Tibet has reopened after a month’s closure to tourists. Fionnuala McHugh reports on a railway journey of more than 4,000 miles that is now possible again – all the way from Hong Kong (Hong Kong travel is an indispensable when visiting China) to Lhasa.
It takes two trains to get from Hong Kong to Lhasa – to go from China’s Special Administrative Region in the south to its Tibetan Autonomous Region in the far west. Of course you can fly – also two separate journeys – but the last time I flew to Beijing, a month earlier, the front page of China Daily was reporting the previous evening’s plane crash in Heilongjiang (42 dead).
Inside the paper, there were details of a nine-day traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway: truck drivers sat on the road in the August heat, playing cards and eating instant noodles, exactly as if they had been on a Chinese train, except no one was going anywhere.
And so I took the T98 from Hong Kong to Beijing (which is the hot and must-see city for China tour deals) (1,550 miles/2,475km – in 23 hours and 30 minutes), in order to take the T27 from Beijing to Lhasa (2,540m/4,064km – in 45 hours and eight minutes). It was September, autumn in China’s north, yet still so humid in Hong Kong that the mainlanders fanned themselves as they waited to board at Kowloon station, and in my four-berth soft sleeper a young woman produced a colourful box labelled “Body Dampness Expelled Granules”.
Her name was Susie, from Beijing, and she had been staying with relatives in Hong Kong, “Such a Western city,” she said. “Different from China.”
But our fellow passengers – two Turkish women, a mother and grown-up daughter, who were stuffing bags and suitcases into every corner of the compartment as if arranging dumplings in a steamer – said, “To us, Hong Kong is very Chinese.”
Shortly afterwards, before the leaves had settled to the bottom of my first cup of green tea, as we crossed the Shenzhen river that officially separates Hong Kong from the rest of China, Susie said, looking out of the window, “Different atmosphere!”
It’s true. Immediately, the giant neon words on the skyline shift shape (Hong Kong still uses the traditional characters that, after 1949, Mao simplified in the rest of China), the traffic jams are on the opposite side of the road, men squat along the platforms coddling cigarettes, and the sky turns a powdery grey. We were on a through-train, so there was no immigration halt at the frontier; but the Chinese border had emphatically announced itself.
Everyone changed into the free slippers, and I shook out a map – printed by 1206 Factory of the People’s Liberation Army – that I had bought in a foreign-language bookstore years ago. Over in the west, there was a long, red, dotted line running south through black dots (for desert) and blue dashes (for swamps), from Nanshankhou to Lhasa (holy and most-visited travel city for China best tours). Railway Under Construction, said the legend. You could look at that geological Morse code and think, it’ll take for ever. But the line was finished in 2006.
I pointed to Lhasa. The Turkish women smiled and nodded. Tibet, however, was thousands of miles away, ungraspable; they were more interested in learning about Susie. What personal freedoms, for example, did she have? Could she talk freely about human rights? Susie looked alarmed.
“I am just the home person!” she cried. “I go to my work; in the evenings I am with my family. I don’t know about these things.”
Then what, asked the Turkish mother, did Chinese people think of the Turkish people? Susie had mentioned that she had studied business administration in Sydney. Now she said, “I meet some Armenians in Australia, when they talk about Turkey they always use this word” – she hesitated, then said – “massacre? To do with killing?”Leyla, the daughter, repeated this rapidly in Turkish. After that, her mother spoke for a long time, quivering a little, about statistics and historical truth, while China’s21st-century metropolises got on with slicing and thrusting their way past, in sunlit flashes of steel and glass.
By late afternoon, despite air-conditioning, that sun was toasting our compartment. What with the net curtains and antimacassars and fake flowers, and the female attendants who accessorise their military look with big navy bows in their hair, intercity train travel in China can resemble an unusual cross between the set of Upstairs, Downstairs and a Fifties Sino-propaganda film; in the T98’s dining-car, the waitresses marched indignantly to and fro in frilly aprons, like parlourmaids trained by the People’s Liberation Army.
“How is gender equality in China?” asked Leyla, as she perused the photographs on the menu, trying to decide what looked least like pork. I said Mao had famously stated that women hold up half the sky (although you only have to glance at official photographs of Chinese state-gatherings to realise that any female sky-holding is mostly being done offstage) and Leyla said her impression was that Chinese women weren’t threatened by lustful men. “I don’t feel I would be hassled.”
And that’s one of the pleasures of Chinese trains, especially for a foreign woman travelling alone. On the whole, it feels as safe and as sociable as a sleepover with people whose names you just don’t happen to know. It is a happy experience for my popular China tours.
Later, I changed into my pyjamas and wandered up and down the corridor. There was a six-day-old baby in the compartment next to ours, tightly wrapped in a pink blanket and laid out in the middle of the lower bunk like a delicious offering of dim sum; there was a ring of cardplayers two compartments along, laughing and groaning over piles of yuan; there was a line of teeth-brushers and hawkers and spitters in the washrooms; there were early snorers and late snackers.
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