The Most Challenging Railway Ever Built
The thoughts and process for planning this railway have been in the making for five decades. It has been very controversial because of the extreme conditions of the land on which it is built on. It also crosses areas with some of the most delicate ecosystems on earth. Great measures had to be taken in the building of the track. 4/5 of the track spans over frozen earth. They had to find ways to divert the heat so it would not thaw the ground. If this happens the track would buckle from the temperature fluctuation.
The conditions of cold and high altitude had to be taken into consideration for the workers building the railway as well. Almost 1000km’s of the track is located 4000 meters above sea level. The highest point is at 5072 meters, 200 meters higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes.
It is the world’s longest plateau railroad, extending 1956km’s from Qinghai’s provincial capital Xining to Lhasa in Tibet. The newly created Golmud-Lhasa section zigzags 1,142km’s through the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain ranges. The train runs at 100km an hour over the frozen earth and 120kms an hour on the non-frozen sections. It officially opened on July 1, 2006.
The track and huge columns that support the bridges are already showing signs of settling, but the officials say this is normal. People can’t help but to think what will happen as global warming takes more of a toll on this area. How long will the railway actually function? The government claims the train will provide further economic growth to Tibet and it’s people. When in reality few Tibetans will benefit from it. It’s main goal will be to export the mineral riches out of Tibet that China has long been waiting to get at.
Our Experience On The Train
We took a taxi to the new train station. The government spent millions of dollars on this project and is very proud of it. You think for all the time and money spent they could design a better train station. You come up to the entrance and immediately have to put your bags through and x-ray machine. This immediately creates a backlog right at the door of the building. Your bags go through the machine and come out the other side onto a conveyor belt that is barely two feet long. You don’t have enough time to get around to collect them before they are spilling off of it and onto the floor. By the time we got around, our bags were piled all over with many others. They just keep pushing more bags through. Everyone is scrambling and tripping over each other and the bags trying to find their pieces. In all the chaos a jar of jam in one of our bags had broken. It was smashed all over the place and stuff was covered in sticky jam.
The next problem is getting your bags to the train. They don’t seem to understand this is a mode of transport, just like a plane. So why wouldn’t you design it the same way as an airport. We had to gather up all our bags and get them onto an escalator to go to the 2nd floor. A station attendant saw we were having some difficulties with our bags and broken apart food bag. So she tied up the broken bag and stuck it on the escalator in front of us to go up. This was fine for now, but how were we supposed to be able to get our large bags off at the top and somehow grab this bag in front of us too. Some peoples suitcases could barely fit onto the escalator steps.
The next challenge was getting our bags to the line and through it for our ticket check. There are no carts or anything to put them on. After the ticket check we went outside to a walkway and then the best was yet to come. There was a long set of stairs to get down to the train platform. How do they expect people to get their stuff down the stairs? We were not as bad off as some people with large suitcases. We saw many other people having difficulties.
Our Sleeping Compartment
We appeared to be the only foreigners getting onto the train. Our room was what they call a soft sleeper. Jack and I had bunks on one side and we had to share with 2 other people who would be on the other. There are hard sleeper compartments that have two groups of 3 bunks on each side. The highest bunks are quite high, I would be scared of falling out in the night. Our room has a door that can close and lock. The hard sleepers have no door and are open to the hallway. You can also book just a seat for the trip, I can’t imagine sitting and sleeping in a seat for 48 hours.
We had been dreading to find out who we would be sharing our room with. Would it be middle aged chain smoking men. The typical ones who would be staring at every move we made. We thought the worse, would they take pictures of us while we slept? Don’t think this is absurd, we heard of a guy who had someone try to take a picture of his parts while he went pee! It turned out we had two young girls, they were very polite and didn’t stare at us at all. They did not speak more than a few words of English. After a few polite hellos, that was it for communication, verbally anyway. Friendly gestures of sharing some snacks and tea were exchanged during the trip. One girls dad kept coming in to visit. I think he liked to come to hang out in the exciting compartment with the foreigners.
Each bed in our room has a flat screen TV with headphones. Most of the movies were in Chinese, but we had a few with English subtitles and one movie, Independence Day in full English. The train stopped one time half way through this movie, also stopping the movie. When the train went again, the movie started from the beginning, so we had to watch it all over. Then when it was within 15 minutes of ending, it shut off for some reason. Each bed also has an outlet with oxygen available at all times while the train is at high altitudes. You are provided with a one time use tube with a piece that goes up your nose, just like the ones they use in the hospital.
Tip, Bring Your Own Food
It’s kind of strange, they make some announcements on the train in English, but nothing else on the train is in English. We really don’t know what was supposed to happen in the dining car. We weren’t sure if there was a menu. We would use our phrase book and manage to get rice and some cooked vegetables. We were really sick of rice and soggy veggies by the time the trip was over. There was nothing else to eat.
The dining car only held a small percentage of the passengers at one time, so it was really hard to get a seat. We would just take our food back to the room most of the time. One time when we managed to get a seat, the seats across from us in our booth remained empty, even though lots of people were waiting to sit. They are always afraid to sit near us, they think we will bite them or something. One guy was complaining about the lack of seats. We couldn’t understand the attendants response of course because it was in Chinese, but we got the general drift of it. She pointed to the empty side of the booth across from us and made a face at him as if to say sit down dummy, there are seats right there.
A small snack cart would go by our room at times, but all it had was pop, water and some sunflower seeds, also some kind of dried meat in a package. Even if we wanted to get something from this cart we wouldn’t be able to, as it would race by the door before you knew it was even coming. I raced after it one time and finally caught up with it three cars later, only to see the lady flop down in a seat in total exhaustion. We were only allowed to get off the train twice for a 10 to 20 minute stop. The train platform had a small shop, but it had much the same as the snack cart inside the train. It did have some kind of melon, but we had nothing to cut them with.
The Security Police Seem Suspicious Of Our Presence On The Train
We were handed a form to fill out, but it was completely in Chinese. We just laughed and put it to the side, I guess we weren’t going to be able to fill it out. None of the attendants spoke any English so they couldn’t help us. Then one of the girls in our room showed us here Chinese ID card. We assumed she wanted our passports. We handed them to her and she managed to fill out most of the form for us. The attendant came and collected them, I guess the blank parts left were not that crucial.
About half an hour later an official police officer came to the door. He looked concerned. He spoke a little broken English. He wanted to know what nationality we were, where we had come from and where we were going. I don’t get the “where did we come from”, the train originates only from Lhasa, so that makes no sense. I think he wanted to know if we had come into Tibet from Nepal perhaps. Then he asked to see our visas. We reached out to hand him our passports. He kept saying no, visas. We had to finally show him the visas in the passport. I guess they are not used to seeing foreign passports here to know how they work, they only deal with Chinese ID’s. This seemed to satisfy him for the time being. Then a while later another knock came at the door. This time it was a different guy. We were starting to get worried they were going to throw us off the train or something. He wanted to see the passports as well. Wow, it sure seemed to be a big deal that we were on this train.
Just when we thought we were the only foreigners on the train a British guy appeared at our door. He had heard of two Canadians on board and was glad to know he was not the sole foreigner traveling. It was nice to have someone else to talk to. It was strange to know there were only 3 foreigners on the whole train!
Sucking On Oxygen While We Pass By Beautiful Scenery
The train is timed to leave so you can view the most scenic parts of the trip in the daylight. We passed by vast areas of what looked like pictures that we have seen of the Northwest Territories at home. As far as the eye could see it was barren land, most of it covered in permafrost. Every once in a while there would be a nomad tent and a herd of goats, sheep or yaks. Then we started to come across mountains covered in glaciers. They were so close by, it was really beautiful.
We knew we were getting quite high, we could hear the hissing sound of people using their oxygen. We were also starting to get a headache. We reached the highest point of the trip. It had a sign marking it at 5068 meters. That night we both used the oxygen a few times. It is really the only thing that helped us to lessen the headaches, pain killers don’t really seem to do much. Of course you have to drink tons of water too, the recommended amount at high elevations is 4 liters per day.
We had gone through the most scenic part of the trip on day one. The second day was a lot of farm land and industrial looking cities. We passed by cities with many smoke stacks and factories, At one point there was a large river flowing along side the train. It was an almost brownish orange colour. We could only imagine how polluted the water must be from all the industry around it.
By day two we had reached our limit of being confined to our train compartment. There was nowhere to go, a short walk down the hallway was about it. We were really glad when we reached Chengdu and could get off the train on the morning of day three.
The trip overall was okay. It was not as spectacular as we expected, I think we had been spoiled with so much beautiful landscape in other parts of Tibet. If a tourist goes to Tibet and only sees Lhasa and the surrounding area, then the train trip would be more impressive for them.