Beijing, China to Lhasa, Tibet via the “Train to the Roof of the World”

I arrived in Beijing, China on Monday, 12 May 2014.

This is the first place I have travelled to where I am very much out of my comfort zone!  Its a concrete jungle with a few streets lined with large trees.  Some of the structures are new and shiny filled with glass making you believe that China is a rich country.  Other buildings are old and showing their age and worn and torn.

The Chinese are a funny bunch of people – extremely loud, talkative, pushy but at the same serious.  They are not sure of me and look me up and down with caution.  I feel I am the only Westerner in Beijing and I guess in a city of 21 million people I’d be hard pressed to see a group of Westerns all at once.

The language barrier has been one of the most challenging parts of my time in Beijing.  I ignorantly believed that most people would have an understanding of the English language.  The hotel staff, taxi drivers and grocery store owners have very poor English but I’ve found my way around by lots of hand gestures, pointing and using a map.

Two things I have learnt about the Chinese culture; their favourite pass times is making a large “harking, throaty” noise, followed by projecting a lovely lurgy near your feet and slurping is acceptable; and this noise must be made when drinking tea or soup.

Monday was spent sleeping and doing my laundry.  Tuesday I decided to go out and look around.  I firstly went for a look around the “hutongs”.  I used a cyclo rider who took me on the tourist route.  The hutongs are narrow alleyways that lead into courtyards that then lead into someone’s home.  This is the way many Chinese live and there may be a few families living in one courtyard, a whole neighbourhood or just a family of three.  Generally you enter the courtyard via large red doors and there is usually a set of stone lions sitting either side.  Once you enter a courtyard, there are separate rooms for a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms.  Sometimes in the courtyard there is a tree.  One thing you won’t find inside the courtyard is a toilet – there are public toilet blocks everywhere in the hutongs and this is where everyone goes.

A lot of the hutongs are being demolished by the government to make way for high rise apartments that can fit a lot more people in them.  Also a lot of the older generations are being forced to move into these apartments as its too difficult for them to get to the bathroom in the dead of Winter. The younger generation don’t want to live in the boring hutongs; they want nice units in the city centre closer to work.

I climbed the Drum Tower and gazed out over the smog and watched the drumming performance.  In the ye old days the drumming was used as a way to tell the time – the drums were beaten every hour.  Next I walked to Bell Tower and my entrance fee included a tea tasting session, which was very enjoyable.  My favourite was the jasmine and they also had a lovely fruit tea.

Next I caught a taxi into Tian’anmen Square – the worlds’s largest public squares.  The amount of people crowded into the square was very full on.  It was just hectic.  To be honest it really didn’t do much for me – its just concrete and looks very communist.  There are security cameras everywhere, police and army with rifles everywhere and security checkpoints everywhere.

Nearby the Square is the Forbidden Palace – again the largest palace complex in the world.  I walked through it but didn’t go inside. The line to buy tickets was long and by this stage I was over it!

Wednesday morning I travelled by taxi to the Beijing Zoo to see the Pandas.  They were beautiful!  I saw three Pandas in their enclosures outside and then two in their enclosures behind glass.  They just love to eat and sleep.

Thursday morning – I tackled the Great Wall of China.  It’s a two hour drive from Beijing, mainly because the traffic is ridiculous.  I took the cable cart up to a section of the Wall and was just blown away.  Standing on the Great Wall of China is a pretty incredible feeling – I mean its so famous – everyone knows about it – but there I was standing on it!  It was such a lovely day too – a bright blue sky and warm weather.  I walked about two hours up and down steps and trudged up the slopes – its by no means an easy walk!  The views were also spectacular over the mountain ranges.

Thursday night, 15 May 2014

I boarded the train for a 48 hour train ride that can only be described as a journey of a lifetime.  There is a reason why it’s called “The Train to the Roof of the World”.  Its been full on and crazy but at the same time mind blowing and an amazing experience.  The train climbs steadily over the two days to a height of 4500 metres.  It travels approximately 3500 kilometres in distance – the width of Australia!  And surprisingly there are only nine stops.  The countryside has been extremely diverse.   I have seen snow capped mountains, the Gobi Desert – which is dirt and hillside, cities that span for kilometres and kilometres in the middle of nowhere, cropping land – wheat, vegetables and some rice is grown, land that looks like the wild west of America – tumbleweed and sand dunes; paddocks with goats, sheep and yaks; the biggest lake in China and also the Yellow River.

The train is in good condition and is nice and clean.  Each cabin has six beds.  In my cabin, there are two people from my tour on the top and bottom bunk and I’m in the middle.  On the other side, there is an elderly Chinese man down below, a snorning middle aged Chinese man next to me and a Chinese girl in her twenties up top.  The bunk is not high enough to sit in, so I can lay down or I can sort of sit up.  I’ve also just been sitting on bottom bed or sitting on the fold down seats in the hallway. There are no doors or curtains, everything is open plan.

Altitude sickness is taken quite seriously on the train and can pose some serious side effects.  Each bunk has its own oxygen outlet and a nasal oxygen cannula is also provided.  I tarted taking attitude sickness tablets 24 hours before hand.  As I write this, its Friday at 8pm.  We have been travelling for 24 hours so far.  At 2am tonight, we arrive in a city called Ge’rmn, where doctors board the train for any emergencies that may occur on the last leg to Lhasa.  I also need to drink plenty of water and keep hydrated.  One of the side effects of the tablets I am taking is feeling pins and needles in my feet and hands which is occurring now.  Its sort of painful in an annoying way and comes and goes.

Friday, 16 May 2014 (all day in the train)

Last night (Thursday) I slept really well and didn’t wake until 10am.  I’ve passed the time today (Friday) by visiting the other people in the group in their carriages, reading a book I purchased in the train station, writing my blog (there is no internet access however) and doing some exercises in the corridor much to the delight of the passengers.  I got my Thera-band out and just mucked around with them to stretch out my sore body.  I ate some bread for lunch and snacked on lollies and a banana.  Then I went down to the dining carriage at about 6pm for a meal of rice, potato and carrot.

We have also had a choir session in our cabin with a few random local people who just came into our cabin.  They sang the American national anthem, Jingle Bells and Waltzing Matilda plus a few Chinese songs.  Anything to pass the time…

The Tibetans love us Westerns on the train – there are only 12 of us on the whole train of about 200 so I get lots of looks as I am walking by.  They love to stop you and ask for your photo.  They get even more excited when you ask for a photo with them.  They also get a kick out of you saying hello to them in Chinese, they return a hello and a big smile.

There is one young Chinese girl who has taken a fancy to me.  Her English name is “Sweetie” and she is in the cabin next door but comes to visit.  She can speak a little English.  I tried to find a book shop in Beijing, but had very little luck finding any English books.  When I arrived at the train station there was at least six bookstores.  I went to every one of them and none of them sold any English books.  Then at the last shop there were two English language books – The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.  The Catcher in the Rye had Chinese at the front of the book and then English at the back.  The Great Gatsby came in a sealed pack – one book in Chinese, the other in English.  This afternoon I asked Sweetie if she would like the Chinese version of The Great Gatsby.  She was absolutely gobsmacked and so grateful.  She keep looking over the book and touching and feeling it and thought for a few moments before saying “I feel so honoured that you gave me this book that I will read it with so much joy”.  I then had to write my name inside the book for her and she wanted to take some photos so she could share them with her sister who “just won’t believe it!”.

I had to conquer one of my fears whilst being on the train – can you guess what it was?

A squat toilet!

There is one Western style toilet on the whole train and its in the first class sleeper section which is locked.

It actually wasn’t too bad, however I won’t go into anymore detail until I’ve totally dealt with the situation (and had serious counselling!).  I can report that 24 hours into the ride, that area of the train really sinks plus people can smoke in this area too which is disgusting because there are no open windows.  Its like a death trap going down that end of the carriage now.  Yuck!  There are no showers on the train, so I have been wearing the same clothes since Thursday 8am.  There is no point changing cause I’m sort of in a “stinky comfortable-nish”.  And with cigarette smoke, people coughing on you and just being in everyone’s space – whats the point.

Update – Its nearly 10pm and the lights go out at 10pm (there are no personal lights in the bunk – so I went and brushed my teeth and went to the toilet.  People have clogged the sinks with noodles and hair and there is no water left.  But that’s okay I always have my water bottle and baby wipes.

In all honestly I might complain or make a joke of it but three months ago if I did this, I would have been in tears, upset and in a foetal position booking the next flight home.  I really don’t think there is any way I would have survived by myself.  Now, as much as its gross, it really has become normal and not washing your hair or having a shower every night really just doesn’t bother me much.  I see this as an incredible experience and not one to waste wishing I was back home with all my luxuries as they will always be there.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

It took me a while to fall asleep last night but when I did I slept deeply, waking late again.  I had survived the steep ascent to 4500 metres without any side effects or needing any oxygen.  The landscape has changed again, there are very few cities, only a cluster of villages set against large snow capped mountains.  The mood on the train is a lot quieter today – everyone must be tired or mesmerised by the scenery.

At about 12pm (the train is running an hour late) we stopped in a village called Nagu.  We were allowed off the train for about 3 minutes.  The fresh air felt so nice.  It was cool outside – I only had a t-shirt and gym pants on and felt chilly.  However it was extremely fresh and I didn’t have any difficulties breathing – the air seemed the same and not hard to breath.

Excitement rose in the train about an hour before Lhasa – everyone started packing their belonging up and saying their goodbyes.  It was an awesome feeling to get off the train – fresh air and a shower was so close I could smell it (or I think I could smell myself!).  There was a little process for passing through the train station and officially into Tibet – passport checked were done and police and army stood on guard with their guns.  Finally I was free to enter TIBET!

Today (Thursday 22 May) I am departing Lhasa to travel through Tibet.  Stay tuned for the Lhasa edition 🙂  Photos to come later due to FB issues 🙂



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