Taking the highest train in the world from Lhasa to Xi’an – part one

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 16th, 2008. Updated on August 27th, 2010. Published in: Travel blog » Tibet.

Travel Journal Overview: It was a travel highlight. The highest train in the world – oxygen masks included. But the start was marred by memories and realization on what we’d just been through. Still, what was outside was another world.

View from the window of the worlds highest train (click to enlarge)

View from the window of the worlds highest train (click to enlarge)

How could one possibly top being in Lhasa during the uprising. It wasn’t going to happen. But heading on a bus to Lhasa’s train station leading to The world’s highest train was one way to keep the adrenaline buzzing.

We had arrived three hours before departure in the early morning chill. Anil was taking no chances. Yesterday he sent over half of the group back to Kathmandu, and today he was about to send the rest of us off to Xi’an. We had been stopped and boarded on the bus just as many times by the Chinese military. At the station there seemed like more military than the day before. It was a little busier too.

A group of three Chinese soldiers blocked out path as he scrambled up the pedestrian entranceway of the train station. Anil flashed our tickets and talked to them awhile. Chinese state media had been announcing all evening how all foreigner had been safely evacuated. Now their programmed brains had to cope with seeing 10 non evacuated foreigners, all heading up towards them.

It didn’t take them long and soon we were pointed into a queue with a group of locals. For each member of the group Anil had to verify and provide copies of our permit papers. Our bags were put through a metal detector, each one sending an alarm off. Unlike the locals the man with our photocopied papers grunted at the security men to ignore the alarm and let us through. There were no heartfelt goodbye’s with Anil. He was not permitted into the station proper. It was the last we saw of him.

It was a relief to have had our permits, tickets and passports pass through Chinese security. We were leaving Lhasa finally. We were also on our own now. For the first time in day’s we were just a group of tourists and travellers again.

The new train station was huge. It had a giant warehouse feel to it. A high scaffolding style roof and large open plan waiting area. We made our way over to section T28 and sat in the double row of cream plastic chairs. Station police roamed around in black uniforms, never once making eye contact with us, or looking in our direction. An announcement in Chinese echoed over the speaker system. Then it repeated in English, and instantly made me think of Orwell’s 1984.

“Ladies and gentlemen – for the betterment of your value please be aware of removing all your remain baggage from the self cleaning area to help facilitate the staff in accomplishing their duties.”

For sure we were in China now. The announcements kept coming, but we were already talking amongst ourselves about where we were now headed. Was the rest of China really going to be like this?

Having lost Quinnell for a moment, he had gone off in search of food, we boarded the rather ordinary train. There were four to a compartment, two bunk beds opposite each other. My compartment consisted of me on the bottom right, above which the American Chris. Opposite us were the Slovenian Girls’ Mara and Natashka.

Again, the compartment was nothing out of the ordinary. The walls were light grey and all else white. There was however the one thing we had heard about that made this train special. There above each bunk bed at the far end were two little holes marked ‘Oxygen’. We all smiled upon seeing them. It was a sign that we were indeed going somewhere special.

In my expectations of the train trip going through some of the remotest landscapes on earth I had envisaged myself glued to the window for the full three days, camera in hand. It was however somewhat surreal to be lying on my bed thinking about the rioters, the hotel fire, the people we had left behind and then flick my eyes over to the window and see the top of the world.

Chris seemed to be having no such thoughts. He had settled down from his hyper paranoid attitude and was fast becoming the train clown. It was a good distraction listening to him go on about how he had left his laundry in a local cleaner only to see that and all his clothes go up in flames. He wasn’t even wearing any underwear. We did round up of donations and managed to round up some basics for him to wear. Though the lack of underwear was never resolved for some reason.

Our carriage became the center of daytime social events, Quinnell and Stefan next door would often come in to pass their time before heading off to the restaurant carriage for beer. The thought of drinking all day on a train like this did not appeal to me for some reason. I’d already past that faze of my journey more times than once. Instead I found myself thinking of the journey as a whole.

It had passed so quickly, yet so much had happened. Was I really about to finish my trip in the next few weeks? It was like the Taj Mahal or Everest had once been for me until I had seen them for myself. An idea of only two dimensions. My trip would soon reach the third dimension of fulfillment, of completion, hindsight and worst of all, appraisal.

“It’s amazing.”

Shrugging I looked over at Mara opposite me. She had just heard the whole outline of my life during the past 4 years. I rarely told the story in its entirety. But time was one thing we had now. What’s more she was a smart girl and had even got me digging up my past. As a traveller on the road for some time its not uncommon to have a group gather around you as you tell a tale. It’s nothing special at the best of times. But here Mara took a little different tack to listening.

“You gotta get that stuff down on paper.” she said with a delicious grin. Her eyes were the kind that told you what she was thinking. Smart, witty and curious about everything life had to offer her. She was hungry for knowledge.

I sighed and then smiled. “Why do I have a feeling you like that kind of story?”

She laughed deeply and flirted harmlessly, “A man with conscious, how rare is that?”

“Drink Beer!”

It was Stefan and Chris heading back from the restaurant, a can of China Blue Ribbon in each of their hands.

“Actually,” mumbled Stefan in-between two large burps, “Time to sleep,” He made his way to the compartment next door.

It made for a good opportunity to head down the corridor ourselves and investigate what the highest train in the world had on offer. The answer was not all that much, though the window views were a cinematographers dream. It reminding me of the scenery during form the Tibet tours landcruisers.. Stark and at times bland, but in reality mesmerizing.

It was a unique landscape. Alien in part. Aside from the tour I had never seen anything like it Even now it was made all the more dramatic by the fact we were on a train. There were no roads marking the rough reddish earth outside. There were no people to be seen, not sign of life at all. Not even a yak.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Tibet)

Stories: Surviving the Riots in Tibet

Stories: Watching the Chinese Army Move into Lhasa

Resources: All about getting a Tibet Permit / Visa

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Tibet Travel Guide

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