Quinghai-Lhasa Railway: Crossing the Plateau

Quinghai-Lhasa railroad: 22 hours, over 1900 km, reaching over 16,000ft. Average elevation Golmud to Lhasa is 4000m(~12,500 ft)

One of the more hilarious moments of my overnight rail journey from Xining to Lhasa happened before it started. After I was dropped at the Xining Railway Station, I approached a charging station to charge my phone. There were only 6 hookups with different connectors. I didn’t see one for my phone. There was a crowd jostling for access. Someone appeared with a power strip, connected it to the charging station and boom! Six more people had access, including me. But even more showed up. This was one of only two such charging stations in the vast waiting area filled with several hundred people. Wall outlets around the periphery of the waiting area were shut off to prevent “unauthorized” use.

Someone else showed up with another power strip. Five more people hook up.

Then—oops—the authorities realize what’s happening. They rush over in their uniforms, shouting and gesturing. Oh, no, this cannot happen–unauthorized ingenuity to meet an obvious inadequacy of the official infrastructure. Not allowed! They are literally tearing the power strips apart, all the while cursing, pointing and lecturing the electricity bandits.  Here, one must bear in mind that the purpose of a bureaucrat is to serve one’s superiors, not the public. I take my charger and head across the waiting area to the other charging station. There, at least two of the chargers are broken. I am defeated.

When I got on the train for the 19:30 departure (having had my passport and travel permit checked three times), I discovered I was assigned an upper berth in a 4-bed cubicle with 6 other people, three adults and three kids—two mothers traveling with children, one a toddler, and a dad traveling with his son. They are all going to Lhasa. Or at least I thought so. One mother and her son got off at one of the earlier stops, about 2am. They were replaced by a single man. Everything is small, of course, and my suitcase is so big the only place it fits is under the table by the window between the lower bunks. There are very bright lights above the bed, constant muzak that can’t be changed, a personal TV that I will not use.

Over my head there is an oxygen outlet to plug in a personal line or tank. This is an ominous sign. I did not prepare. There are some fold-down single seats in the passageway equipped with power outlets. I charge my phone and then my computer. There is a lot of traffic in the passageway, going one way or the other, railway officials checking tickets and passing out health forms (risk disclosure for this trip across the plateau).

Even in the misspelled alt-grammar broken English translation, it sounds pretty scary. I sign it and give it to the attendant. I tell her I am in a cabin with six people and ask if I can move to a lower berth if there’s one free. She says yes. But of course, they are all taken. It’s going to be a long ride.

Then there are the food carts: fruits and vegetables in packaged portions (a very welcome sight), beverages, individually prepared meals–back and forth they go, at least twice. I retire to the dining car to write. Upon seeing me enter, a gaggle of teenagers stop their chatter mid-sentence, mouths agape. They approach. We have a few awkward words about where we are going, take a few selfies, flash a peace sign and they take off.

The lights in the foreground are trucks on the highway.

I never score that lower berth. I finally get up and prepare for sleep. Surprise! I sleep. A little restless, but no tossing and turning due to hypoxia. No signs of altitude effects. The guy below me has a conversation with people in the passageway at 3am. But I wake at 6 feeling rested. What a gift.

I get up and hang out by the window as the sun rises on the plateau. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. OK, maybe some parts of the western US, Colorado, Wyoming. But it’s not desert. Neither is it grassland. Whatever is growing there is hugging very close to the ground. Of course, there are no trees. No other vegetation. It’s like I imagine Siberia to be–except at 12-13,000 ft. Far off in the distance are snow-capped mountains. The cloud cover is thick and will stay that way for 5-6 hours. I try to take photos from the moving train.

I go to the dining car where the same teens are having breakfast. I point. I’ll have that. Some seaweed, celery and peanuts, a flavorless bun, some spicy radish, a boiled egg. Other passengers are fixing their own food. They have brought large-size instant noodles. Over the course of the day they will eat many of these and drink enormous amounts of tea. There is a hot water dispenser across from the sinks, which may or may not work, in every car. There are two toilets for every car, one western and one hole in the floor. By the end of the journey one of them will not be working- and not just in my car- but in other cars near mine as well. Over the course of the trip, enormous amounts of trash will be created by the collective discard of over-packaging that seems to be the norm here in China. The use of as much plastic as possible seems more important than the delivery of an actual product. Facade is an appropriate metaphor for much of what I’ve seen here.

Outside my window is no facade. I spend as little time in my bunk as possible, either sitting in the passageway on a fold-down seat, sitting in the dining car where I could view the passing scenery on both sides of the train (so much so that I was kicked out once for occupying space without eating), or standing between cars going back and forth from one side to the other.

Another hilarious moment came when I went for lunch. As I sat alone with no food, none of the railway employees paid any attention to me. I was the only westerner on any of the sleeper cars and they were completely preoccupied with Chinese customers. I had to collar one of them and take her to an adjoining table and point to what I wanted. No problem; nearly instant delivery. Getting a drink was another matter. I tried to ask for a soft drink, but I wasn’t using the right words at all. Just then the teen girls drop in and say hello as they pass by. The railway attendant sees them speaking English to me so she recruits their help to serve me, explaining in front of the entire dining car full of customers. Everybody gets a laugh. The girls saunter over and ask, “What would you like?” I say “cola.” They all repeat it. The attendant and I throw it back and forth several times because she recognizes that word but her pronunciation is a bit off. They say 5 minutes. Sure enough, the drink cart comes through in a few minutes and I snag the last koh-lahhh. It’s warm, but at this point, who cares?

Even in this desolate wilderness, we pass groups of railroad workers, power linemen, isolated nomad tents with their small herds of goat and yak, uniformed security saluting (!) as we pass and the odd military outpost. One cannot but marvel at this engineering feat, the landscaping and grading of the tracks, the steel used, the equivalent of a city of concrete, the drainage systems. All obstacles are blasted or tunneled through. Parallel to the tracks is the main road across the plateau, populated mostly by trucks at all hours of the day or night.

There is a public address system on the train. Periodically we hear announcements. A few hours out of Lhasa, an English message was broadcast about the ethnic charm of the Tibetan people, their spiritual accomplishments and their long friendship with China. What China now brings to Tibet, rapid and “scientific” economic development for a harmonious future, is touted strongly. The Chinese version of this message is then broadcast, but with multiple unmistakable references to the Dalai Lama. I can only imagine what they are really saying, but did not have the presence of mind to record it. I figure we are getting total propaganda in both English and Chinese. For what purpose would the Chinese message mention the Dalai Lama except to demonize him as an obstructionist, a “splittist,” as they love to call him.

Railway personnel come through the cars loudly, and at great length, hawking tour books with detailed descriptions of (no doubt) all the proper sites and how your visit should be understood.

We go from darkness to dawn, from clouds to sunshine, from dry desolation to snowy desolation. We go from vast flat lands with mountains in the far distance to passing directly through mountains, the vistas unmarred save the power lines making their Great Leaps Forward over the mountains, bringing energy to the east, courtesy of Tibet’s great rivers.

We pass lakes, meandering rivers (two of the 5 great rivers falling from this plateau) and even swampy grassland. We climb though passes of 14,000 and 16,000 feet. As we approach Lhasa, we have a thunderstorm over the train with bright sun in the distance. Gradually, as we drop to lower elevations, the land turns green. The mountain slopes become grassland, but still with sharp peaks soaring above. Soon, both sides of the train open up to wide valleys lifting up to the heavens in stark and awesome beauty.

Villages appear, larger as we go, every home flying the five-colored prayer flags as well as the flag of China—one to declare their devotion and one to keep the authorities at bay. The Tsangpo Chu, the Lhasa river, winding with a swift and churning fury, appears intermittently. We are nearing Lhasa. The Chinese presence in Lhasa has expanded the city south across the Tsangpo and west from the old city. Even though we have come from far north-eastward, we are approaching from the west. I move to the junction between cars, the only space where I can go back and forth from one side to the other every few minutes, not wanting to miss anything.

Finally the city, at least what Lhasa has become, appears. Blocks of Chinese built high-rise apartments. I can see wide and dead-straight boulevards and all the other signs of a planned Chinese city. We make our way through the westward sprawl, finally passing huge construction encampments, batallions of heavy equipment, debris, supplies, steel, re-bar, cement slabs and rock, employee housing, three large cement plants, fuel depots, a mountain of discarded tires, a section of super-highway nearing completion.In the distance to the north, the city climbs ever upward onto the slopes of the surrounding mountains. This jewel of the world, perched for centuries with its unique view, this holy place, this refuge of the dharma, mutated by a foreign influence moving far too fast and with ruthless disregard for the fragility of its spiritual ecology. I am only one, a late arrival, among many foreigners who have seen all of this evolve over decades. But it’s fresh for me. I wouldn’t miss being here for anything. I am elated, humbled, surprised, grateful, on my knees, moved beyond words…and horrified.

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