Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Train to Tibet, the World's Highest Railway

Tibet ©Solange Hando

Back in 2006, China opened the Qinghai Express linking Lhasa to Beijing and now extended to other cities. Climbing to 5072 metres at the Tanggula pass, this is the highest railway in the world, a masterpiece of engineering with amazing bridges, viaducts and tunnels and large sections built on permafrost.

It is also a wonderfully scenic ride, which few westerners dare to brave, but our 34 hour trip from Xian to Lhasa was memorable, from the misty lowlands of China to the vast Tibetan plateau where mineral rich hills glowed under a crisp blue sky and blue rivers fringed in snow and ice meandered through the wilderness.

River on Tibetan Plateau ©Solange Hando

We travelled in soft couchettes with duvets and slippers, lunched in the dining car with wine from the Great Wall of China and popped our bags of peanuts and sweets like balloons. Due to the altitude, every carriage is pressurised and equipped with individual oxygen outlets. There's even a clinic but no one is allowed more than a couple of minutes on the platform when the train stops at one of the rare stations.

There was plenty of time to make friends,with  a few Tibetans but mostly Chinese heading back to work after a break or looking forward to a holiday in Lhasa. Should the altitude bother us, we were in good hands, our cheerful neighbours were qualified nurses.

Happy Nurses on the Qinghai-Tibet Express ©Solange Hando

The land was for ever changing, lakes, dunes, horses and now and then the grave of a worker who died building the line. We passed the Kunlun mountains at night, hoping the earthquake monitors would keep us safe, and woke to a thick carpet of snow spreading as far as we could see. Tanggula marked the Tibetan border where a guard stood to attention but the train did not stop.

Dark hairy yaks and antelopes looked as frozen as the landscape but in the distance, a lonely Buddhist shrine confirmed this was indeed Tibet, cold, bleak, deserted, but not for long.

 Snow on Tibetan Plateau ©Solange Hando

Later that morning, the snow vanished and pristine mountains rose silhouetted against a clear sky.  Wild geese flew overhead, nomad tents flapped in the wind and we followed a near empty road lined with dummy policemen. Then there was a welcome gate topped with colourful flags and a new breath of life swept across the land.

Tibetan Welcome ©Solange Hando

It was a long lazy afternoon but suddenly. patches of green fields appeared here and there, a few willows swayed along the river and suddenly, the triple-arched bridge came into view, the greatest achievement of all and the gateway to Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

The train pulled into Lhasa station at 16.44 exactly. We had left Xian the previous day at 6.44: the train was on time, to the minute.
We stepped out on the vast deserted square, eager to breathe the fresh mountain air but slightly dizzy as the altitude took us by surprise. No more oxygen top-up, this was the real thing.

Lhasa Station©Solange Hando

But we could hardly wait to explore and on our way to the hotel, we caught our first glimpse of the Potala Palace.
But more about this next time...

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