Saturday, June 23, 2007

High Way to Tibet

For the past two days, I’ve skimmed the Roof of the World aboard the globe’s highest train. The Beijing-to-Lhasa run takes 46 hours. At our highest point, we surpassed 16,000 feet.

I’ve been lucky enough to snag a soft sleeper. Lucky, because the most comfortable accommodations on board sell out quickly to tourists from Europe, the U.S. and Japan. And lucky, because once you’ve seen the regular seats and the hard sleepers, you’re happy you’re four to a cabin with comfy pillows and duvets, video screens (though we rarely watched them), tables and electric plugs.

And lucky, because for the first 24 hours, we were only three to a cabin: myself and a young Dutch couple who traveled across the Trans-Siberian Railway before boarding the Beijing-to-Lhasa express.

Beijing departure comes at night. The West Railway Station was a mad crush; only the woman at the Information booth spoke English. A Danish couple stuck in a hard sleeper of six bunks – “it’s really not bad,’’ they told me along the way – helped me haul my luggage down the stairs and into the train. Porters and escalators were nowhere in sight.

The cabins were comfy enough, cradling us into the night. Day Two dawned on a rainy, industrial landscape of villages and factories spewing pollution, but soon settled down to sweet farming towns and sweeping fields of sunny mustard plants.

Toward day’s end, a group of Japanese boarded. We picked up a fourth roommate, making for a tight squeeze with our bags. The back of the train filled as well, the seat-only carriages crammed with Chinese and Tibetans heading across the plateau and into the capital.

By nightfall, the steep climb had begun, into rolling green hills home to nomadic herders and sheep and yaks, cow-sized versions of woolly mammoths. By the next morning, we were into the high and delicate permafrost…first brown, crusty hills, then snow-frosted peaks, then wide plains providing grazing grounds to deer, antelope, sheep, wild donkeys and yaks. “Look!’’ someone cried, as a deer took up the chase, running alongside the train.

“I’ve traveled in the north and northwest of China, but the train is really the only way to see this part of the country,’’ said Giorgio Stevanato, an Italian living in China.

The train began service last July. In early reports, the altitude caused pens to split open, hard-drives to crash and one man to become so ill that he eventually died. But on recent trips, including our own, there seemed to be no significant problems. (My hard-drive is still working, hence this report!)

“I though the Trans Siberian train was the best, but in some places this is even better,’’ said Gerard Laan, 21, the young Dutchman. “It’s so beautiful, just gorgeous. I think we will spend the day just staring out the window.’’ And so we did.

The terrain looks a lot like the Andean altiplano, or – as fellow American Michael Allport of Portland pointed out – the American west. But there’s a mystique that Allport remembered from childhood, looking at his grandfather’s globe and wondering what it would be like to go all the way across China. This is, after all, the Lost Land of Shangrila.

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