Sunday, July 5, 2009

Train to Tibet or The Chinese Communists are Alive and Well

The Chinese built a railroad line that runs from Beijing in the east to Lhasa in Tibet. If one were to take the train from Beijing to Lhasa it would take over 48 hours. We elected to fly to Xining in the northwest corner of Qinghai province and there picked up the train to Lhasa. This reduced the trip to about 27 hours. This also helped with our high altitude acclimatization, as we spent a couple of days at 7000 to 16,500 feet before getting to Lhasa(12,500 feet).

The rail bed and track from Golmud to Lhasa is new, having been completed in 2006. This is high elevation, 80% of the line is greater than 13,000 feet high. While much of it is permafrost, the permafrost in some areas does thaw enough to cause slippage if the rails were laid directly on the ground. Consequently much of the line is elevated with large concrete pipes sunk into the ground with ammonia heat exchangers inside the pipes keeping the ground frozen. The cars are not pressurized, but extra oxygen is pumped into them. There is individual oxygen available, at least in some areas.

We left Xining about 8 PM. There were three different types of cars on the train. Soft sleepers which had compartments with doors and soft seats that made up into four pleasant appearing soft beds and, as we discovered later, a genuine none finer at any price western style sit down if you desired porcelain throne in a compartment at the end of the car. The second sleeping car was called a hard sleeper. The seats in these compartments were not that comfortable and made up into six bunks, stacked three on a side. The bunks were in fact hard upon which one laid a very thin pad. There was no door. The toilet compartment at the end of this car contained an Asian style “squatty”, which for the uninitiated is basically a hole in the floor. Great fun to try and hit while the train is moving. The third type of car was a chair car, no bunks at all. There was also a dining car.

We were supposed to be in a soft sleeper, which we had bought and paid for. However, when we boarded the train we were informed that a party of Chinese officials had commandeered our group's soft sleepers and we were relegated to a hard sleeper car. No recourse, no “please” or “thank you”, no reduction in fare. Every Yank or European we talked to on the train had the same thing happen to them.

It was rumored that one couple had paid a bribe and managed to keep their soft sleeper.

There were two Anglo men who were part of our group traveling without their wives, one of whom, Joe, I had known for a long time. These two shared our compartment with us. Joe volunteered to take a top bunk, which we allowed was very kind of him. He replied that it was not so kind, that's where the oxygen was pumped into the car. We had extra bedding, being as how we were only using four of the six bunks, so we hung a sheet across the door. This did not make the Chinese attendant very happy, but we glared her off and she left us alone. We attempted sleep but, true to the name of the car, sleep was hard.

We stopped in Golmud briefly. There was a brief welcoming of the Chinese officials from some Tibetans in native dress and then we went on. As some wag in a Lonely Planet Tibet guidebook put it, the best view of Golmud is in the rear view mirror. It is primarily a Chinese military post. There are a number of “sightseeing stations” between Golmud and Lhasa. I guess sightseeing for the nomads to watch the trains going by because we stopped at none of them. We did see some beautiful mountains, glaciers, a lake and a herd of Tibetan antelope. We also saw a few nomad tents.

We arrived in Lhasa about 10 or 11 PM, after three indifferent meals in the dining car. They carted one of the Chinese officials off and put him in an ambulance. We had seen them sucking extra oxygen from small oxygen tanks in their soft sleeper compartments; perhaps there is some justice in the world after all.

More photos are available on my website.


  1. First you tie the door of your sleeper shut with your shoelace and then you sling sheets across the door in China. You must be getting quite the reputation as a trouble maker with international train personnel.

  2. I hope passports were kept handy this time! I assume it wasn't bloody hot, either. :)

    At least it made for a good experience to write about -- and read.

  3. when we put up the makeshift "door" the other members of our group liked the idea also. Soor everyone had their privacy door and were sharing pins to use. No Shoelaces necessary. No asking for passports. The most exciting thing was hollering at the smokers- thin air, oxygen pumping in and idiots smoking! Mutti