Tibet: Train journey to Lhasa

5 min read

This is the second in a series detailing a trip to Everest Base Camp (Tibet), which started in Beijing and an ass-busting walk along The Great Wall  (1). My travelling companions and I, suitably chuffed from our successful exertions,  flew to Xining for some preliminary acclimatisation.

Beijing is not much over 40 metres above sea level whereas  Xining sits at 2275 metres (7464 feet). Apparently the surrounds of Xining offer authentic Tibetan experiences to enjoy, but for us it was just a stop over for the beginning of an overnight 26 hour train journey.

Tickets for each journey are issued 20 days earlier and one has to jump on them if one wants a first or second class sleeper. The only difference I noticed was there were four to a sleeper in first class versus six in second. This isn’t the first time I’ve travelled overnight on a train in Asia, and when I saw it on our itinerary I became just a little anxious.

My first experience was the Reunification Express between Hanoi and Hue. That was interesting to say the least, but it was a first class experience in comparison to the horrors we were to experience on our way to Lhasa. Initially the train seemed like it was in better condition and had fully fitted squat toilets instead of a hole cut into the floor. More on this later.

In my sleeper was Uday, Kusay, Nasser, Chronitch and a Chinese fellow (Henry) travelling to Lhasa to check out if it was suitable to bring his family for a future holiday. It did not take long for us to settle in once we had evicted some natives who were hoping we would give in to their desire to travel together.

Trivia Tidbit: The train at one point climbs to over 5000 meters (15000 ft) and is specially equipped to pump oxygen into the cabins to minimise the chances of altitude sickness.

The sleeper cabins were relatively comfortable, however someone with claustrophobia or personal-space-type issues would probably be out of their mind by the time they reach Lhasa. Taking some food with you is probably a good idea (the four snickers bars I packed weren’t really adequate), while there is food available in the dining car it was a challenge to get to it, and being honest it didn’t look very good (and I am an adventurous eater). Each carriage has a toilet at one or the other end and the best time to use them is within the first five minutes because the condition, cleanliness and odor quickly deteriorates.

Also if you have leg or a hip problem like I do, taking a dump will probably result in you over balancing, or slipping a disc while you attempt to contort into a position to see if you are actually going to crap into the toilet instead of the floor. The toilets were soon awash with water, urine, crap splatter and soaked tissue paper: It wasn’t long before the mere hint of a fart was enough to bring on chest tightening anxiety and envy of Uday’s ileostomy bag. My anxieties were somewhat relieved when Rain Man and Nasser discovered a western toilet a couple of carriages down.

All this horrendous toilet stuff aside there is nothing like a train journey to really take in the country side. As the train climbed up into the Tibetan Plateau the view become truly dramatic, with open watery plains back dropped by mountain ranges that looked as if they had come straight off a water colourist’s brush. There was one particular bizarre sight, every-now and then for a stretch of a kilometre or two, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, there would be uniformed men standing on little purpose-built platforms saluting the train as it went by.

I have no idea what this was about and have quickly elevated it to the shittiest job in Tibet. I mean is it a job at all? What purpose does it serve? So I have a theory; these men appear to be  military and for whatever reason are considered half-baked or deserving of some cruel and unusual punishment. Obviously I could be wrong (probably am), but I can’t for the life of me think of any practical reason to have someone standing out in the middle of nowhere saluting a train.

Mid-morning the next day, after a surprisingly restful sleep, I took a little walk down to economy class. I was shocked at the number of people crammed in it. There had been a stop late in the afternoon the previous day and a lot of people had boarded with seemingly all their earthly belongings. They were laying by the exit doors, people were asleep under the bench seats with their feet sticking out into the aisles and lying next to the toilets that by now were diabolical.

There was something unearthly and surreal about economy class, and my travelling companions quickly dubbed it District 9, the Peter Jackson produced film about alien refugees locked up in concentration camps. Come to think of it, it’s also suspiciously like the Abbot Government’s asylum seeker policy. To be honest economy class was filled with the great unwashed, coupled with this mass of people and the toilets there was a vomity excremental smell of a gastro intestinal disorder blown out to a monstrous scale. I’m not trying to be awful but Tibetan’s don’t bathe (very often).

Our own guide admitted to only bathing a few times a month, and those who live a traditional life (especially among the older generation) have been known never to, with tradition dictating a wash at birth, marriage and death. This I could believe because there were some elderly Tibetans we ran into who I am pretty sure were not far off their death wash. I’m not sure why the Tibetan people adopted such miserly washing habits, but I suspect it is due the climate. Tibet gets cold, very cold, and getting wet would be a sure way of moving on the next life.

Even though economy class and the toilets had scared me half to death, the trip was enjoyable and I’m glad I did it, although any future trips will see me fly into Lhasa rather than taking the train.

Tony Simon

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