Day 9: Treacherous Train Trek to Tibet

We had planned on being in Lanzhou and exploring the surrounding environs for four days.  Circumstances (ticket availability) forced us out in less than twenty-four hours.  So we are on our way to Tibet.

Chinese flag at the Lhasa train station

Just the existence of a train from the middle of China into Tibet is a fantastically impressive accomplishment.  The Tibetan plateau is said to be the most remote place on earth, and it was the last area in China to be connected with tracks.  The rail goes over a mountain pass that makes it the highest elevated railway in the world, and the train cars are specially engineered to provide properly oxygenated air for the passengers.  Water in the bathrooms is heated so it doesn’t freeze.  Parts of the tracks are built on permafrost that occasionally thaws – not quite so “perma” as the engineers would have liked – so the tracks are elevated to reduce friction, pipes are sunk into the ground with liquid nitrogen coursing through them to keep things cool, and sun shades were constructed to keep everything in the shade.  And I am sitting here riding on it because I thought it would be fun.  Pretty amazing.

Last night’s dinner: Bucket-o-Noodles.
Today’s breakfast: chips and chocolate muffins.
Today’s lunch: we actually tried the airline-style prepared meals.  The rice wasn’t bad…
We have a ton more food (you can never have too many Bucket-o-Noodles on a Chinese train) but it is 5:30pm right now and we’re arriving in forty-five minutes, so I imagine we will eat some junk food and maybe have a real dinner later.

The entire ride is twenty-six hours, but it hasn’t really seemed that long.  Looking out the window is pretty entertaining – cows and goats and yaks (our first yak sightings!!) graze in the foothills near the train, blurred brown streaks on the green, while dramatic, sweeping music played over the speakers.  (Those same speakers also announced that we were passing by the world’s highest fresh-water lake, but our guidebook dubbed it the world’s second highest salt-water lake.  Don’t really know what to make of that.)  I think staring out the windows and sleeping probably accounted for most of our time on the train.  Thank goodness I was on the top-est bunk, because there was an alcove at my feet that I put my bag in.  Otherwise, people were sleeping with their bags on their bunks, and there just would not have been enough room for me.

Tibetan woman on the train

Triple Bunks

The View

It seems almost everyone else on the train is also a tourist, albeit a Chinese one, so we don’t feel quite so awkward pointing our cameras at everything we see.  Judging from the poor quality of the pictures I was getting out the window, and the rate at which other people were snapping away in front of the glass, I would say everyone’s cameras were filled with crap by the time we got to Lhasa.

I am definitely feeling the altitude: I got winded just stretching and moving my joints to help circulation.  And climbing up to the top bunk definitely gets the blood pounding and heart racing.  Pretty crazy.

Arriving at Lhasa, we climbed off the train with our packs and Kristy and I stopped to catch our breath as Sam once again dealt with the logistics – finding our tour guide.  Phone calls back and forth.  Ok we’ll meet them at the car.  Can’t find the car.  Phone calls back and forth.  Oh, she’s waiting for us by the parking lot.  Can’t find her.  Phone calls back and forth.  She’s waiting for us somewhere.  We wandered until we found her.  She is a very nice, tiny, Tibetan lady named Tsurine (I think).  I would guess an age of mid-20s.  She had a sign with Sam’s name on it, and presented each of us with a traditional, white prayer scarf.  I felt blasphemous putting it around my neck, like I was defiling a millennium of beautiful culture with my very being.  That feeling never really went away.

Tour guide Tsurine

Outside the Lhasa station

Outside the Lhasa station

Our tour group consists of us, Tsurine, and the driver of the 4Runner named Sijila (pronounced S00-gee-lah, with the OO sound from “soot”).  It turns out that Sijila isn’t his name, but is a respectful way to day “driver.”  We learned to love Sijila like family.  More on him at a later date.  There is also supposed to be another American guy, but we got here so early that he’s not here yet.  We’ve been making bets about what kind of person James will be, but I can’t really predict what kind of person goes to Tibet by themselves.  We went to dinner with Tsurine (Sijila ate at another table with his driver friends) and had a yak sizzler plate.  First taste of yak and it wasn’t bad.  We also had momos, the Tibetan dumpling.  We were thinking Tibetan food would treat us just fine.

After dinner we went to our hotel to sleep.  There are a couple of things the tour company suggests for the first few days of being in high-altitude.  First, don’t do anything and rest.  This makes sense, so you can adjust the altitude.  Second, don’t shower for a couple of days, because you might catch a cold and be even more exhausted.  Now, I’m not a doctor.  But does this make sense?  Are you more susceptible to germs while adjusting to altitude?  Dunno.  With the help of our good friend Diamox, our twice-a-day altitude sickness medicine, hopefully we’ll be fine.


5 Responses to “Day 9: Treacherous Train Trek to Tibet”

  1. 1 Sam
    March 10, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    *alarm goes off* It’s diamox time!

  2. 3 Kristy
    March 10, 2010 at 3:48 pm


    I can’t wait for the next 10 days of Tibet stuff. 🙂

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