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A breath-taking train ride to the Roof of the World, and a “labor camp” on board

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on November 17, 2009 with No Comments

I finally made it to Lhasa. It was an incredible 48-hour ride on the world’s famous sky train with some of the most breath-taking scenery I have ever seen.

On Sunday night, my friend Sherlock, his mom Lily, his wife Colin, and little Slevin took me to the West Railway Station in Beijing. It was packed with people. I was relieved that Sherlock—who speaks Chinese fluently—was with me to find my way around the hectic terminal.
We got to Gate 3. Hundreds of people already stood in line with suitcases, boxes, and bulging bags, waiting for the gate to open. I couldn’t identify any other foreigners among the crowd.

Although it didn’t look different from other trains, the Sky Train is an engineering wonder. In 2007, a railway that seemed impossible became a reality. After an investment of over four billion dollars, the Chinese built the highest elevated railway in the world. At its highest point, the Sky Train climbs up to 16,640 feet (or 5,072 meters) in elevation.

The train was also very well equipped inside. I bought a soft-sleeper ticket, which is the most luxurious option. The cabin had four beds with warm comforters and pillows, a flat-screen TV, a heater, and an oxygen outlet. I had to whole cabin to myself. The toilets were clean. There were no showers, but that’s why I always carry wipes on my trips!

Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau

As soon as I got into my cabin, I went to bed. I slept twelve hours straight, and when I woke up, I was surrounded by snowy mountains, frozen rivers, and arid valleys. The train passed through some small villages, but also polluted cities with large factories.

I went to the dining car for breakfast, and it was empty. Only a few train employees and some military personnel were there. Minutes later, a solitary Chinese passenger joined me. I checked the menu and nothing seemed suitable for a vegetarian, so I tried to speak Chinese.
“Wo shi shu shi zhe,” I said to the young waitress.

The miserable waitress

The miserable waitress

She just pointed at the menu and looked annoyed. She didn’t speak any English, and didn’t make any effort to understand my Chinese or my English.

My attempts to communicate with her were unsuccessful, and I was starving. I picked one of the most “vegetarian” options.

The waitress came back and threw a bowl of tasteless rice porridge, some salty vegetables, shredded chicken, and a piece of warm, white, tasteless bread on my table. I ate what I could, while the other passenger slurped his porridge noisily. We both watched the craggy peaks appear and disappear as we ate.

Later that day, I came back for dinner. A Chinese waiter with a face full of scars took my order. He was as unhappy as the waitress. It was as if they were in a labor camp on the railway!

As the hours passed, the train entered higher elevation. I started getting a mild headache. I took half a Diamox, fearing the headache was the first symptom of altitude sickness. In the following hours, the pressure in my head didn’t cease, and I was so tired I couldn’t move much from my bed. Every movement felt heavy on my body. I slept for hours straight and stared out my window, still lying in bed. The only thing that made me get out of bed was an urgent need to go to the bathroom. I knew the Diamox had a diuretic side effect, but I never expected it was going to be that bad!

On the Sky Train

On the Sky Train

One time, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I rushed to the toilet to empty my bursting bladder, but all the toilets were closed. I thought that they were busy and tried to find toilets in other cars, but a Chinese train officer told me to follow him. I thought he understood my urgency. But he was just trying to find someone to translate for me that all the toilets would be closed for 15 minutes until the next station. What bad timing!

As I was returning to my cabin in despair, the young officer said, “Very beautiful” as I walked away. I smiled at him, but I was still in pain. I guess I wasn’t beautiful enough for him to make an exception and open a toilet to alleviate my suffering.

But with such breath-taking views, time flew on the sky train. We passed snowy mountains, cities, and towns until we reached the Tibetan plateau—a vast, high-altitude desert of white-blanketed, arid valleys and snow-capped peaks on the horizon. The blue sky and bright sun contrasted with the arid land that occasionally unfolded turquoise lakes and half-frozen rivers.

Just a few hours before arriving in Lhasa, I met my “neighbors” in the next cabin: Alan from Florida and David, with his 10-year-old son James, from New York. This was Alan’s first trip abroad. David was a world traveler and a professional photographer. We were all in awe of Tibet’s raw beauty.

Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau

As we approached Lhasa, more high mountains came into view—some so high that the clouds covered their tops!Yak herds roamed around and ran away as the train passed by.

At 7 pm, we arrived in Lhasa. The train station was huge and modern. We had to walk outside the terminal to find our guides.
A tiny man with dark skin and clear, almond eyes was holding a sign: “Welcome to Tibet, Mrs. Daniela. Venezuela.”

His name was Nima. He would my guide during my ten days across Tibet. As we walked to the car, he welcomed me to his land and put a white scarf around my neck as a sign of respect. We got into a Land Cruiser parked on the side of the road. Inside, a tall Tibetan wearing a soft yellow suit was driving. He didn’t speak English, but he gave me the biggest smile as I got in the car. He would be my driver during this trip, and his name was impossible to pronounce.

“So, you guys are my team for these ten days in Tibet,” I said.
“Yes, we will be your bodyguards!” replied Nima with a smile.
A few minutes later, we were already driving into the city of Lhasa. The Tibetan capital is very different from the small town that used to lie at the bottom of the Potala Palace, which had about 20,000 residents in 1951 during the Chinese takeover. Now, it is a sprawling city with over 240,000 people.

We arrived at the Flora Hotel, which was located in the Muslim quarter. It was odd to be at the heart of Buddhism and see a mosque and hear the call for Muslim prayers. I would have rather stayed on the Tibetan side. The good part of being in this area? I would not need waking up. The prayer calls would do that, so I could start exploring Lhasa early.

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