Lofty Line to Lhasa
At 8.53 pm the disparate crowd of produce-laden Chinese and rucksack-toting tourists stirred from reverie and surged en masse toward the ticket barrier. Soon we would file onto the long platform, clutching possessions and tickets in sweaty palms, to view the humming, gleaming, gold-and-green machine that would take us across the rooftop of the world. Sorting the wealthy from the less well-off, the train accepted its new guests without comment, as tearful loved ones gathered in corridors and outside misted windows to say their fond farewells.
The fact that Tibet is known as the "Western Treasure House (Xizang) in Mandarin is no misnomer. The staggering natural beauty, vibrant Buddhist culture and quietly proud population of this elevated region make it a personal favorite when it comes to travel destinations. My latest journey from Beijing to Tibet would be a little different, however. Completed in mid-2006, the highly-vaunted Qinghai-Tibet Railway, connecting the forlorn outpost of Golmud with the sacred Tibetan capital, Lhasa, now offers non-fliers a new overland route that is hard to resist. Having experienced many a punishing train journey already, I was keen to endure this record-breaking feat of engineering for myself.
Most of the new railway, on a par with the Three Gorges Project as a showpiece of Chinese technological know-how, is at a height of between 3500m (11,400ft) and 5000m (16,400ft). Considering the highest point in my native UK is a paltry 1300m, these figures are seriously impressive. As I boarded the T27 in Beijing and hurriedly filled out a medical disclaimer, it was clear that altitude was probably going to replace boredom as the biggest threat to human life as the train performed its 2-day, 2-night marathon.
After establishing bed rights with a couple of fellow hard-sleepers using a mixture of hand signals and elementary putonghua, I reclined on my bottom berth. Laying out wet wipes and hastily purchased snacks within easy reach, it was time to settle back for the long haul. Engrossed in a couple of Hemingway classics, the provincial capitals of Xi'an, Lanzhou and Xining passed before the compartment windows in surprisingly quick time, and we slid into Golmud station, “gateway” to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in the pitch blackness and freezing temperatures of early morning.
Qinghai is reputedly where many Chinese law-breakers get sent to do time, and from what I could make out in the harsh glare of the platform's floodlights, Golmud looked like the perfect penal colony. A few more hours of undisturbed sleep later though, we had put the dreary, industrial wasteland long behind. Daybreak found the T27 climbing over barren rocky plains, with decorative patches of powdered snow nestling in covered hollows, and trackside runnels of ice mirroring our progress. Approaching the Kulunshan Pass at 4772m, serrated peaks rose up and closed in to dwarf the train, white plumes of wind-driven snow billowing from their frozen summits across the crimson hues of the sun-warmed sky.
The sudden hiss of escaping gas heralded our ascent onto the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau proper, as oxygen was pumped from valves on the wall and ceiling to counteract the effects of altitude sickness. Despite warnings from the train's authoritative loudspeaker commentary, a healthy contingent of hardcore smokers continued to puff merrily away at each carriage intersection, reinforcing the impression that our new O 2-rich environment was more precaution than necessity.
Crossing into Tibet through the Tanggula Pass at 5231m, the arid landscape was replaced by lime green tundra, criss-crossed by frozen waterways and grazed by the occasional herd of yak, sheep or Tibetan antelope. Chatting with Sabrina, a plump agricultural student from Xi'an, I learned that special passageways had been made along the elevated rail line which allow the antelope to carry out their annual migration. Together with the widespread use of solar and wind energy evident on the plateau, this was an encouraging sign that the environment had at least made it onto the engineers' priority list, albeit not right at the top.
We arrived at Lhasa Station at dusk, 48 hours to the minute after leaving Beijing, easing slowly into the red and white monolithic structure on the outskirts of town. Assuring an American companion that we hadn't just pulled into the Potala Palace, I grabbed my gear, charged through the exit, hopped in a minibus and 30 minutes later was enjoying a scalding shower in Lhasa's Tibetan Quarter. It was great to be back.
After several years hacking his way through London's PR and advertising jungle, and another couple of years in recuperative sabbatical in France and Korea, Daniel Allen's quest for a more Bohemian-styled life of art and journalism led him to the Chinese capital, Beijing.
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