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!