When the teenage girl walked down the train corridor towards me, stopped, and lent up against my carriage door, all I could think of to say was a quiet ‘hello’. The response was unexpected as her eyes rolled back in her head and she toppled backwards onto the floor like a sack of potatoes with a resounding thump. I guessed we must have reached 16.640 feet!
I was traveling on the highest train in the world from Beijing, China, to the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa, and altitude sickness, ( headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fainting ) was apparently common.I picked up the stricken girl, carried her to her parents compartment at the end of the car, and instructed them on usage of the provided "individual diffuser" contraption issued to us by the conductors,( a small tube with a nosepiece that pugs into outlets by your seat/bed and throughout the train) Once the fallen teenager had had a good dose of 40% oxygen from said outlet, the color returned again to her rosy cheeks.
I had boarded this engineering marvel in Beijing the previous day, ready for the 1.215 mile journey across China and climbing up and over the Tunggula Pass reaching altitudes equal to some commuter jet flights, before dropping ‘down’ into Lhasa at a mere 15.000 feet. It was a journey I had always dreamed of doing, listed as one of the top 10 train rides in the world, and a final destination I had only imagined ever seeing.
At the last moment, at the colossal Beijing Railway Station I opted for luxury and upgraded my "hard sleeper" ticket to the more comfortable sounding "soft sleeper". I was relieved to have done so when I boarded in the usual controlled chaos typical of the 1.2 billion populated China. As I explored the train I realized the ‘’hard sleeper consisted of 6 (soft) bunks crammed in a small compartment with no door to the corridor, giving the whole carriage a general dormitory feel, which I discovered once we were underway, also became a meeting/sleeping/card playing area for the hundreds of Han Chinese making the journey. My "soft sleeper’ was relative luxury, consisting of a much more recognizable cabin with 4 beds (2 seats and a 2 bunks that could be dropped down at night), a lockable door, a small table on which stood the ubiquitous thermos flask to hold your hot water for tea and noodles. I settled in with my fellow passengers in the carriage, mainly travelers like myself, wealthy local businessmen, and the occasional Chinese Government official, for the 3 day, 2 night journey on the highest train in the world.
This train had been a dream of the Chinese leadership for years, with the first lines completed in 1979, a 500 mile stretch from Xining in Western China to Golmud at the base of the Kunlun Mountains. It was not until 2001 that a prosperous China returned to the hardest stage of the project. It took over 5 years, cost $ 3.2 billion, used 100,00 workers to lay 700 miles of track over some of the most extreme and harsh geography in the world. Unbelievably most of this section runs over perma frost, and a varied system of cooling experimental systems under the tracks to keep that perma frosty.
As I explored the train it became clear why this one of a kind train had become such a controversial project, with many opposing its building and subsequent use. It was easy to see as I moved down the train past the chaos, cooking and chatting of the ‘hard sleeper cars into the main bulk of carriages that made up 80% of the train. The 3rd class, or ‘hard seat’ cars were packed full of Han Chinese, with huge bags, trunks, tarpaulin wrapped bundles, whole families, it seemed like whole villages were on the move, and they obviously had a one way ticket. It was clear that the critics were right in accusing the Chinese of using the train to populate Tibet with vast numbers of Chinese, and as a result marginalise the Tibetan people in their own country.
After the first day of travel all across China, watching from either the large window in my compartment , or the neat little pull down seat in the corridor, giving you the opposing view, I headed to the restaurant car for dinner. This was already packed and it was obvious that the Chinese ‘Maitre d’ would decide who would, or would not eat anything that night. After 20 minutes we were all politely ‘cleared ‘from the restaurant as a very important Party Official and his entourage wanted to eat, and they obviously liked to do that alone. After a dinner of the local ‘on the go’ diet of pot noodles, prepared having filled my thermos with scalding hot water from a faucet by the sinks and restrooms( western and Chinese varieties) at the end of the car. I fell asleep to the blissful sound and rocking that only a train can provide as it ambled its way up and over the Tunggula Pass.
When I awoke on the second day at 5.00 am I was on another planet. I have been lucky enough to see some spectacular views around the world, but the sun rising through the mist on the Tibetan Plateau is one that I will never forget. It was like something I have never seen or imagined, truly a different world of such never ending vastness and opennes. The Tibetan Plateau is said to be the size of Western Europe and much of it and the mountain ranges of Altyn Tugh surrounding it are still unexplored. It feels so remote and cut off, and occasionally, literally in the middle of nowhere you see a family of Khampas (Tibetan nomad Yak herders) sitting chatting / eating/smiling and waving at the passing train.
or even more extraordinary a solitary soldier, standing to immaculate attention as the pride of China whizzes by. It was here that the conductor handed out our ‘individual diffusers’ as we were now at the highest point on this incredible journey, 16.642 feet, a mere 1000 ft less than Everest base camp!
The plateau continued to hypnotize and surprise as the day went by, beautiful and ever changing., littered with small Stupas( round temples ) and multicolored prayer flags.That night I was one of the chosen few in the dining car and had a luxurious dinner watching the sunset on this mythical view, before returning to my compartment and falling asleep looking at the clearest and closest night sky I have ever experienced. The following day we would be in Lhasa, and a new adventure would begin. It had been an unforgettable journey, and the perfect preparation, not only in altitude acclimatization, but also in giving me a taste of the culture and geography to one of the most magical places on the roof of the world
Book rail tickets through a China Based Government Sanctioned agency such as CITS.
They will charge a handling fee etc., but it is almost impossible to buy tickets yourself at the station. This is no normal train.
Ticket prices as of Jan 2010
Soft Sleeper - $158
Hard Sleeper -$102
Hard Seat - $ 51
All prices are one way.
You will also need to apply Tibetan Travel Permit in China ($ 55.00 ), but it is recommend to sign up for a tour within Tibet, and the tour operator will organize all travel permits depending on which region you are traveling.
If you have time it is recommended to take advantage of the train stops across China .
Pingyao- a rare example of a Chinese City that still has its original ancient perimeter wall
Xian - This is the nearest city to the famous Terra-cotta Army, on display just north of city.