin Tibetan atmosphere. I was enthralled by the city, and would readily return to spend far more time exploring it.

In the case of the Potala, you want to get there early; tickets (¥100, about $15) are available on a limited, first-come, first serve basis, and you are given a specific time to return to enter; the tickets are often gone as early as 11 am. You climb to the top – somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 to 15 stories’ worth of climbing, so hit that Stairmaster before you go! – and then work your way down. An average visit takes 1-2 hours, depending on time of day, and how crowded it is at a given time.

Since I was having trouble adjusting to the altitude (it was only our second day there), I did not climb the Potala, although the rest of my group did. One of my group mates expressed disappointment that they really didn’t get to see as much as they thought they would, and they had to move through faster then they would have liked – plus, there are almost no locations within the Potala where you are allowed to take pictures, including on the roof, unless you have special permission.

Instead of climbing the Potala, I opted instead for doing the Potala’s kora, the traditional clockwise prayer route around a site of religious importance. Every monastery and temple in Tibet has this route; some are truly spectacular, such as Shigatze’s, which climbs the side of the mountain behind the monastery.

The Potala’s route is flat, but it is almost entirely ringed by prayer wheels. The devout will spin every wheel, or do the kora in the traditional prostrated fashion; but most of the people I saw walking the path were spinning their own personal prayer wheel and only occasionally spinning the larger ones that lined the route.

There’s a park behind the Potala, with a lake and a lot of trees – depending on what map you're looking at, it's called either Liberation Park, Jiefang Gongyuan, or on the map I had, Zang Gyab Lukhang. On an interesting side note, the lake in the park was formed when water filled the hole where dirt was removed to build the Potala. In early autumn, it was really quite lovely, with the trees’ leaves turning to shades of gold. If you have ever seen the pictures of the Potala rising above a lake, those pictures were taken from this park.

Unfortunately, although that particular view was a picture I had intended to take, I completely forgot about them due to other things that happened to me in this park!

It was actually my second walk in the park, but it was mid-morning on a Sunday and surprisingly busy, and I was a bit aware of the fact that I was taller than most of the people I walked past. The Tibetans, like the Chinese, will blatantly stare when something catches their attention, and despite Lhasa’s rise as a tourist attraction, foreigners still stand out. Especially somebody like me – a redheaded, plus-size Western woman - and I had attracted stares, gawking, and even requests for photographs across China.

The Tibetans are generally slender and fit; like the Chinese, it is unusual to see an overweight or even stocky person among the citizens. (The introduction of a Western diet has begun to change this, however.) But their Buddha images are often portly, with cherubic faces.

Where the Chinese might have stared or even giggled at a person that they find unusual, the Tibetans have no embarrassment over touching somebody they don’t even know, to confirm for themselves things like hairy arms, beards, blonde or red hair, or in my case, broad hips and an (ahem) curvaceous derriere and thighs.

Imagine my surprise as I was walking through the park, and somebody suddenly grabbed my butt! I looked over in shock to find a grinning Tibetan man. I chastised him with a gentle "No!" and a wag of my finger, which he found hilarious. "Bad boy!" I added, not assuming he spoke English, but wanting to get the message across that it wasn’t polite to grab somebody’s butt without warning!

"Bad boy!" he repeated with a laugh, then coyly reached out and give my butt another squeeze before darting away. "Bad boy!"

Not even fifteen minutes later, I was elsewhere in the park, when a Tibetan woman fell into step beside me and began chatting at me in Tibetan. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had some concern, so I nodded and smiled and then she reached out and began patting my thigh and hip repeatedly, laughing a little and continuing her talking.

At this point, I really didn’t know what to say, I was so floored! I smiled brightly, and tried to reassure her that despite my weight, I was healthy and feeling okay. She kept walking with me, still patting my thigh, and talking, and I began to wonder if she was going to follow me all the way around the Potala. She finally gave me a few more pats on the hip, and then waved goodbye to me with a little laugh, and walked off.

Those two wouldn’t be the last to pat my hindquarters as we made our way across Tibet, either, but more on that later.

Despite the butt-touching and the blatant stares, I loved the park and found myself back there a few times. It was very relaxing to sit by the lake and reflect, or to watch the devout walking the kora route, turning the prayer wheels.

Besides, the best thing you can bring back from a vacation are outstanding memories - and I can tell you that I will not soon forget my experiences in Lhasa!

© LP 2000-2009