Two Days Without a Shower or Snoopy Pajamas
11.09.2007 - 13.09.2007 11 °C
And so the time comes for us to board another train! Train T27 leaves Beijing West Railing Station at 9.30pm and we spend our last hour on terra firma sharing personal space with about a thousand Chinese and Westerners jostling for position. As a fully ticketed train, we’re not quite sure of the benefit of joining the crush, but decide to play along.
On Your Marks.... Get Set....
With four nights under our belt on the Trans-Siberian and one night on the Mongolian train, we are feeling confident that two nights across the Tibetan plateau will be a snap. One key difference is that we will be six to a compartment in the ‘hard’ sleeper section, as our tour company has apparently failed to secure the ‘soft’ sleepers. This is a downer for the entire group: it turns out that about a billion Chinese managed to secure the ‘soft’ sleepers so it’s not clear what was so hard for our tour company. We suspect this is cost saving rather than administrative difficulty but – hey – six to a room isn’t so bad in the almost brand new train, and Lloyd and I quickly acclimatize to our top bunks, literally seven feet off the ground.
So, the Trans Tibetan train takes 48 hours to complete the 4,064 kilometre journey from Beijing to Lhasa, gaining altitude as it goes, and passing a maximum height of more than 5,000 metres! This is so high that oxygen is – allegedly – pumped into the carriages to assist the acclimatization of passengers and to make the journey more comfortable. Certainly, we heard something hissing from the oxygen outlets and we don’t seem to be suffering too badly from altitude, although the true test will come when we get off the train. We opted not to take the altitude medication we brought with us, taking instead a wait-and-see approach to our suffering. We have four days to acclimatize in Lhasa, so we’re hopeful we can remain drug-free!
But, back to train. As the train is sealed, windows don’t open (with the much-needed exception of the bathrooms!), so unfortunately the re-circulated air quickly becomes contaminated with cigarette smoke and some choice bathroom odours, but we do ok with it and actually sleep quite well, after all we’re pros at this by now! Additionally, for us low-budget, hard-sleepers, the lights are put out for us at 10pm encouraging us into an early slumber – presumably we’d cause too much trouble if we were allowed to stay up longer! Reveille is at about 6.30am, prompting the convergence of about 60 people on two squat toilets and three sinks. Certainly not my favourite time of the day, with Chinese men ‘hocking’ every ounce of fluid from their throats into the rubbish bin, the sink, the toilet, the paper cup… whatever they can find. You really have to steel your nerves to face the squat toilets, in varying stages of overflow and filth. To be fair, the ‘western style’ toilets up in the ‘soft’ sleepers aren’t much better, but I still find myself travelling the three cars or so to take my chances. But only when I REALLY absolutely can’t put it off any longer.
30-seconds on the Trans Tibetan
On a happier note, and as you might expect, the scenery gets progressively more impressive as we advance towards Lhasa. The lush green lands, with undulating hills, spotted with yak, long-haired sheep and horses remind us of Mongolia (only without the gers and men on horseback – here they seem to do most of their shepherding on motorcycle!), while the distant snow-peaked mountains remind us exactly where we are. Along the way, we see only a smattering of Tibetan villages formed by groups of concrete huts, and the only reason we know they are Tibetan is the five color flags adorning roofs. In some areas, construction is intense. The railroad itself was clearly an enormous undertaking, and this wasn’t just a case of building railtracks: the whole route is lines by paved gutters and metal or concrete fences, as if every inch of the track was subject to detailed scrutiny.
The Chinese were clearly enjoying the scenery as much as we were. I thought we were technology-heavy, but our Super Steady Shot, 15x zoom, Sony looked quite pathetic next to the SLRs laden with lenses that I didn't know existed. We really had to fight to get to a window at the most scenic points, and - of course - all pictures were taken through dirty train windows, so forgive the quality!
Food on the train is surprisingly good – leagues ahead of the Trans Siberian - with food carts offering drinks, noodles and even shrink-wrapped fresh fruit constantly travelling up and down the train. The buffet car is bright and spacious, and quickly becomes our favourite hang-out. On the first day, we enjoy dinner with another couple from California, ordering based on the highly scientific method of choosing what the Chinese on the table next to us had ordered! And so we enjoyed beef with garlic stems, chicken with spicy vegetables, pork with egg and fungus (much nicer than it sounds!), and shrimps with cabbage! The price for our feast was about US$4 each. Fewer Chinese eat in the dining car as they have come with boxes and boxes of provisions that line the corridors. As we trek the six carriages to the dining car, we climb over piles and piles of garbage: seeds, fruit peel, empty noodle pots, and play chicken with dozens of Chinese attired in pajamas apparently for the duration. I think I abandoned my Snoopy pajamas about three decades ago, but you’ll be pleased to know they’re still all the rage for middle-aged Chinese ladies.
As I write, we are about two hours out of Lhasa, so our Trans-Tibetan train experience is coming to an end. While I’m looking forward to – hopefully! – a clean toilet and some fresh air, I have to say that overall I’d rate the Trans-Tibetan above the Trans-Siberian. The scenery is spectacular, and overall the train is very well designed and quite comfortable. And the food is excellent. Our visit to Jiu Zhai Gou last week (only last week!), and our journey through the Tibetan plateau has certainly whet our appetites for finally reaching Tibet-‘proper’ (even though Tibetans are in the minority!).