Friday, September 26, 2014

The World's Highest Train

China Air aloft over Xining area
We flew from Chengdu to Xining, deciding that 24 hours on the train would probably be enough for us. As we looked out the plane window at deep canyons below, I recalled the diaries of solo Canadian cyclists I've been reading; blogs of women who set out on rides through these areas on their own, most with little or no knowledge of Chinese. Brave and adventurous people.
White satin sandals - what our fashionista wore to Lhasa
Xining market
The world's highest train is a record holder for height but it certainly didn't set any records for us for 
service. We boarded the train in Xining with the assistance of a guide who had picked us up at the airport and taken us for a quick lunch, visit to the mosque and a market tour before getting us to the train. There's a fairly long walk from the drop-off point to the train - if you can't manage your luggage easily, plan on hiring a porter and good luck with the language. Nobody speaks English but we were fine with Richard's Chinese. Our guide hired the porter for us and he got us into the right compartment and hoisted our luggage up onto our beds. The bed is the only place you get for luggage so you share your sleeper with your bag. Richard slept with the old bag again.

Preparing to sleep with the old bag again.
Sitting on the flip down seat
Because Debra insisted that we each buy one compartment (sleeps 4) for each couple, we had enough room to squeak by. If we'd purchased single tickets and shared a compartment I don't know what we'd have done. Four people shared the compartment next to us - two Australian girls with two Chinese strangers. The girls were hanging out in the hallway on the pulldown seats for most of the trip. It would have been a nightmare to share such close quarters with strangers.

Selfie in the compartment...see the size?
The toilets were marginal...the western toilet had a broken seat and was pretty foul by the time we reached Lhasa. The squat toilet, well, it was endurable if you had to use it. Most of them get terrible pretty can't seem to hit the hole and there's more.....but not for now. Richard was able to shave at the public sink and mirror. At first, attending to your ablutions (teeth brushing, shaving, face washing) out in the open is a bit daunting. After a few hours of nodding acquaintance with your fellow passengers, it's not so bad.

This photo flatters this common sink area which was plugged up for most of the trip.

There's a hot water dispenser which you can use to fill your insulated pitcher - the only amenity provided in the compartment. The surly, and I mean really surly, attendant offered no help to people trying to use the dispenser. I've only seen surliness from service people like this once before in the Ukraine. When we tried to get a bite to eat in the dining car a few minutes before it closed, we were barked at to get out - closed. It was only open for an hour or two in the morning and in the evening. Forewarned we brought sandwiches and snacks from the Shangri-La Hotel which got us through. Passengers were trading food around and sharing if they had too much. 

Each individual compartment is fitted with a sound system and controls which do not work. They blast old propaganda style broadcasts through the speakers for much of the time. Blissfully, I couldn't understand it and it quickly blended in with my ever-present tinnitus and faded out of consciousness. Richard could understand it and he would groan and moan at the mindlessness of it all and try repeatedly to spin the volume and off/ on buttons to no avail. 

The train reaches 16,640 feet in elevation. I'm not sure how much oxygen was being pumped into the compartments. Whatever it was, it wasn't enough. Several people had to use oxygen masks. We were all OK but noticeably low on energy; perhaps the diamox, prescribed by our doctors, helped. The compartments are hardly air tight and there's wide open spaces between the cars. Plenty of opportunity for the 02 to escape.
Station break...

So much for the comfort factor. Now for the good part. The scenery was outstanding and ever-changing. For most of the time, we forgot about our discomfort and gaped out the window at the sheep grazing, yak herds, prayer flags and mountains. It was wonderful. I wish our pictures were better but we were on a high speed train and the windows were dirty. A deadly combination. Maybe you can get an idea from these however....
Photomatix shots...still trying the software. 
Another HDR'ed photo with Photomatix.

A very pretty yak.

Prayer flags over the river.

Lhasa - thousands of empty Chinese apartment buildings. Construction everywhere. 
There was a bit of complicated paperwork involved in getting into Lhasa. The Chinese government stops tourism if there's any problems in the area including road accidents. Just before we arrived a tour bus had crashed killing 44 people. 

August 4th, 2014. A tour bus has plunged into a Tibetan valley after hitting two vehicles, killing 44 people and injuring 11, China's official news agency Xinhua reported.

Lhasa was closed immediately. They recognize that the infrastructure just cannot support the level of tourist interest in the area and in order to maintain safety they will close everything down quickly. Fortunately everything was re-opened when we applied for visas so all was well. When we were traveling (in a van with a great driver) over some of the under-construction roads with dangerous blind curves and construction equipment all over the place, I could see how accidents were just waiting to happen. Stay off those buses around Lhasa!!!
Paperwork for Lhasa
At last, in Lhasa. 24 hours on the train was enough. 
Pulling into Lhasa - ready to disembark.


  1. Anonymous2:18 PM

    WOW i love your travel documentaries. Thanks for sharing. Beth C

  2. Oh your trip reminds me so much of our Chinese train trip. Barbara and I did have to share our compartment with two strange Chinese men just like the two girls on your train. All of the other things you write about are so familiar - the bathrooms, the surly attendants. Things haven't changed much. I'd be surly too, if I had to clean those bathrooms. The public one where Richard is shaving looks really nice. Even flowers on the wall and pretty mirrors. But that was deceiving?