There are several options to travel to Tibet – by air (fastest & easiest), by train (slow but scenic), overland by vehicle (adventurous though complicated) or by foot (if you’re hardcore enough). We decided to take the train from Beijing to Lhasa because it helps in acclimatization as it slowly ascents as opposed to flying straight in to a city of 3,595m above sea level.
We first arrived in Beijing 11 days before our trip to Lhasa (we took the bullet train from Shanghai). It was about 8am in the morning and the ticket counters were not opened yet. It was the first day of ticket sales for the date we need. Train tickets in China normally go on sale 10 or 11 days before the date of departure (we learned from experience). Ed went to enquire and was told that the counters will open at 9am. We decided to camp out at McDonald’s and have brekkie. 5 mins before 9am, Ed dashed out to the ticket counter.
He came back 15 mins later to tell me that the tickets for bunk beds have been sold out! Within 10 mins of them going on sale. WTF? Panicked. We tried to call our tour agent in Lhasa to ask if he can help us get tickets (they might have connections) but it was too early in the morning and they have not started work. We calmed down a little. We must get on the train on that specific date, else everything will be ruined. Then I said it, “Let’s just take the seats.” although it will be extremely painful since it is a 42-hour train ride. No choice.
He went back to the ticket counter while I waited. Horror scenes start appearing on my mind. We’ve taken enough train rides to know that the seaters should only be your last resort for a longgg train ride, especially 42 hours. Yikes! When Ed came back, he flashed the tickets in front of me with a funny expression without saying a word. I looked at the tickets and they were in Chinese O_o I could only understand the date, time, train number and price.
Took a second look at the price and it was too expensive to be seaters. OOOHHH! They were tickets for bunks! *skips around happily* For some weird reason, when the counter lady checked again, there were available tickets =_= Weird. But we were so glad. So so so glad, trust me. It’s like striking a lottery. The tickets we got were the middle bunk beds, for 745RMB each. The beds in Chinese trains are 3-tiered with the lowest one being most expensive and the highest one the cheapest. Our advice: Never take the lower bunk coz random people will sit on your bunk during the daytime or whenever you’re not sleeping. Together with the tickets; we were given consent forms to acknowledge that we know we’re getting on a train traversing on high altitude.
The train connecting Beijing to Lhasa is one of China’s greatest engineering feat. I recently finished reading a book on how Mao envisioned this during his lifetime but it could not be done due to lack of technology, how they had to abandon this dream when the country almost went bankrupt and how they revived it at the turn of the millennium. When they kick-started the project, they did not have a solution for building on permafrost (the tracks go through the highest plateau in the world and one of the toughest terrain to build on) but they continued building anyway! Finally at the 11th hour, an engineer managed to overcome it by proposing to build bridges. They only took about 5 years to build what might have been a 10-15 year project. Yes, this is China at its best.
Two of our friends joined us for the trip. Sze, our old debater friend from uni and Thai Binh, whom we met in Myanmar & traveled together there and in Hanoi. Ed and I arrived at Beijing West train station and waited for them. When it was time to board the train, they were still on their way and we decided to board the train first.
Typical of any train rides, everyone shoved and hustled their way through the gates; lugging boxes, cartons and luggage with them. Found our bunks and kept our bags under the seats. Chinese trains have a funny way of naming their seats– there will be two sets of numbers in every compartment: one set is for daytime seating and one for nighttime bunk beds (the numbering will be used depending on whether it is a daytime or nighttime train). So, some people were extremely lost and caused a massive human jam in the already narrow aisles. Sze and TB finally made it on board. We still had some time left before departure and took a walk around.
There was nothing much to be done on the train. You must have a great sense of humor and ability to entertain yourself without going mad. So, we chatted, played cards, took photos, ate snacks after snacks after snacks and drank beer.
During one of the stops, we hopped off the train and was more the than happy to find a cart selling snacks. The first thing we asked was whether they had beer coz the train only served Budweiser which tasted like crap. We bought 10 cans of Tibet Green Barley Beer! Happy campers
The restaurant became our 2nd hang-out place where we would have meals and play cards.
Our train ride spanned across 3 days. We took off at 8pm on Day 1 and arrived at 3pm on Day 3. Spent two nights on the train! We got chirpier on the 2nd & 3rd day and started interacting with our bunk mates. On the last day, tubes for the oxygen outlets were being distributed in case anyone needed them.
Ed overhead a random conversation which went like this — Man: Are you taking any high altitude medication? Woman: Nope, coz I live in a high-rise building in Beijing!
Whaaaat? Joke of the year! We couldn’t stop laughing and kept telling this to other people.
It was a very scenic ride towards the end of the 2nd day and the whole of the 3rd day as we approached the Tibetan plateau. Vast empty lands. Herds of yaks and sheep roaming freely.
As we were approaching Lhasa, there were announcements onboard which introduced the attractions and culture of Tibet. We knew we were finally arriving when we saw buildings. Civilization!
Our guide picked us up from the Lhasa train station and greeted us with Katags (Tibetan white silk scarfs used to greet and honour guests). We were then brought to our hostel for some rest and to settle down. We were also advised not to bathe as to prevent getting a cold coz it might trigger altitude sickness. So yeah, we did not bathe for 4 days 😐