Stuff I Know

Just stuff by me about me and my life, such as it is.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


(Edit: Photos added.)

This is the one word I would use to describe the train trip from Beijing to Lhasa. I have some other words I would add, but I'll get to those later.

The train trip is quite an experience. The 9:30 PM departure time seems to be timed well to see some fantastic scenery. Even though the early part of the trip isn't very high in elevation, the countryside is still interesting.

The train follows rivers a lot of the way, so some of the canyons you see are really spectacular. But the real beauty starts as you get closer to the Tibetan plateau. The plains are empty, only covered with moss and some scrub, but they extend off into the distance, sometimes a short distance, to some incredible hills and mountains, both green and snow-capped. We traveled through sun, clouds, rain, and even a snow storm.

The elevation, 4938 meters at the highest, wasn't a problem for me, but I did see some people opt for nose tubes. Actually, during the highest part of the trip, oxygen was pumped into the train car from little valves under the seats. If you want, you can ask for a tube for direct oxygen.

After the highest point, the train starts down toward the Lhasa valley. And the scenery gets even better. Finally you go through a couple of tunnels and enter the valley. High green mountains to either side, some in the distance covered with snow. A fast river flowing below you. You get closer to the city and then you can see the Potala in the distance, the enigmatic icon of Lhasa.

You have arrived.

(Please go easy on me. These were taken from a moving train, out a smudgy window, with reflections. And, sorry, I couldn't get a reliable GPS signal on the train to be able to geotag these photos.)

I could certainly spend a lot of time in this area if I had the money.

Now for those other words about the train trip. Crowded, noisy, annoying, uncomfortable, exhausting, and slightly disgusting, to give you just a few.

If you are contemplating taking this trip after my description, for the sake of your own sanity ( unless you are a hardened, veteran traveler) get a sleeper for the 48 hour trip. Don't choose the hard seat option. I chose the seat because I am traveling alone, and I am cheap when it comes to myself (I am still eating peanut butter, I brought from Korea, for lunch here in Lhasa!) . I don't know if I would choose the seat option again. Remember, this is all just part of my view of the whole experience.

Crowded - The train was over booked almost the whole length of the journey. There were people with no seats standing in the aisle. Many of them for shorter trips of 8, 10, 12, or 24 hours for destinations along the way, but I did see one guy with no seat for the entire trip to Lhasa. He would stand and sometimes sit wherever he could, on the edge of someone else's seat, on a box, or even on the floor. Strange thing was, even though people got off along the way, the train was still over-booked until the last section into Lhasa.

Noisy - I can deal with noise, and a certain amount is to be expected on a train, but man, the profusion of people talking, kids screaming, and train noises was almost overwhelming sometimes. I didn't even get close to quiet until about 2 or 3 AM.

Annoying - Just the general push and shove of people can certainly get on your nerves at times. At each stop, people and their luggage (I use this term loosely. It could be anything from a book-bag, to an over-sized backpack, to overly large sacks of what I assume [hope] was some kind of grain product.) getting on and off and smacking you in the leg, shoulder, or head as they go by. People leaning on your seat or kicking you as they go up and down the aisles. Having to move whenever the person next to you wants to get out (Luckily I had the two-person seat rather than the three.) people spitting, smoking, and throwing trash on the floor when there were signs in three languages clearly stating not to spit, smoke, or throw trash on the floor.

Uncomfortable - This goes hand-in-hand with annoying, but also, whoever designed those seats clearly didn't actually travel in them for 48 hours. They weren't wood, but almost as hard. The key was to find a position for your butt and not move. In time, about 4 or 5 hours, your but and the seat would reach an equilibrium of cushioning (about the softness of a tire tread) and numbness where you could endure the situation. Of course if you moved, it started all over again. Also, the seat backs were fixed vertical and only slightly accommodating to the human spine.

Slightly Disgusting - I say slightly, but others may not be so forgiving. The smoking and spitting is a given here. But also, it was disgusting because of those who had the presence of mind to not actually spit. The thing was, they still did the sniffing, hawking, coughing, and throat clearing one normally does proceeding the actual spit, but they never actually spat. Think about it for a moment. It'll come to you.

The amount of trash that can collect on a train is amazing. A few times during the trip, the train personnel would start at one end of the car and just sweep everything down to the other end. I had the good fortune of being on the collection end of the car. I even heard other passengers gasp as the mountain of trash passed us out the end to be bagged.

And lest I forget ... If you have ever used a squat toilet, then you'll only partially understand what the facilities were like on the train. Imagine using a squat toilet on a bumping jostling train. Now add into the picture 98 people per train car with two squatters per car. Figure in all the various foods eaten in China and what they can do to a person's bowel movements, and multiply it all by 48 hours. Oh yeah, and you are not supposed to throw the toilet tissue down the toilet, so there is a can of the material (yes, used) next to you as you try to do your business. Now you might have a clearer picture of how things were. Sorry about that.

Exhausting - Any long distance travel can be tiring, but I swear, on this train time seemed to slow down. It felt as if I was in the Twilight Zone or something. The train left at 9:30 PM. We click-clacked along for a while and I thought to myself, "This is not so bad, I can do this. Forty-eight hours will be a piece-of-cake." Then I looked at my watch. 10:00. What?!? Thirty minutes, I could have sworn it had been longer than that. I am not a clock-watcher, but after what seemed like an additional lengthy period of time, I looked at my watch again. 10:45. Huh? That's impossible!

The whole journey seemed to turn into a collection of 30 - 45 minute segments that individually felt like many hours, each. Even at night when I was trying to sleep, I remember looking at my watch around 1:30 AM. I woke up a while later realizing I had actually slept for a bit there. Wondering how long it would be until everyone else would wake up, I looked at my watch. 3:00 AM. Impossible!! And it continued throughout the whole trip. It was only a forty-eight hour journey, but each hour seemed to stretch into 2, 3, or 4 hours.

Now please don't let all these negatives put you off taking a trip from Beijing to Lhasa. I am sure with a sleeper instead of a seat the trip would be a lot better. It is just easier to talk about the negative aspects, because with the positive ones, namely the scenery, you just stare in rapt awe. The words don't seem to come. And those that do don't seem to do justice to what you see before you. It certainly was one train trip that I will long remember.

I will try and have some pictures up before too long. Until then, have a look at this:
This is a track of the bike ride I took in Beijing. If you click the map, you'll get a bigger version that you can zoom in and move around on. I'll put more tracks up later. Have fun.

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At 7:19 AM, Blogger brandvegn said...

Good post. I took the bike out after about 10 days of rain, in some cases non-stop. I am not sure who predicts the "rainy season has ended", but it hadn't. I would usually get up in the morning, look outside, knowing it was raining, sigh, take a taxi and swim. I also bought a hydration bag for 20 bucks from Costco (10 bucks minus the 10 dollar merchandise coupon). I will be testing it all out sometime this weekend...if it doesn't rain.


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