Inaugurated in 2006, one of the worlds great train journeys, the Beijing to Lhasa train opened with much fanfare and eagerness. This engineering marvel through the Tibetan Plateau topping out at an altitude of 5072 meters took decades with the difficult conditions at such high altitudes and cold temperatures. However, against the wishes of many Tibetans the train did open and brought with it a horde of new tourists, both Western and mainly Chinese. However, all of the Chinese are not tourists and the train, as they say, arrives full and leaves half empty because of the many Chinese immigrants arriving in search of work and money. They have actually grown the country so that the Chinese contingent outnumbers the Tibetans in their own land, but perhaps that what Beijing had in mind all along.
The train itself is a normal train so to speak, not like the Japanese bullet train or the Eurostar that links London and Paris. It is most reminiscent of the night trains in Europe except I am happy to report that the beds, at least in the upper class, have more room than the ones in Europe. This means that those of us who are tall such as myself, do not have to sleep on an awkward diagonal with half your legs hanging off the bed. The train has a dining car which actually serves excellent Chinese food at very reasonable prices and as you’d imagine it is the highlight and social gathering place for the train patrons. They also serve Budweiser and the Chinese apparently love it. They were drinking those Buds in huge amounts and trust me there is nothing more entertaining than drunk Chinamen-especially at high altitudes.
The train allegedly pumps in some oxygen, but it’s difficult to tell if it actually does or not. There are these little vent things labeled oxygen outlet but I’m not buying it as half of them don’t pump anything and I still have a headache so I don’t know. However, I think mentally it does help, except there are several people on the train who are really sick and laid out in beds and in the galleys.
The bathrooms are a whole other issue with these trains. This is easily the longest I have ever been on a train, the total journey is 48 hours and the bathroom is generally in filthy condition. It’s not the fault of the train or the staff because they are actually decent for train bathrooms, compared to like Metro North or Amtrak or something even in Europe. However, the Chinese apparently do not understand the concept of keeping it in the bowl and when you do enter and you do a lot because you have to drink a lot of water at high altitudes, you end up in puddles of piss or even worse. It is not pleasant and is something that the tour books neglect to mention.
The train consists of three classes of accommodation. Hard seats are the lowest class and they are exactly that a hard seat. Hard beds are the next step up and are apparently OK but not nearly as comfortable as the soft bed sleepers which I was in and were pretty comfortable I must say. However, there are 4 bunks per berth, which inevitably leads to rooming with some annoying people and that certainly was the case on my journey.
The journey from Beijing leaves at 9:30pm and I had a Chinese couple the first night who weren’t that bad except the guy snored like a banshee (I assume banshees snore) and that doesn’t bother me so much because experience has taught me to bring ear plugs for such occasions and I always travel with them. Luckily they left in the early morning when the train reached Xi’an (Home of the Terra Cotta Warriors) and it was nice to have the room for the duration of the day until the evening when a very rude and loud Chinese couple came in and brought half of a grocery store with them and proceeded to yap until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and turned all the lights off and had to shhhh them as I do not speak Chinese and they speak no English.
So they go to bed and I knew the guy would be a snorer but the man continually farted throughout the night and I mean loud awful farts that sounded like he shat himself. I think he was asleep when he did them because he never woke up but they were violently loud and didn’t smell too good either as you’d imagine. Then he wakes up at like 4am and wakes his wife up and starts talking to her. These people must have been tone deaf because they were practically screaming at each other in a very small berth as if there weren’t others in the room.
It was very frustrating and I nearly lost it but politely shhhhed them and they abided. I just don’t understand why this isn’t common sense. It is so rude to do that. To make things worse they woke up again at 7:30 and did the exact same thing. I didn’t understand what’s the matter with these people and asked them to leave and they did and started screaming at each other (but you know just talking normally for them) right outside the room-what can you do!?
Another frustrating thing about such a long train ride is smoking. I don’t smoke and actually hate few things in life more than cigarette smoke and there are clearly hundreds of no smoking signs in all areas of the train. These signs go completely ignored by riders and also the train workers and it makes for a musty smoke smell constantly and it drifts into your room and certainly into the dining car but again there is nothing you can do about it so you must deal.
With a few annoyances aside the train ride itself is breathtaking and I don’t use that word often or without reason. The views on the Tibetan Plateau are stunning and you have a tough time stopping staring. Several times I would say that it looked like a Microsoft screensaver. I am typing right now and trying to focus because I cannot stop looking out the window. The gorgeous greens lead up to hills and then to snow capped peaks of the Himalayas which are of course the world’s largest mountain range and almost definitely the most beautiful.
The windows on the train are very clear and large and give for great panoramic views. Additionally, the land is very well kept and extremely cultivated. The Chinese don’t waste any land here and what’s not being used by yaks, goats and horses is used for some type of agricultural project.
All in all I highly recommend the train to Tibet. It also helps you acclimate to the altitude much easier and better than flying would as you gradually ascend and even come back down to 3600 meters which is the altitude of Lhasa. The train is part of the fun. It’s a long ride and may not be for everyone because inevitably you will get stir crazy and annoyed but you will be better for the experience. The staff is very friendly and most of the Chinese tourists kind of stare at you. One surprise to me was there were hardly any, maybe 3 or 4 other Westerners on the train. As I stare again out the window as I am only about an hour or so away from Lhasa I cannot wait to get started but I am so lucky to be on the roof of the world in Tibet, certainly one of Gods great creations. Regardless of any political tensions or whatever, the scenery here is amazing.
Check back with me shortly for more on Lhasa and my adventures in Tibet. Also, I will add some of my pics from the train journey as well once I get back to Beijing and have access to wireless as it is a very large pain to upload and transfer pics in Tibet.