Friday, March 7, 2008

The T27 Train to Tibet (Feb 20)

My friend and I are on the train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, and it has been an amazing experience so far. The entire trip is 48 hours, and based on a friend’s recommendation decided to go with the hard sleeper ticket instead of the soft sleeper. It is pretty tight quarters with 6 beds packed into a space of about 200 cubic feet (6x6x8). There is no door and a hallway that is about 3 feet wide with seats on it. Everyone, of course, is all up in everyone’s business. Especially ours. This is certainly the down season to visit China and Tibet, and there are very few foreigners around.

Upon arrival to our cabin, we quickly met and became very well acquainted with our bunkmates and then, of course the rest of our car. One woman was headed to Lhasa, who looked much more like she was from Tibet, and a couple of the others were getting off at earlier stops. Most everyone else was Chinese. It is interesting to see who is from where, amidst some of the controversy about the impact of this train. Many seem to think that this is strict attempt by the Chinese government to further exalt its power and dominion over Tibet as it will open up new markets and areas for the Chinese people. Additionally, Tibet is a land full of untapped natural resources, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that China needs all the resources it can get its hands on. (hmmm. Seems like this has happened before.) Others see it as a way to increase the standard of living in Tibet as well generate better economic and cultural opportununities. It certainly bolsters tourism, and we will be curious to see the impact of this gateway has had.

Our first hour in our cabin was certainly one of the most memorable of the trip so far. We quickly garnered a crowd of curious onlookers as we tried to introduce ourselves and learn a little bit about the people we were going to be sharing the train with for the next two days. It seemed soon there were 10 people in there all trying to learn a little bit of English. Tons of picture taking commenced and we were soon offered beer and cucumbers to celebrate the beginning of the journey. A couple of quick gregarious and fun loving men made it for quite a lively time, as they tried to say there were happy, crazy, and maybe a little bit drunk. It was quite an intense and intimate moment, as we were able to share tons of laughter and good spirit, all the while knowing about 4 words between us. We figured out the words “beer, cucumber, friends, and cheers.” Good combination for sure.

The first night’s sleep wasn’t so bad, a slight and gentle knocking of the train allowed for much waking up, but still a good amount of sleep. The light of day brought the same Chinese landscape. Gray. Brown. Dirty. Polluted. Rugged. Rough. I am still in absolute awe of the pollution. Worst than any I have seen, even in Dhaka. And this is out in the countryside. It is like it encompasses the entire country. Old factories, piles and piles of coal. China is in the industrial revolution.

The curiosity of the foreigners began to wear a little on us throughout the day. The young folks did know a little bit of English, but they mainly just liked to come and sit, RIGHT next to you, and usually if you were reading, they would take the book and start looking at it themselves. Space was cramped as it was, but we didn’t really need more people in our little cabin. But, that is what has made this trip so unique and enjoyable. Fortunately, the most curious people got off in Lanzhou, about halfway through the trip. The lady from Lhasa was still right across from us, patiently smiling, trying to sleep, reading what seemed to be a religious text, and gazing out the window.

Fortunately, the new inhabitants of our cabin were a very pleasant and easy going Tibetan family, with a really cute daughter. It is amazing how strong and quickly kids grow up in the rest of the world, but it certainly didn’t reduce her appeal. They seemed to hardly notice us, and just went about their business, occasionally offering us cookies and other bits of food, and us doing likewise. Fortunately, no one offered any of the precooked hotdogs (whew!) or the chicken feet they were munching on. And let me tell you what. People love some ramen here. There might be more packages of ramen than people on this train. And many Chinese hock some serious loogies. It is quite extraordinary and something you have to experience. And most of them aren’t too concerned about where it ends up. The government, in its effort to present a good image, has embarked on a pretty extensive signage campaign to prevent people from spitting. (I haven’t been able to get a good sound recording yet.) Oh, someone just started playing “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston. I think it is about the 10th time I have heard it since I have been here. Ahh yes. Riding the train on the Tibetan Plateau listening to Whitney Houston. It doesn’t get much better than this. Oh, yes it does. They just started playing Bon Jovi.

Riding in the hard sleeper has been a great experience, much better than the soft sleeper, which is basically the first class. We met a Korean who speaks English and was staying the soft sleeper. It was pretty empty on the second day and no action. Meanwhile, there is lots of action on the hard sleeper. The family is partly sitting in our cabin. The mother and daughter are humming an incredibly beautiful tune. It is a beautiful soundtrack to out journey. Later they were playing cards right outside our cabin. In many ways, this small cabin has really come to grow on me. I was a little worried when I first saw and imagined 2 full days with six people. But, it has made the entire experience quite wonderful because you are intimately involved with everyone around you. You know what is going on even though you can’t understand what they are saying. No pretensions, just a bunch of different people trying to get to Lhasa.

The actual design facilitates it quite well. The bottom bunk turns into a bench during the day, which could sit 3-4 people fairly well on each side. Immediately outside of it is the corridor with a small table and a seat the folds down on either side of it. That space then naturally serves as an extension to the cabin area. So, you feel really connected to everyone who is around you.

The second night seemed a bit longer, as we made a number of stops. I feel like my ears popped a bit, but it was hard to tell how much we had really climbed, or exactly where we were. In the morning the outside thermometer said -19 degrees Celsius (-2 degrees Fahrenheit). So far it has warmed up to -5 C (22 F). The doors and windows are coated with ice. We must be pretty high because even just walking around, I am getting tired. The oxygen is pumping We are in the absolute middle of nowhere, although it is pretty flat. We must be on the Tibetan Plateau, although I can’t really see any high mountains. There are smaller hills around, covered with a thin layer of windblown snow. The entire landscape is frozen solid. It is pretty desolate, but beautiful. Occasionally, we pass a road or building, but not much in between except yaks and the shadow of the train rolling over the landscape.

We have now been on the train 40 hours. Enjoyed every minute of it so far.

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