Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The trip to Lhasa took us 45 hours on the recently completed Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The railway, completed in 2006, is the highest in the world. The railway is really a political statement that asserts Beijing's dominance over Tibet and is quite controversial for this and also the amount of Chinese it has bought to the region. The railway itself is an engineering feat. It spans roughly 2000 km and is built mostly on permafrost, that can melt and turn the ground to mud. To counter this the Chinese engineers built elevated tracks with deep foundations and pipes beneath the rails to keep the railbed frozen by the cool air. At points along the track metal sunshades reflect the harsh plateau sun, and the track is also passively cooled using ammonia heat exchangers (nice little bit of science there...). The track tops out at 5072 m, and for this reason oxygen masks are included in the cabins incase you pass out! Luckily we didn't require them!

Despite being 45 hours, the journey wasn't bad at all. We arrived at the station and joined the obligatory rush to get on board (even though seats are allocated...). We found our cabin,  and with 4 other people already inside there was barely enough room for our luggage (hence the rush obviously). With a bit of rearrangement we managed to stuff our packs under the beds. The cabin has 6 bunks and the people we were sharing with were all lovely and with a lot of pointing, nodding and smiling we had a great time talking with them on the trip. We spent the days reading, catching up on diaries etc., and then at 10 pm on the dot the lights are out. Toilets are squatters, but the service on the train is excellent and they were cleaning frequently, along with the cabins.

I have never in my life seen scenery as beautiful as we passed across. It was barren, but it had a simple beauty to it. The big blue sky contrasted against the brown coloured tussock. Occasionally you would see a frozen stream or lake, a peak popping up behind the foothills, and as we crossed the plateau and were nearing Tibet, farmers grazing yak, goats, and sheep, and the occasional eagle. It was spectacular - and we passed through almost 40 hours of this non stop, which gives you an idea of how big the area really is. The Tibetan style houses with prayer flags became visible the closer we got to Lhasa, which was also amazing to see.

We got into Lhasa at 4 pm, met our Tibetan guide Pempa, and were dropped at our hotel. It is compulsory to have a tour guide with you while in Tibet, and Pempa seems like a nice enough guy to spend the next week with. He left us for the night and we were free to get our bearings, so we took a walk around the Old Quarter, had dinner and then walked the Barkhor Pilgramage circuit around the Jokhang Temple (the holiest place in Tibet, built circa 600).

Already Tibet is under my skin - it is such a holy place and I feel lucky to be able to come here and check it out. I can't wait for tomorrow when we can ask Pembo the already long list of questions we already have.  

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