After I had gingerly filled my Thermos with boiling water at the end of the corridor, I got into bed. The pillowcase and quilt rustled in a way that suggested satisfactory laundering. The train ran on through the powerful dark outside. A film about Mao’s Long March was being shown on a small screen at the end of the bunk.
“Gu Yue,” remarked Susie, from the next berth, pointing to the actor who had made an entire career (84 films) out of playing Mao. We agreed that the resemblance was remarkable.
By dawn, in Henan province (which houses many historical and cultural sites for China vacation deals), there was fog lying on fields of harvested corn that might have been painted by Monet – if Monet had included gigantic pylons and the shadow of a pulsating horizon in his landscapes. After we crossed the Yellow River, into China’s heartland, people sprouted so close to the railway that when a mother fanned a child vigorously on her doorstep I blinked.
“Small factories,” Susie remarked, at Cixian. They had been sprawling for mile after dusty mile along the line while we chatted on our bunks.
She had enjoyed Sydney for a decade. But had returned home to her parents, with a daily commute of several hours by bus through Beijing’s traffic. When I asked why she had returned, Susie simply said, “I don’t want to be alone.”
The T98 reached Beijing West station on the dot of 2.50pm. We had lived together for 24 hours; and within minutes of exiting, we had dispersed into our separate lives.
I picked up my Tibetan permit from Wilson, of China Travel Services, who stated, “I think Tibet gives you the best impression of China.” I asked Wilson if he had been to Tibet and he said not yet, he would prefer to visit Hong Kong (learn more via Hong Kong travel guide) first.
At exactly 9.30pm, the Lhasa train left Beijing West station. In the compartment, three Chinese men lined up, politely, on one lower bunk and I smiled at them from the other. I produced my Hong Kong Permanent Resident ID card as reassurance. But I knew that it wasn’t enough and what they would be puzzling over was: why is she travelling by herself?
Giving the four of us time to adjust, I went for a stroll along the train. Its very existence had been deemed impossible because of the terrain, the altitude and the climate. There were signs in three languages – Tibetan, simplified Chinese and English (although announcements were in Mandarin only); and there were a few Tibetan symbols (the endless knot, the double-fish) dangling from the ceiling of the dining-car; and there were the much-publicised outlets above each bed for oxygen, which would offset the effects of altitude sickness.
But apart from that, it was an ordinary intercity Chinese train with – half an hour after departure – no soap in the washroom dispensers, a blocked sink and half an inch of water slopping to and fro on the floor of the Western loo. “They can engineer railtrack across permafrost, but they can’t find a mop,” as one traveller put it.
By morning, the view outside the window once more was of the mist and yellow earth of China’s heart, as the train dipped south. In the dining car, I talked to a German technician working in Shanghai. He had understood that there would be showers (there aren’t). He had thought there would be two-berth compartments (there aren’t). Three Canadians nearby had been hoping there would be an observation-car to sit in (there isn’t).
A group of Koreans who had booked a tour under the impression that smoking was banned because of the extra oxygen on board had found themselves in the chaotic fug of the six-berth compartments. When I went to visit them again, later, I fell into conversation with a Chinese woman who turned out to be the aunt of someone I knew in Hong Kong; she was wandering through the carriages looking for a relatively usable loo.
By late morning, according to the digital temperature reading in the dining-car, it was 32 degrees beyond the air-conditioned window. One of the men in my compartment had fetched in a group of friends from next door, including a young woman called Liu Ming who spoke some English. We crammed together on the bottom bunks, cracking watermelon seeds and using an iPhone to translate difficult words: traffic survey, red dates, potato starch. These latter characters had been written on a huge sign we had passed, encouraging productivity.
“Do you feel lonely?” asked Liu Ming. “You are by yourself; Chinese people don’t do this.”
I looked around – there were now seven of us on the two lower berths – and laughed and said no, I definitely wasn’t feeling lonely.
I had wondered why they were going to Lhasa (very popular destination for many adventure-lover to have best tours of China). Except they weren’t: Liu Ming, and two others, were getting out in Xining, and the rest at Geermu (Golmud on my map), both in Qinghai province. On this train, itself proof of it, you had the constant sense of China insinuating itself farther and farther into improbable places.
Out here, factories weren’t small – they were vast, with odd tentacles as if a troupe of giant octopuses had beached themselves in a desert. And these were the Han interlopers: an affable presence on the bunks, chewing corn-on-the-cob and inspecting the snack-cart (cigarettes and spiced donkey) as it was wheeled past the door.
“Maybe I come with you to Lhasa,” Liu Ming said, shyly, and her friends laughed.
But you don’t have to go to Lhasa to see Tibetans. They were in Hard Seat, at the back of the train. Getting there meant stepping over a Muslim man, asleep on a prayer mat in a doorway, and into a hinterland where China’s minorities had set up camp: the Muslims in white caps and veils, the Tibetans in turquoise knuckle-dusters and coral-beaded braids. Each time I visited, crunching over the seed-husks on the floor, the Tibetans shouted and shook hands and guffawed (and days later, outside the Potala Palace – another husk – I heard a joyful yell from those same pilgrims, smiling and waving, as they passed by).
Beneath that noise, however, what you heard was a silence. I spent considerable time dandling babies, but when one Tibetan woman patted her seat and I sat alongside, our voices soon dropped and, finally, we spoke in whispers. We talked about Tibetan outposts in India; and when I murmured the Dalai Lama’s name, she gave a tiny hiss of warning. “Keep Quiet” said one of the train’s trilingual signs, under a child’s image of a bed with a horizontal figure in it; and we did.
By nightfall, we were climbing. The railway attendant handed out leaflets entitled “Plateau Travel Information”, warning of health side-effects, which everyone had to sign. At 3.30am, when we stopped at Geermu (9,281ft/2,829m), my heart was already giving little Riverdance leaps. The departing passengers left a gleaming spoor of discarded slippers; you could track them up the twilit corridor. A clutch of shadows was crossing the windy platform outside, hunched under the swaying lights. A few wispy trees shivered. That suddenly felt like a quintessential train-travel moment: the land’s abrupt change, the cold, even the railway sign – Exit West – made me inexplicably happy.
And in the morning, a yak stood outside the window. Then another, then another. Tibet had taken over – with its grass lands, its marmots, its prayer-flags, its skeins of rain and distant ice-cone-mountains – over night. Snow-fences lined the track. Beyond them were occasional stone clusters of dwellings, under frayed Chinese flags, desolate even in early autumn. It was seven degrees.
At breakfast, passengers compared levels of queasiness and by midmorning, when we passed Tanggula, (16,627ft/5,068m), the highest railway station in the world, some people were on their bunks on oxygen or throwing up in the washrooms. When I went to check out Hard Seat, the Chinese had their heads in their hands while the Tibetans continued chatting, airily unconcerned. I was light-headed, but it seemed the perfect way to acclimatise: lying flat, with a Thermos of green tea, while the scenery did all the work.
There were no observation stops, though. That was another myth about the train. I had to make an effort to grab the names and altitudes of the stations as we whisked through. The only time we halted, at Naqu (14,806ft/4,513m), a guard stood in the doorway. Against the grey sky, the station’s name was picked out in two enormous golden, simplified characters; the Tibetan script stood above them, smaller, definitely complicated.
What are they building here? I wrote that down in my notebook at Naqu, as the train passed a huge (empty) roundabout with lengthy strips of (empty) road petering out in grassland. Ugly, I wrote at Sang Xiang (15,331ft/4,673m) and at Gu Lu (15,331ft/4,673m) the grim scrappiness of pylons and tarpaulin was only relieved by a child in a red jumper running along a stone wall.
You had to lift your eyes from that in order to see the region’s beauty: the variegated lakes and peaks, the massive caverns of weather systems that came and went. In any language, it felt like a guilty happiness: the simple pleasure of the train journey offset by the complicated fact that it existed.
I was in Hard Seat when I saw the first military trucks outside Lhasa. I was talking to one of the Tibetan women, who cupped her hand in front of her mouth as if she wanted to capture her words before they flew away into the thin air and betrayed her. She had just insisted I take her rosary beads.
The grasslands had given way to cultivated fields, and the trucks ran alongside the stooks drying in the sun. After a while, the fields gave way to roads, then tiled buildings, then shops, then car showrooms – the classic Chinese sprawl.
In the distance, on its hill, framed within a lattice of cranes, I could just see the Potala Palace. That, 4,060 miles/6,500km later, marked journey’s end. But soon the track curved, and it disappeared behind the newer buildings. “Just like Hong Kong,” someone remarked, and I said, “No. Not yet.”
Fionnuala McHugh travelled with the help of CTS Horizons (020 7868 5590; www.ctshorizons.com). It can arrange a seven-night package with one night in Beijing, two on the “Roof of the World” train and four in Lhasa for ￡985 per person sharing. This includes accommodation in four-star and five-star hotels and in a four-berth soft sleeper on the train, some meals, transfers and guided visits to the principal sights in Lhasa.
Hong Kong to Beijing: 1,550 miles/2,475km.
Beijing to Lhasa: 2,540 miles/4,064km.
Hong Kong to Beijing: 23hr 30 min.
Beijing to Lhasa:45hr 8 min.
Hong Kong to Beijing (soft sleeper): ￡90
Beijing to Lhasa (soft sleeper): ￡122)
Buffet or banquet?
Not bad as far as railway fare goes, but basic. Bring instant noodles if you're worried.
Yes, if you get a bottom berth. Slightly more problematic, during the day, if you're in a top berth.
Time to read
Alexandra David-Neel's My Journey to Lhasa. She was the first European woman to enter the city, and she's an inspiring travel companion.
Time to listen to
Your fellow passengers – someone, somewhere, will want to practise English with you.
When to go
Late spring or early autumn.
Make sure you pack
A Thermos, a map of China, snacks to share, antibacterial hand gel – and lots of loo paper.
Remember that you should get travel permit to Tibet beforehand which need your China visa.
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