Yak yak yak yak yak (thanks, Jonny)

6 Jun

(My other working title was “High Plains Drifter”)

Friday

So….sort of time to escape from China. Or at least, to aim for Tibet. Remember, I am now travelling with a temporary passport and no Chinese visa into a region that sometimes visitors can’t get into at all, for no readily apparent reason. Here goes….

So, onto the train having negotiated the massive Beijing West Train Station, which, annoyingly, is nowhere near a subway line – thus requiring a route march (along with around 10,000 others). It’s easy enough to find my platform – and my train – and my berth. Which I immediately swap with another guy, so he can be with his friends. It’s OK by me – but in way of thanks, he shares supper with me.

Beijing West Station (1)Beijing West Station (2)

It’s the same sketch as before – 6 beds to a berth, with some very uncomfortable seats (they slope sideways) if you don’t want to lie in bed for 48 hours.

When I wake, the train is ambling through parched plains with sterile rock rising from the desert scenery. The train line has cut through deserted and ruined communities but has opened up Tibet. The rooftops are lined with heat exchangers making use of the baking sun in the desert  – most of the houses are made of mud brick around here.

To Lhasa (87)To Lhasa (2)

In many places the mountains have been stripped for rock to build with.. and yet there is still a raw beauty to the landscape. Caves, presumably graves, appear in many of the mountains as we get further from the city.

We’re crossing the Gobi desert – a privilege I didn’t realise I was going to get on this trip.

We begin to climb – this is actually the only train I have been on that has an altimeter (honest – look at the picture) and they start to pump oxygen into the cab. I’m not so sure this is a good idea, as we’re going to end up at altitude and I’d like to be able to adjust – but the line runs over the top of the plateau at nearly 5000m above sea level so perhaps it’s wise… and my lung capacity is better than many. It’s made my chocolate cake wrapper expand dramatically though! The train seems very slow, too – and there are many unexpected stops, presumably to let other trains pass.

To Lhasa (20)To Lhasa (19)

We do make one stop – everyone leaps off to buy supplies from the vendors on the platform – a roaring trade in noodles and fruit.

So far away from people, the wildlife becomes plentiful. Muntjac deer, Chinese antelope, and more yak than you can shake a stick at. Which is what the yak herders are doing.

To Lhasa (70)

There’s a real sense of peace falling over me – I catch up on some reading, add And so to bed again – the effect of heading west by well over 1000km is that it gets dark later and later – China spans 5 geographic time zones, but only uses one. It’s surprisingly restful, as the train gently clatters away.

I’m up early though – too many things to disturb me – and ready to gawp at the scenery again, which is getting increasingly dramatic and beautiful. It’s clearly desert out there – and there are intricate patterns of small stones laid out to contain the drift of sand and allow the grass to take hold again.

To Lhasa (11)To Lhasa (123)

And then we’re above the snow line.  The landscape is heart stoppingly stunning, and although the windows aren’t the cleanest, I want to get as many photos as I possibly can.

To Lhasa (47)To Lhasa (42)

Apparently, they arrange the timing on the trip to make sure that folk are awake for the best bits. We pass by the highest large freshwater lake in the world, Lake Manasarovar, as we hear stories of how the railway was constructed. The Chinese are very proud of the achievement, as they have created the highest railway in the world – at a current cost of over 4 billion. The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m  above sea level, is the world’s highest rail track.. and the 1,338 m Fenghuoshan tunnel is the highest rail tunnel in the world at 4,905 m above sea level. One of the problems they have, though, is that the permafrost is melting – which means they have had to lay cooling pipes to keep it frozen (over 500km is laid on permafrost).

To Lhasa (58)To Lhasa (54)

We pass more settlements, rivers carrying glacial water to the sea, and cheesy fake policemen strategically placed to stop maniacal Chinese drivers speeding on the long straight new highways. Speeding is actually risky – you won’t meet many other vehicles, but the chances of running into an unexpected yak are astronomical.

To Lhasa (72)image

I’ve paid around $120 for my ticket, which includes two nights accommodation and a tour of some of the most awe inspiring scenery in the world as well as a thousand kilometre train ride. That’s got to be good value.

To Lhasa (50)

To Lhasa (48)

To Lhasa (40)To Lhasa (32)

And, finally, into Lhasa after 4000km (to contrast – it’s 5555km from London to New York). With all the stops and delays, I thought we were going to be at least two hours late – but no – we are precisely on time, in a display of punctuality that would have the Germans gasping. I’m met by our tour guide (it’s been a long time since I had anyone waiting at an airport to meet me) and off to our hostel. At which point, disbelief sets in. I am actually in Lhasa. In Tibet. Just round the corner from the Potala Palace. This really IS a dream come true.

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