The Train to Lhasa – it’s a great trip if you can ignore the toilets

Lhasa, Tibet

So I spent Saturday in Xining wandering around the area near my hotel.  It was actually kind of cool as they had a myriad of funky statutes all over the place which made for an interesting walk.

Cool statute on the street

While there were lots of small shops and restaurants, the area was dominated by a massive shopping mall on the opposite side of my hotel.  As luck would have it, there was a grocery store in the mall so it made it very easy for me to buy food for the 22 hour train ride to Lhasa instead of gambling on whatever they were serving on the train.  Now, if you ever get a chance, I highly recommend wandering a Chinese grocery store.  There were so many oddities you would never find in the US or Canada (packaged chickens feet anyone or how about a whole barbecued duck – head and all).

I managed to find some nice looking grapes and bananas and some barbecued  chicken wings (I actually pointed and quacked at the wings to make sure they weren’t duck.  The woman helping me shook here head and said “chicken” so all good there.). I also stocked up on 4 litres of water (the recommended amount to drink on the train) as well as some little breakfast pastries stuffed with egg and bacon and some packaged noodles.

After I bought my supplies, I stopped for lunch at place called “Dear Pizza” on the first floor of the mall (right beside the ever popular KFC).  I was dying to see what this was all about.  With the help of two servers, I was able to order a Hawaiian pizza and a banana drink.  Now the Chinese may have conquered a lot of things, but pizza is not one of them.  The crust was wonderful, but the Hawaiian pizza did not have any red sauce and was made up entirely of cheese, pineapple, tiny bits of bacon and …. wait for it … shrimp.  It was interesting to say the least.  Fortunately, they had Tabasco so I could spice it up a little.  Perhaps the best part of the meal was the gal who brought me the pizza.  She delivered it while propelling herself on one of those hoverboard gizmos.  (I thought they had been banned because of fire risk, but apparently not.)

Hoverboard waitress

Once I finished lunch, I went back to the hotel and loaded my supplies into my little foldable backpack and spent the afternoon watching Thursday night football.  Happened upon it on Sport2.  Would have been better off sleeping … what a dog of a game.

The other interesting thing … fireworks outside the hotel smack dab in the middle of the day.  I got up off to check it out and could see little streamers of colours.  This went on for a couple minutes.  I presumed it must be a wedding so I went downstairs and sure enough there was a bride and groom and a myriad of wedding guests.  Now why they choose to have fireworks in the middle of the day is beyond me, but they apparently did not care it was the middle of the day since the fireworks went off two more times during the afternoon.

Anyway, at 4:30 I ordered a cab and left for the train station.  That’s when the fun began.  The cabbie dropped me off in front of the Xining train station and I immediately pulled out my Tibet visa, passport and train ticket confirmation and handed it to the woman at security at the first door I encountered.  She immediately shook her head, pointed out the door and sent me to the line next door.  Huh?  I didn’t understand what she was saying so I simply followed her pointing and went through the adjacent door and through screening.  Unfortunately, I was then informed by a nice young fellow who actually spoke wonderful English that I was again in the wrong line, and that I needed to take my paper ticket and exchange it for a printed ticket down at the far end of the station.  Gesh.  It obviously didn’t help that I did not speak Mandarin as I am sure that is what the first woman I encountered was trying to tell me.

So I walked with my luggage about a block to the end of the station, through yet another door and to a  fairly long line to wait to exchange my paper ticket for a printed ticket.  The wait was particularly amusing because some guy was apparently being denied a ticket and he was not taking it lightly.  He started screaming at the woman at the wicket and making a huge scene.  He finally left only to return and start yelling all over again.  He finally left for good, but not before he pulled out his phone, took a picture of the woman and a picture of her badge.  The lady in line to my right and I were exchanging glances and trying not to laugh.  It was very amusing.

Xining train station

Anyway, after about a half hour I made it through the incredibly slow line to the front, and in less than two minutes I had the precious printed ticket.  I walked all the way back to where I started, presented the printed ticket, my Tibet visa and my passport and low and behold I was in.  I then proceeded to sit and wait until 7:25 p.m. when my train arrived for boarding.  While I waited, a bunch of folks around me decided it would be a good idea to get pictures with me.  It was endless.  In fact so much so that I thought my face was going to cramp.

Eventually I had to leave my fan club and line up for boarding, which was surprisingly smooth.  The train was around 10 car lengths and I was in train car 5 and bunk 25 (one of two bottom beds in the berth).  The train was comprised of four bed “soft sleeper” cars, six bed cars, and upright seating.  I was in a four bed soft sleeper (the highest class on the train) and my three bunkmates turned out to be twenty something kids (2 girls, HeJing Xin and Ou Yang Shi Ting, and a guy, Tan Mun) from Hu Nan Province with HeJin from the city of Changsha and the other two from Zhou Zhou.  While they spoke limited English, they turned out to be absolutely delightful bunkmates.

My bunkmates

Now I have no idea what the other cars were like, but I can tell you this was one narrow train.  Our car could barely fit one person and luggae as you walked the length of the car (windows on one side, closed door berths on the other.).

The four person berth could barely fit the four of us and luggage (actually during the day we left one of the pieces of luggage and just let people walk around it.). Anyway, once we got the luggage storage squared away, we had our passport and tickets checked and before we knew it we were moving.

For the next hour or so, there were a series of metal trolleys pushed up and down the hall by attendants selling everything from noodles to beer and water.  I passed and simply wanted to turn in early.

By 9:30, it was lights out.  The Chinese music over the intercom was turned off, lights dimmed and we all turned in early.   The first part of the trip through the night was not particularly scenic going from Xining to Golmund so we all wanted to awaken as soon as the sun came up because that is when we would hit the Tibetan plateau where we would travel for the bulk of the day before descending into Lhasa.

HeJing woke first and I heard her moving around so I got up as well and looked out the curtain.  The sun was just rising through a very thick cloud cover.  It had also snowed overnight and there was a dusting on the mountains.

Sunrise over Tibet

The land we passed through was mainly permafrost with no trees and the occasional  guard house.  It was pretty desolate country, but there was a stark beauty to it.  Adding to this was a very dark sky with the sun periodically peaking through.

As it became lighter, beautiful scenes came into view with tiny rivers winding around snow cover mountains.  It was one amazing scene after another.

Mountains in Tibet
Mountains in Tibet

We continued to climb for most of the morning and the air got thinner and harder to breach.  I found myself winded by simply moving.  To combat this, and avoid altitude sickness, I did my duty by drinking as much water as possible.  Now this caused the only problem of the trip.  A need to use the bathroom was the most dreaded part of the train trip.  Now normally, I am thrilled to find a squat toilet.  (Yes, I have a weird obsession with them.). However, these squat toilets struck dred in every sane persons heart.  I cannot (and will not) describe the horrendous conditions or odor in the train bathrooms, but suffice is to say there are a lot of inconsiderate people out there.  Fortunately I brought a massive amount of hand wipes and antibacterial gel along with a pair of disposable flip flops (yes, I had been warned).

Tanggula Pass

We reached the highest point of the trip (Tanggula Pass) at a height of 16,627 feet about mid day and so far so good.  No altitude sickness (although Ou Yan was not so fortunate).

We continued through the Tanggula Mountains for a significant part of the date where we saw herd upon herd of very shaggy looking cows (I thought they were musk ox, but the kids insisted they were cows).  We wound through tunnels and narrow passes and went by a myriad of guard houses where each guard would stand and salute as we passed.  No idea why.

Cows (or musk ox?)

We eventually started to decend where we passed the beautiful Tsonag Lake, went through tunnel after tunnel and finally hit the “lowlands” (if you can call if that) where we saw villagers harvesting highland barley.

Villagers harvesting highland barley

Throughout the day, me and the kids shared our food (they tried to get me to eat the chicken feet they had brought with them, but I declined), and pointed out the different sites we would spot.  We all were tired from the thin air and eventually we all drifted off to sleep for a bit, but woke about an hour before we reached Lhasa.

We cleaned up the cabin, repacked our bags, and watched Lhasa come into view as we crossed Lhasa Bridge in the brilliant sunshine.  It had been a gloriuous trip (apart from the disgusting bathrooms).

Once we disembarked, I said goodbye to my bunkmates, registered, with the Lhasa police and walked out of the station to find my waiting guide and driver.   Ten minutes laters, I was walking down an alley in old town Lhasa to my hotel, the Tashitakge Hotel.  It had been a long 24 hours, I was winded from the short walk and simply wanted to get some sleep.  Tomorrow we would begin to explore Lhasa.


Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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