The famous Qinghai-Tibet railway… At an elevated 5072 metres, the crossing from Chengdu across the remote plateaus of Lhasa, is hailed as one of the greatest railway journeys to experience.
We have six more hours until we reach Lhasa; my back is aching, my lungs feel oxygen starved but my oh my, the scenery that passes before me is spectacular.
Above us, the sky is a never ending expanse of cornflower blue and fluffy cotton wool; a brilliant contrast to the velveteen drapes of rolling plains in their russet oranges and mossy greens. The odd meandering stream intersects the valley now and again, its waterway peppered with black or white wild yak, stopping for a leisurely sup along their own journey.
Enticing lakes, more a sea in its scale, suddenly take us by surprise, breaking the monotony of acres of desolate nothingness. The lake is so crystal clear, sky and water merge in to one element, a fine blue pastel smudge at the horizon the only tell-tale sign that things are as they should be.
A “Wah!” is suddenly emitted from my co-passengers, sleep and oxygen deprived faces pressed against the glass, as the most vivid rainbow crosses our path. A good omen I hope of safe travels in Tibet.
This is not just a train journey… This is a reminder of Mother Nature’s divinity. And her grace seems to be ever evident in these lands.
I won’t lie and tell you that the 43 hours have been an easy feat. It’s not quite the Orient Express, not at $230 US for a soft sleeper, but takeaway the retch-worthy toilets and the arduous 43 hour duration, this is a journey worth considering ‘bucket-list’ status.
It’s not for the 5 star travellers, nor the 4 star come to think of it. The dining car tries its best to offer passengers with an unforgettable guest experience; white table cloths dress the table tops, a fake red rose is placed in a small vase as an added embellishment, but the food is standard at best. The flat screen TVs have long malfunctioned and sit at the foot of your berth taunting and teasing you… and the toilets? Well, let’s just say it’s not for the faint hearted… Imagine hole-in-the-ground-loos partnered with an ineffective flush system and passengers with dodgy tums… The trick is to find the western style toilet as these still seem to be somewhat alien in China and are used less frequently.
Passengers are largely from the mainland so the odd belching, farting and of course ‘spitting’ noise through thin walls becomes part of the overall ‘sensory experience’.
Beware also of vomiters as you near Tibet. As the altitude increases so does the sound of retching. Cigarette smoke, which seems to be as regular as spitting in China, creep in to the ventilation system in a battle to snuff out the oxygen and this only exacerbates the vomiting.
The quality of your journey largely depends on your room mates. We are not so fortunate… Four hours in to our journey, we meet our roomies… A grandfather and two of his young grand-daughters wake us from our dreamy slumber. I open one eye and see two faces peer at me… Twins no less – one a mirror image of the other – double trouble. It is 1am, it is their first ever train journey and they jump from berth to berth with excitement crying ‘Lhasa, Lhasa, Lhasa!’
Oh joy! We have the company of hyper active six year olds aaaalllll the way to Lhasa.
They screech so much our neighbours bang on the wall and scream something in mandarin. I’m in no mood to make friends at such an unsociable and plugging in my ear plugs, I prepare myself for a restless night.
Within 10 hours we have made friends with Jie Jie (the older bossy twin) and Me Me (the younger mischievous twin). They are on their way to Lhasa for their bi-annual visit to meet their parents. Raised by their grandparents and void of young(ish) female company, they are thrilled when I play with their hair, spritz them with perfume and show them make-up items.
By twenty hours, they call me ah-yee (aunty) and suddenly I’m responsible for taking them to the toilet. They look at me strangely when I refuse to let them use the heavily soiled hole in-the-ground-mess. Cocking their identical heads at me, I try to hopelessly sign to them that ‘jayga’ (this) is not good – ‘thumbs down’… which then quickly leads to an exercise on how to use a western-style toilet. Thankfully they’re toilet trained and I’m let off wiping dirty botties.
By thirty hours, they try to teach me mandarin. My ‘Yi, Err, San, Siu’ (1,2,3,4) drives them to hysterical giggling and entertains them for a while until I call for nap time.
Napping, incidentally, seems to increase as we ascend higher and closer to our destination. Now and again I wake up in a panic and draw in deep, unsatisfying gasps of air. Could we be suffocating? How much oxygen are my lungs taking in? And oh god is there enough oxygen to go round?
In the middle of the night, on our last leg towards Lhasa, I hear Me Me calling for her Ye Ye (grandfather). Unfortunately she has altitude sickness and vomits intermittently during the night. She’s not the only one. The sound of retching seems to echo through the carriages like some disastrous symphony.
The 43 hour journey did not give me the quiet solitude I had sought. I had imagined sitting at a table, drinking in the splendour of these views as I write my blog, preparing for what I hope will be a spiritual lesson… But the love I witnessed between grandfather and granddaughters is as beautiful a story as our surroundings.
We are almost at the end of our journey… Both twins are either side of me as we gaze out towards our oncoming destination in our own little sojourn… Colourful prayer flags are strung across distant stupas, a hint that we are soon reaching the ‘Land of the Gods’, the most revered and spiritual cities on the face of the Earth.
Eyes tightly closed and lips moving in soundless murmurs, I wonder what these twins pray for… A happy reunion with their mother that will not end with another farewell perhaps? I close my eyes too; thoughts of my family’s recent tragedy gives rise to a tear and I find myself doing something I’ve not done for a long, long time… I squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating on every word and send a silent prayer across these spiritual lands…