Out the window the emerald waters of sacred Nam Tso Lake glints under a cloudless blue sky. Along the aisle a foreign tour group presses against the windows, furiously clicking shutters at the passing Tibetan landscape. From a soft sleeper cabin, a stylish young Tibetan couple emerges. I venture to ask their opinion of train travel. Yawning, the man shakes his head: "No, we don't like the train much." His wife smiles in agreement, "Yes, it's far too slow ... next time we'll take the plane to Lhasa as usual." They return to their cabin and I am left to ponder the beautiful expanse of the lake, and the merits of using 48 hours to travel by train from Beijing to Lhasa on T27.
Getting to the Train
Assuming you can buy a ticket (they can be very scarce during peak seasons) and secure the requisite Tibet travel permit, the first challenge is negotiating Beijing's West Train Station. With a departure time of 9:30 p.m., it is best to leave early to avoid becoming marooned in Beijing traffic. Entering West Station is like being flung into a tumble dryer of humanity; it is overcrowded, chaotic and brain achingly noisy. I watched locals and foreigners gazing in slack jawed confusion at a football field sized electronic timetable. Concealed somewhere in the blinking numbers and letters was the secret location of T27-the train to Tibet. Every corner of the station seemed full beyond capacity. Even the "exclusive" soft sleeper lounge was standing room only and knee deep in luggage. To keep everyone guessing, two giant lines had formed in competition on opposite sides of the departure lounge for T27. With the call to board, the line immediately disintegrated into a bout of wrestle mania. Calling on all my years of accumulated travel nuance, I grabbed the nearest red hatted luggage porter, handed him RMB5 and followed safely in the slipstream created by his bulky luggage trolley.
Life on board T27
Once aboard the T27, experienced China hands will feel right at home. Despite a serious makeover and a technical refit to handle the rigours of high altitude travel, the carriages belong to a previous generation. They are laid out in the trinity of hard seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. But the new look is fresh, clean and pleasing to the eye-there are even small screen televisions in the soft sleeper. But the refit has further reduced the little space there was, and it's a snug fit in the sleepers. For those with a phobia of long distance transportation bathrooms, the facilities here are modern and kept in pretty good order. Train staff were generally helpful, cheerful and quick to assist anyone distressed by the altitude. The only low note was the dining car. Manned by supremely disinterested staff, the menu was a single piece of kitchen paper with dishes scribbled in characters incomprehensible even to Chinese diners. Breakfast, lunch and dinner always featured the same choices.
Train Eye Candy
After exhausting conversation options, available reading matter and the dubious pleasures of the dining car, the major attraction of train travel is what lies outside the windows, and the variety of passenger life.
T27 offers a great platform to take in the Chinese landscape. For much of the first day the train passes through the desiccated and tortured sandy landscapes of Shanxi, dotted with settlements of cave houses. Then the train enters the rugged, lunarscape of southern Gansu and reaches the smog cloaked suburbs of Lanzhou by late afternoon. Leaving Lanzhou, the train tracks the surging Yellow River, one of the few stretches where the river has not run dry.
On the second night, T27 stops at Xining and Golmud, then starts the climb up the windswept Tibetan plateau. At Golmud I sleepily peer out the window to see hundreds of shadowy figures rushing to board the train. In the morning, all eyes are glued to the windows, soaking up the clear open skies and astonishing landscape of the Tibetan plateau. The emptiness is broken by herds of yaks, small deer, yurts, shepherds and their flocks and circling birds of prey. Distant peaks peppered with snow and ice track the train's progress. Along the line, small encampments of workers in their flimsy tent villages are reminders of the human effort needed for this project.
Making my way to the dining area, I find a Tibetan monk asleep in the deserted car. He had escaped from the overcrowding in the hard seat section. I walk through the train and find that it has been transformed during the night-taken over by hundreds of colorfully dressed, friendly Tibetan nomads and monks bound for Lhasa.
The train stops along the way, offering a brief chance to stretch your legs and sample the exotic wares of the vendors. Naqu, the last stop before Lhasa and the only stop inside Tibet, will leave you breathless, literally.
The Fear Factor
Every great trip must pose some element of peril. Putting aside Beijing West Station, foreign tour groups and spending 48 hours in a hard seat, the T27 trip poses one serious nasty: altitude sickness. On the second morning I started to feel a definite degree of discomfort. Others had headaches, sleeplessness, shortness of breath and even nausea. Oxygen is pumped into the carriages though and there are personal oxygen devices in the soft sleepers and throughout the train. And it's not only people that break down at high altitude. Technology can equally fall victim to the thin air as a fellow traveler found to his dismay when his CD player ground to a halt. Stay hydrated, take some aspirin, stay out of the mini bar and you should make it in one piece.
How to get there:
To travel the rails on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, head to the Beijing West Railway Station and board the T27, or arrive at the Shanghai Railway Station and board the T164. The T27 leaves Beijing at 9:30 p.m. and arrives in Lhasa at 8:58 p.m. on the third day after 47 hours and 28 minutes. Train T164/5 departs Shanghai at 4:11 p.m. and arrives in Lhasa at 7:50 p.m. on the third day running for 51 hours and 39 minutes after 4,373 kilometers. For more information, call the Beijing West Railway Station at 10-9510-5105, the Shanghai Railway Station at 800-820-7890 or the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa at 89-1634-3854 or 89-1634-9239.
We recommend the soft sleeper (after two days on a hard seat, you'll understand why there was a murder on the Orient Express), but cheaper options are also available. Prices from Beijing: hard seat RMB389, hard sleeper RMB813, soft sleeper RMB1,262. From Shanghai: hard seat RMB406, hard sleeper RMB845, soft sleeper RMB1,314. Once in Lhasa, head to the authentic and charming House of Shambhala (see sidebar).
Where to play: Put down your book and check out the stunning scenery as the Tibetan Plateau rolls by. If you're looking for more interaction, strike up a conversation with one of the Tibetan monks heading home.
Where to eat: Bring your own food as the dining car leaves much to be desired.
(Cityweekend February 15, 2007)