On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World
An Illustrated Guide to the Highest Railway
Even after less than a handful of hours of sound sleep, I awoke with a start just before my alarm sounded. Suddenly, the vents began to emit a steady woosh--oxygen being piped in to assist our breathing at some 2700 meters above sea level. When I looked down from my bunk bleary-eyed, the T27 train from Beijing to Lhasa was still rolling through black night. I had awoken for the sunset, but then realized my mistake. Tibet, like all parts of China, was on Beijing time, but we were far from the capital -- and from everything, it seemed. As I lay awake waiting for a sunrise still hours away, I pondered the symbolism: out here, Beijing controlled even the clocks.
To many the world's most daring railway is a blessing for Tibet -- or for those who want to behold or perhaps control its remote landscape. But it is also a curse, some say, for the place it's meant to serve. As we barreled into the mysterious region, half a year after capital Lhasa was beset by deadly political turmoil, I wondered how the train was changing Tibet.
Photos by Alice Liu and Alex Pasternack
Beijing's West Railway Station, where the 47-hour journey begins
China's - and the world's - reach to the highest plateau on earth grew in summer 2006 with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Qingzang Tielu é’è—é“è·¯). An engineering marvel that China itself once ruled impossible, the $4.2 billion line traverses an region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.
Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost, a feat that required a system that keeps the ground frozen year-round to prevent the rails from sliding. Engineers also had to anticipate the long-term effects of global warming, which are melting Tibet's glaciers at an alarming rate. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called the railway "an unprecedented project in the history of mankind," a typical unvarnished government boast that for once, wasn't hyperbole.
But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world's longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags.
For me and my three travel companions, China train veterans with whom I shared a $150-per-bed soft sleeper cabin, this was no average rail ride. At times, its impact can be breathtaking -- literally.
Although she had been preparing for the elevated trek by taking altitude-sickness pills, one friend sunk into her bunk at the whim of pounding headaches. Her bags of snacks, inflated to the verge of bursting, registered the lower air pressure while the flow of oxygen provided a calming, steady background noise.
Still, while everyone had warned us about the nasty effects of a sudden rise in altitude -- and a handful of people curled up in the cheap hard seat section looked like they were feeling it -- I barely felt any effects. Perhaps I was distracted by the stunning view.
There wasn't much else to draw our attention inside "the Tibetan limited." The LCD TVs set into the wall at the foot of every bed weren't working, at least not in my cabin, which was probably a good thing if the snatches of cheesy music over the hallway loudspeakers were any indication. The dining car offered up costly, unremarkable food (about $2.50 for a set lunch). The bathrooms were thankfully not dirty, as they are wont to be on a 2-day train ride, but most were of the squat, not sit, variety. There were no showers, and no luxury sightseeing car, though a $1,000-per-person train, now postponed, is meant to include both of those things. (The cheapest seat on the current train is about $50.)
Perhaps the biggest attraction inside? Our friendly and charming attendant, who flirted with one of our group and told us his friends called him "the Chinese Obama." The resemblance was actually uncanny.
There were of course other, more serious politics on board too.