Notes from the highest railroad in the world

The highest railroad in the world used to run through the Andes east of Quito, Ecuador. I first heard about it when I read the great rail-traveler Paul Theroux’s chronicle of taking trains through South America (The Old Patagonian Express). Theroux’s description of the distress suffered by him and his fellow passengers as a result of the altitude was both hilarious and riveting. I had no desire to experience it. Yet early Saturday afternoon (Oct 29), Steve and I pulled out of Lhasa’s main station on the rail line that knocked the Ecuadorian train out of first place. 

The line connecting Lhasa with Golmud in China’s Qinghai province (and thus the rest of China) opened in July of 2006. Costing $4.2 billion, it was said to be an engineering wonder, designed to stay safe and strong through some 340 miles of permafrost. Many observers decried it as the final hammer that would enable the dominant Han Chinese culture to obliterate traditional Tibetan society. Indeed, since its inauguration, tens of thousands of Han have immigrated to Tibet, and millions now have vacationed there. Steve and I wanted to take the train from Lhasa eastward, both to experience one of the world’s most remarkable rail lines and to see a big swathe of China unfold through our windows.

Rushing toward the train in Lhasa station. Don’t want to miss getting a space for our suitcases!

The train has three fare classes. “Soft sleeper” tickets don’t cost much more than the next grade down, but the train has only a few such cars, and competition for the berths is fierce. Despite the beguiling name, the 4-person compartments offer little privacy. Picture two sets of narrow bunk beds packed into a very small room. The “hard sleepers” contain two additional bunks (6 beds total), so things are even more cramped. Your only choice is to be lying down (on your bed) or hanging out in the corridor. The third category are like any train seats. You sleep sitting up in them.

Besides being crowded, those hard seat coaches were awfully smoky.

In August, our Tibetan tour operator emailed the good news that he’d managed to secure seats in a soft-sleeper compartment for us. Since our guide Tashi had to meet another tour group Saturday morning, the tour-company owner (Woeser) picked us up at our hotel and accompanied us to Lhasa’s hulking train station, which was obviously designed with the Potala Palace in mind. Woeser shepherded us through the security checkpoint, including a body scan and pat-down. Then we said our good-byes and Steve and I headed for the waiting room. A clear announcement (in Mandarin and English) alerted us when it was time to board. The way the crowd surged aggressively toward the boarding gates also was a clue. The stampede puzzled us; all the seats were assigned. But once we got to our compartment, it was clear why it paid to be early.

At first glance, the compartment looked cozy and inviting. Clean pillows and comforters were piled on the lower berths, and a pristine white table cloth covered the little counter holding a glass vase and (fake) red rose. But… where to stash our suitcases? No space for this seemed to have been provided. One of our compartment-mates, a serious young economics student who spoke pretty good English, carried only a small pack, but the fourth in our foursome was a larger guy lugging a bulky sky-blue suitcase. After some scrambling, we figured out that we could cram all three of the bags onto a shelf near the ceiling. Very close to 12:45, we eased out of the station, and settled in for our 33-hour journey.

1 pm — A cute young Chinese woman in the uniform of a railway worker takes our tickets and gives us plastic cards that we guess we’re supposed to guard. She also hands us two forms. Besides asking for the basics, they require us to confirm that we’re fit enough to tolerate altitudes of 3000 meters (about 9750 feet). This is strange. The highest pass crossed by the line (Tanggula) is more than 16,000 feet. I note the little boxes labeled “Oxygen Outlet” near the head of each bunk. Inside, there are two holes, but nowhere do we find any hoses to connect to them, hoses which reportedly pumped out oxygen in the line’s early days. At the foot of each bunk there’s also a sleek little TV screen, but these also don’t seem to work any more.

4 pm — Steve and I have been staring for hours at the vast and empty landscape north of Lhasa. Rugged snow-dusted hills rim close-cropped ochre grasslands that remind me of felt. We occasionally spot some lonely railroad workers, but the principal inhabitants of this grim country are yaks — so many that Steve thinks some must be wild. (I doubt that).

5:25 pm — We start seeing frost (or is it snow?) laced through the grass. Have we finally reached the permafrost? A huge mistake was our failure to bring a decent map of the country we’re passing through. We also have no train schedule. The only other Westerner we’ve seen on the train, a friendly young Dutch woman who’s on a 6-month-long backpacking adventure, has told us she’s getting off in the city of Xining around 10:15 Sunday morning. From such bits of information, we’re struggling to extrapolate our position. 
6:15 p.m. — For lunch we ate sandwiches purchased in Lhasa, but we’ve resolved to use the train’s dining car as much as possible to see more social action. When we enter it, however, the sullen looking waitress pointedly ignores us. We plop down in an empty booth and wait to see what happens. 
After some time, another train worker comes up to us and brusquely asks, “You want fish?”
“Is there chicken?” I counter. “For two. And beer?” This prompts him to scribble something on a piece of paper and to demand from us 50 yuan (about $7.40). That seems awfully cheap, and we soon find out why. We get only one dish consisting of small pieces of bony chicken and hot peppers, two bowls of rice, and two watery bowls of soup. No beers. 
After polishing off the meager fare, we supplement it with some beer and a can of Pringles purchased from a guy with a cart. But we’re feeling the altitude, and so we refrain from tucking into the Oreos we picked up in a Lhasa supermarket. 
1 am — We turned off all the lights in the compartment shortly after 10, but I haven’t done much more than doze. The train has an unpleasant habit of lurching abruptly every now and then. A train derailment anywhere in the world would be a nightmare, but the thought of it happening in this desolate wasteland is enough to keep me from relaxing. There’s no way to tell if we’ve crossed the highest pass, but I look forward to getting it behind us. The dry heat on the night train has irritated my sinuses so much they’re all but blocking any intake of the already oxygen-depleted air. I feel breathless every time I roll over. Still, there’s no drama unfolding on this train to match what Theroux described in the Andes. Maybe that’s because everyone is already more or less acclimated from their time in Tibet. Climbing up from Beijing may be uglier. 
7:10 am — I’m sitting on one of the jump seats in the corridor outside our compartment, happy to see the eastern sky begin to lighten at last. The imminent dawn reveals still more frozen wilderness. When I peek into the dining car, a few minutes later, I note that someone has hauled a piece of furniture to block admission. I also spot the toes of a railway worker asleep in one of the booths. 
8:15 — Discouraged by our experience with dinner last night, Steve and I buy two boxed breakfasts. The dough balls have no tasty meat in them (as they often do in China), but I’m feeling so veggie-deprived, all the little pickles taste delicious to me. The only calamity concerns coffee. We’ve got plenty of Starbucks Via packets with us, and there’s a spigot near one end of our car that supplies really hot water. But we’ve got nothing to drink it in! I type “2 cups of hot water” into my iPhone and Google translates it promptly and accurately. But in the dining room, one of the chefs snaps that we can get our hot water from the spigot. (We don’t need Google Translate to figure this out; his expression makes it obvious). We meekly request 2 empty cups, but he refuses, contemptuous. (Only after boarding did we realize that every Chinese passenger has sensibly brought a little thermos in which to carry his or her hot water.) 
10 am — We reach the outskirts of Xining in Qinghai province, the first real city we’ve seen since Lhasa and a much bigger, smokier, more industrialized population center. At the big train station here, we’re surprised to see our two compartment-mates prepare to disembark. The nerdy English-speaking economics student tells us he’s switching to the train on the track across the platform. The guy with the big sky-blue suitcase is too. I dare to dream that Steve and I might have our compartment to ourselves for the remaining 12-hour-ride to Xi’an, where we’ll get off and head for a hotel so that Monday we can visit the tomb of the first emperor of China, with its famous army of terra cotta soldier statues. I head for the door to try to photograph the “Lhasa-Guangzhou” sign on our car. But the cute little train attendant, seeing me, starts shouting at me in Mandarin. She’s alarmed. Wait! She seems to be saying that Steve and I must also change to the other train! In a panic, we gather up all our stuff and cross the platform. In car #6, compartment 7 (the same one we had on the first train), we reunite with Sky-Blue and Economics Student. I don’t know why Woeser didn’t warn us that we would have to change, but all’s well. The new train doesn’t depart for several more minutes. And moving to the new quarters gives us an opportunity to extract the plastic cups we’d buried in our carry-ons. With them, we can get our daily java jolt.
12 — The new train has a fancier looking dining car. When Steve pokes his head in shortly after 11, he spies a quartet of young railway workers sitting in one of the booths, snapping the ends off big fat green beans piled high. No passengers were in the car then, but when we decide to seek lunch shortly after noon, every one of the 10 booths has filled up, except for one that has a “Reserved” sign on it. A tall handsome guy in some sort of a police uniform is sitting in it, and we observe him tell several other would-be diners that they may not join him. About 12:25, four higher-ranking officials in civilian clothes push in and take the booth. 
The dining car staff kowtows to them, serving up a variety of dishes immediately and several times offering extra rice. All this helps to distract me from how hungry I am. (Those breakfast pickles lack staying power.) We’ve grabbed a couple of stools and are determined to wait until the first shift of lunch patrons eats and leaves. At one point, a Chinese guys sits down in the remaining stool, and a waitress gruffly shows him the hand-written menu and takes his order. She ignores us. This irritates me. 
Finally one pair of lunch patrons departs and Steve and I charge up the car to claim the seats. I also come up with a plan for ordering. We inspect the three plates of leftovers on our table, and I snap a photo of the two that look best. The next time the surly waitress passes us, we all but physically restrain her and show her the photos on my phone. She gets it and even asks if we want rice to go with the two dishes. This time we pay 75 yuan (about $11). The food is delicious.

On the right is tofu and pork. On the left, some of those excellent green beans cooked with a mystery meat. Whatever it was, it tasted good.

Back in our compartment, we sip Starbucks instant, munch on Oreos, and breathe in air that already feels fuller and more satisfying (if polluted).

1:30 — We arrive in the ancient Silk Road city of Lanzhou, where Economics Student gets off. Lanzhou today is home to some 3.6 million residents. Xining has 2.2 million. Our destination for this night, Xi’an, has around 10 million residents. The chance to glimpse these huge cities that we’d never heard of before this trip is part of what attracted us to the ride. Lanzhou looks like a poster child for China’s environmental woes. The smokestacks and blast furnaces remind me of what the far south side of Chicago looked like in my youth.The smog is worse than it was in LA in when Steve was a kid.

5 pm — We’ve spent the last several hours staring at the muscular mountains of Gansu province. They frame huge valleys, every inch of which is farmed or occupied. Mysterious caves dot many hillsides. Every few minutes, we also see clusters of mind-bogglingly huge apartment buildings. They’re interspersed with more farms and at one point, a sea of greenhouses. 

6:30 — Worn down by our earlier battles to get fed, we gamble that someone eventually show up with beer for sale (he does) and boxed dinners. They prove to be edible, if unexciting.

The pink slabs appeared to be Spam. Not bad.

10 pm (Sunday) — I’m so ready to get off this train. The sun went down several hours earlier, and the train light that replaced it is wan and depressing. Our roommate, Turquoise Suitcase Guy, isn’t a bad fellow, but he’s spent the entire ride watching insipid Chinese TV shows on his Samsung smartphone, napping, or furtively munching on the contents of a large bag of junk food. Although we were supposed to arrive in Xi’an at 9:47 pm, the train rumbles on and on past that hour. Eventually I begin to see huge buildings looming against a night sky that often seems to be tinged with dull red light. In my craving to reach our destination, the passing scene makes me think of Blade Runner.

7:30 am Tuesday — We’re feeling rested and happy after our day in Xi’an. For our last train ride in China, we have to head to a different rail terminus in the northern section of the city. It’s just 5 years old, a gleaming vortex of high-speed rail lines that feels more like a fancy airport than a train station.

The high-speed trains seemed the equal of their peers in Europe.

We find our boarding gate with plenty of time to spare, and settle into our second-class seats on the bullet train. It looks a lot like its counterparts in Europe, and soon we’re ramping up to speeds of about 180 miles an hour. 

1:15 pm — The past four hours have borne us through mostly flat country. At least we think so. We can’t see more than a few miles out either side of the train. Beyond that, everything has disappeared in a murky fog that looks like some of the worst air pollution on the planet. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining ride. For a while we speed along next to the enormous expanse of the Yellow River. We pass large tree-rimmed fields where all manner of crops are being grown. Some farms look as large as their American counterparts, except we spot within them something we’ve never seen in America: little mounds of earth and stones that obviously mark the graves of ancestors. 

As charming as that is, the thing that makes our jaw drop over and over are the massive apartment buildings — 20 and 30 stories tall grouped together in clusters of 8 or 12 of 20. We scarcely go more than 5 minutes before seeing another mob of them, all the way from Xi’an to Beijing. It’s another glimpse of the reality of sharing life with 1.3 billion fellow countrymen.

Just one example of the hundreds and hundreds we saw while speeding along.

2 thoughts on “Notes from the highest railroad in the world

  1. czatkin November 3, 2016 / 3:59 am

    I’m not sure this train trip sounds like much fun…

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