Over a month ago I set out on an ambitious journey from Mongolia – I was looking at a nearly 7000 kilometer journey, four countries and some serious mountain ranges and deserts between me and Kathmandu, Nepal. My friend Diane was already trekking in Nepal and I was trying to meet her in early November so we could hike the Annapurna Circuit together, a long-term dream of mine and one of the few ‘must-do’s’ of my journey. Luckily for me, ambitious China has built the highest railroad in the world into Tibet, traveling in over 4000 kilometers in total from Beijing. Target acquired, lets begin.
Before my long Mongolian tour I booked a flight to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar. The price was nearly the same as a train ticket and saved me over 30 hours of travel. I couldn’t possibly handle another two-day delay at the Chinese border either. I also had been scrambling to arrange my Tibet tour from dodgy Internet connections in Mongolia and HAD to be in Lhasa by October 27th to meet my group. One thing I did not do was arrange my train ticket to Lhasa, as the owner of my Beijing hostel informed me over e-mail that NOBODY goes to Tibet this time of year, so getting a ticket will not be a problem. Well apparently a few people do go to Tibet in October because when we contacted the train station, the only option left was a hard seat in 3rd class. Not the most appealing option on a 48 hour train journey, especially in China. I had no other choice, so I booked the 4000k train for a stiff $50, got myself a massage and 15 lbs of water, food and beer and headed to the train station for the 9:30pm departure….
Let me back up here – despite being through Beijing twice it hasn’t earned any blog time! This second time through was only a 36 hour stopover, but I used it as an opportunity to visit a number of places that were closed on my first visit for the 60th anniversary celebration of the communist revolution in 1949. I walked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, going to the must-sees in in Beijing and snapping that obligatory photo with the man himself, Mao ze Dong. My first trip to Beijing back in early October was actually much more memorable despite the city wide lockdown and tight security. I was able to catch up with an old IBM Pittsburgh colleague of mine, Dave Cai who now lives in central Beijing and works at Volkswagen. Dave showed me his posh apartment and took me out for a great dinner. I really enjoyed our intense conversation about the future of China, its relationship the United States and the rest of the world. I consider China the world’s great experiment of the 21st century – they have momentum and strength of an industrial revolution West of centuries past, but with the keen advantage of hindsight and history. They have a unique opportunity to change the world based on ideals and through planning, in way that has never been done. I find myself frequently talking global politics and the discussion always ends up in China. And back to China we go: Beijing – I rolled in a couple of days before the big October 1 National Day celebrations, figuring that one of the largest celebrations in history would be fun to be around. Well turns out only if you’re Chinese. Foreigners were given a tight lease, not allowed anywhere near the festivities or into tourist locations for many days. Fortunately I hooked up with a crew of travelers at my hostel, spent time hopelessly trying to sneak in to see anything, but ultimately watched the celebrations on TV like everyone else in the world despite the events happening only a 10 minute walk away. At one point a few tanks rolled down our street on their way out from the celebrations. I’m not sure if anyone did catch it on television, but the ceremony was quite an impressive showing of the massive armament of the Chinese military. Personally I believe Nationalism breeds only more violence and division (How can you rally behind a single country and also promote world peace- it is a contradiction. Separateness always breeds division and violence through its very nature). This is another aspect of the China experiment that will play out in our lifetimes – they are fiercely nationalistic, at times quite xenophobic and have in my opinion placed their loyalty for country ahead of themselves or anything spiritual.
Back to the slightly more present (Oct 25), boarding the train for Lhasa. In China, you don’t need a ticket for a seat, just the train. People ended up lying all over the floor, in the common areas and just about anywhere a couple of inches of space could be found. I’ve heard that during holidays these trains are so packed that people have to stand for days at a time!
I was the only white guy in 3rd class and people curiously watched me down a couple beers and eat dinner. Feeling exhausted, I was able to sleep with my hands folded on the table, waking up the next morning in Xian where the vast majority of people got off the train. The next day I will always have great memories from. I’m pretty sure that every single person in 3rd class who could speak more than five words of English introduced themselves to me, and I found myself meeting many really incredible people, sharing food and drink and photos, exchanging e-mails and simply having an amazing time as the incredible beauty of China passed by my eyes outside the train window. This quickly changed in Xining, the halfway point. The train became packed again, and a nice family of Tibetans with 4 small children decided they were going to take FULL advantage of their one seat reservation in my row. I ended up with my face literally squished against the window, with a total of 11 people sharing 6 seats. Now – I was on my way to Tibet – why not start the cultural exchanges right away!? I already had a small child on my lap and the father brought out a stove to cook up some Yak Butter tea on the table. I played along for a while, but 24 hours like this were not looking very appealing so I bought my way into a comfortable sleeper cabin for the second half of the journey. While not nearly as exciting as 3rd class, I did get a great nights sleep in the oxygen filled cabin and woke up to the high Tibetan plateau out my window…The next day passed in tremendous comfort, I was sipping coffee and eating my snacks as I snapped photos of one of the most beautiful and yet inhospitable landscapes in the world. It was such a contrast to the lush forests and rice fields of the day prior.
Ultimately I recommend the same approach to anyone taking the train – spend half of your time in 3rd class, but enjoy some luxury and upgrade on the second day.
Eventually the train pulled into Lhasa, once the most inaccessible city in the world. Prepared for a complete shake down from the authorities, I strangely just walked off the train and out of the station without once displaying any of the many permit and visa papers I was carrying…. And just like that I was in Tibet.
… To be continued…