Journey to the Roof of the World

It all started with some good old fashioned Chinese bureaucracy and ended in me wasting an entire day getting a train ticket to Lhasa. The guy at the rail station wouldn’t accept my photocopied Tibet travel permit. Oh and I must say the rail station was complete chaos. About 30 queues of people shouting, talking on their mobiles, etc. So after hours of frantic calls and scheming the only thing left was to head down to the rail station again to plead my case. This time, there was a different guy there and just glanced and the permit and said it was ok. Got to love them bureaucrats! Also, why don’t they store the permit information on a centralized system?! Idiots! Anyhow they ran out of hard sleepers, so I ended up with a hard seat at the very low price of 296 CNY (~48 USD). The soft sleeper was over 1000 CNY.

The time of departure from Xian to Lhasa was at 0842. Thank goodness it’s not Penn Station because I got there at 0843 due to a gross miscalculation on how long it would take for breakfast to be served and at how bad my cab driver was. He took me the loooong way and dropped me about 200 meters from the entrance to the rail station. Fucker! So I ran to the entrance carrying nearly 25kg of stuff and bumping into everyone in my way. Thankfully the station master pointed me to the right platform, because none of the signs had the correct information. I was on the T27 train, but the sign at the platform listed something like K1453.

The train was actually pretty modern, one side was 3 seats and the other was 2 and there were oxygen ports at all seats. I was the only foreigner in my car, but of course no one knew this because I look 100% Chinese. After the 9 people around me discovered that I’m American they became mildly fascinated with me. Wanted to know where I’m from, where my parents are from and the like. They even examined my book.

As the ride started the Chinese countryside unfolded before me. We were steadily climbing in altitude as we made our way to Langzhou and Xining. Endless mountains and rivers and valleys appeared before my eyes. The landscape was truly a beautiful sight to behold.

After about 12 hours I started getting restless. The instant noodles, chocolate bars, and apples I bought weren’t filling enough for me. But thankfully they carted around simple but freshly made meal for only 20 CNY. Rice, vegetables, and a slice of Chinese spam. Yum. Not long after night fell and people started falling asleep. The next 10 hours of the trip were brutal and made me wish that I shelled out for the soft sleeper. 10 people in each section, no beds, and lots of standing room riders looking around for a seat. Yep, that’s right, there were people riding for 20+ hours sitting on the floor, leaning against a wall or milling about anywhere else where they weren’t obstructing the main path. Then for some inexplicable reason they turned off the aircon and left the lights on full blast. Completely contradictory to what you might expect. On long haul flights they leave the aircon on and dim the lights. But not on a Chinese hard seat rail car. So I was sweating all night and fidgeting a lot because my bum was sore after having sat in the same seat for over 12 hours. It was definitely roughing it. Now I can see why I was the only foreigner in there.

As the sun rose in the morning I saw what I came for. I think at that point we were at or near the highest point so all I saw were snow capped peaks on all sides against the backdrop of a rising sun. Truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, since we were so high up (5072m) I started feeling the effects of altitude sickness. I also feared an oncoming bowel all I had for breakfast was an apple and an altitude sickness pill. As the day wore on I couldn’t help but have to go to the toilet. I had already been in there a few times to pee, but never in there for more than a minute. But this time would be different. I tried going in and was immediately hit by the stench from a mount everest of shit that had to have been in there for a couple of hours. I tried flushing it down, but it was too massive. I tried to get into squat position but before I could even take a step towards the hole the mount everest-sized stench nearly knocked me out and I had to exit the toilet. It was so bad that I hurled about 5 seconds later in the sink outside the toilet. From that point on I decided to not eat anything till I reached Lhasa. Unfortunately for me, we were still about 8 hours away.

After several inexplicable delays and hours of me sucking on oxygen we finally reached Lhasa. 34 hours on a hard seat with all local Chinese and Tibetans. The sights were amazing and I would probably do the trip again under different conditions. Private toilet, a sleeper seat, and a faster train. The train was rated for a top speed of 140kmh but I doubt we ever came close to that speed. All in all, I met some interesting people including an American who gave me a ride to my hostel in Lhasa.

Have you ever rode the train to Tibet?


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