Manu and I have been wanting to try out the train to Tibet since it was completed in 2006 with much fanfare. If you read on-line about what the trip will be like, it sounds pretty great: in addition to the incredible scenery, a dining car offers delicious food, the train’s bathrooms are kept clean and re-supplied with toilet paper throughout the trip, there are four working tv’s in each soft sleeper cabin, in high altitude areas oxygen is pumped throughout the train, extra oxygen is available for anyone who needs it, doctors are on-board ready to deal with any altitude issues, etc.
When we first got on the train in Xi’an, things were looking good (we were also riding high on our smooth and pleasant overnight train trip from Beijing to Xi’an). We decided to have an early lunch in the dining car, where the three dishes with rice that we ordered were decent and we were impressed that not many people on what looked to us like a full train were even eating in the dining car (so much for the unrelenting crowds in China!). (Later we realized that most people either brought their own food or were eating bowls of instant noodles heated by the hot water available in dispensers throughout the train.) We did think it was weird that some staff let us know that we couldn’t take pictures of the chef cooking in the on-board kitchen.
Things began to shift for us in mid-afternoon as we returned to the dining car and several of the staff members were lounging around and smoking. We saw the chef cooking again, but this time while smoking a cigarette (maybe this is why the chef didn’t want his photo taken!). Smoking turned out to be the aspect that tainted our trip the most. After finally leaving polluted cities behind us, we were looking forward to clean, albeit thin, air. While we know that smoking is pervasive in China (after all, it’s not our first time here), the extent of it on the train became quite irritating. Cigarette smoke permeated our compartment in the earlier part of the trip, as we made our first two (of four) stops in the cities of Lanzhou (Gansu Province), where Manu lived in 1999-2000, and Xining (Qinghai Province). After each stop it was clear that we were headed away from the populated east and into the hinterlands, where many of the new passengers looked “rough and ready.” The smoking picked up and I started looking forward to when we reached Golmud, our third stop, where signs between each compartment assured us smoking would be banned between Golmud and Lhasa since oxygen would be pumped throughout the train and fire and oxygen can be a lethal combination. By the way, if smoking increased the further we moved west, so, to our delight, did spitting and even snorting.
Early in the morning nineteen hours into our trip when we reached Golmud, my hopes were dashed. Throughout the subsequent day, even as we climbed as high as 5000+ meters/16,400+ feet over the Tang Gu La pass, I’d catch a whiff of smoke and walk through the compartments until I found someone hunched over, smoking, right beneath a sign that said clearly in Tibetan, Chinese, and English that smoking was not allowed between Golmud and Lhasa. For some foolish reason I decided to take this issue personally (to Manu’s amusement) and I tried to stop people from smoking in areas surrounding our car (I know, I know we’re in China, it’s a different culture and so on, but I couldn’t bare our kids having to breath in all of this secondary smoke, especially when smoking in the train was banned for good reason!). Most of the time I was successful in getting the culprit to put out his smoke, but once the guy just moved into the spot between the cars and attempted to blow out into a pseudo-crack. I took on this role of vigilante smoke-stopper, because the staff, who were smoking themselves, could care less about enforcing any rules that would keep us all from spontaneously combusting. When I walked to the front of the train to the area between the conductor area and the first passenger car, the area smelled like an airport smoking lounge.
Then came trouble after we decided to start documenting the smoking (I felt like one of those citizen journalists, although the stakes of my investigative efforts were on the low end of the spectrum: fighting smokers). First, my dad got a photo of some of the staff smoking in the dining car, which they forced him to delete. Then Manu managed to clandestinely take a video of the dining car, where the staff were smoking and playing cards. Finally, I snapped a couple of photos of a senior staff member working near an empty soup bowl full of butts. He suddenly noticed and said to me in English, “Please delete!” I walked away and he roughly grabbed my arm, but I kept walking. When we arrived at our fourth and final stop, Nagqu, we got a knock on our cabin door and a local policeman, who’d obviously been called ahead and was ready at the stop, was there with the two of the train’s staff members. He asked for our Tibet permit, which was the first time anyone had asked for it until we reached Lhasa, and then the senior staff member went off on me in Chinese, clearly wanting the camera. Manu started talking with him and together they looked at the camera, deleting the offending photos. While the train staff person was clearly angry, the local police officer was smiling and was very conciliatory with us. Irritated at myself for not having downloaded the photos as soon as I’d returned from the dining car, I fantasized about turning the train staff in to some authorities, or at least writing some disparaging reviews on some travel blogs read by English speakers.
Aside from the smoking, we had a few disappointments: there was no toilet paper from the moment we boarded and the bathrooms, both Western and squat toilets, continually got more disgusting (I will spare you the details, but let’s say that we could see mountains not only from our windows); the four t.v.’s in our essentially first-class compartment (sticking with the soft/hard sleeper and soft/hard seat divisions is a euphemistic hangover of the days of strong efforts for true class equality) never worked; there was no evidence of any doctors aboard the train; the food went downhill and became increasingly more expensive (they started charging 25 RMB [$4] per bottle after Nagqu, while usually it’s about 2 RMB) and after Lanzhou no one sold food on the platform; etc. None of us felt particularly great when we woke up on the morning, as sleeping with four adults and three young kids in a cabin for four doesn’t warrant much of a restful night (how was it that we slept so well between Beijing and Xi’an?). One of the Manu’s biggest challenges was that he couldn’t get any kind of morning coffee fix, because he didn’t have a cup to mix his instant coffee packets, and although there were about a dozen ceramic cups sitting on one of the dining car tables, a staff member wouldn’t let him use one. As the day wore on and Manu developed a high altitude headache combined with a caffeine withdrawal headache, his desperation led him to making the instant coffee in a previously used cardboard soup bowl, which gave him some relief.
Fortunately, none of us developed acute altitude sickness and just a few of us had headaches off and on and, of course, lightheadedness and the prerequisite shortness of breath (see pic of passenger using extra oxygen). In the last few hours Sophia threw up three times and became desperate to get off the train (top quotes from her: “I can’t take it any more”; “I don’t want to go in anything with wheels” [referring to taking a car to our hotel]; and “I’m never taking an overnight train again”). Dylan was fine on the train, but developed a headache and threw up all over the floor near our table while we were eating a very late dinner at Snowland in Lhasa.
Throughout the trip, though, which had many low points, the rugged scenery was stunning. I love the harsh, barren beauty of high altitude tundra. The kids enjoyed looking for yaks (and herders) and the occasional couple of plateau deer and antelope. The sky is so big and the landscape so spartan that it’s hard not to see how meditation and reflections on one’s clear mind, unfettered by thoughts and emotions, is like a cloudless Tibetan sky. While Manu and I have driven all over and camped throughout Tibet, my parents and the kids had never seen the vast Tibetan landscape and would not have, if we’d just flown in and out of Lhasa, so in that sense the trip was worth it. Would we recommend the trip to others? I’d ask them to think long and hard about what they were willing to endure for the chance to cross Tibet by train. Tibet is never easy (Manu’s and my many journeys overland in and out of Tibet from Nepal and the long months of camping with students in Tibet amidst challenging terrain can attest to this) and part of the experience is what you have to go through to get there. Although Manu completely disagrees with me, now that I’ve had a chance to rest and recover at the relatively low elevation of Lhasa’s 12,000 feet, I would say, yes, go for it, even with three kids under seven.