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

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 17th, 2008. Updated on August 27th, 2010. Published in: Travel blog » Tibet.

Travel Journal Overview: The highest train in the world moved on, as did my travels. Mentally it was time to move on. Otherwise China would not be what it should have been. The train was for three days. We were cut off from everything other than ourselves and a dwindling menu.

View of mountains, road, and small station from the worlds highest train (click to enlarge)

View of mountains, road, and small station from the worlds highest train (click to enlarge)

Vast mountain peeks the names of which I will never know ran the horizon. The eternal blue sky hung above us, it’s blue deeper than ever. We cut through it all in near silence. The train didn’t make the old clickity clack sound. Occasionally it would make a resemblance to than nostalgic sound. But, more often than not we just heard the hissing of Oxygen being pumped into the carriages.

At the restaurant car the small menu, in both Chinese and English, offered a limited but diverse selection of local specialties. The only one not to me salivating was the fresh seafood noodle dish. At 5000m in a barren landscape, not so fresh I think.

Quinnell was sitting with Natashka, his eyes reflection the landscape by the window.

“French guy”, blurted Mara as she sat opposite him, “Keeping Natashka all to yourself?”

He smiled. “Oh, but why not? She is beautiful no?”

WE laughed as we ordered. Quinnell had a deft sense of humour. Smart and yet ridiculously stupid in purpose. It might have been the excess of oxygen but his idea for a book on toilets had us gagging in laughter. Crude and not to the amusement of the Chinese table opposite us as they got up and left.
We weren’t that loud, I think.

A group of foreigners, entered the carriage and we recognised them as the group that we had met at the train station yesterday. A friendly wave of unisoned evacuation had them sitting down in the freshly vacated seats. Apparently they didn’t get much pleasure in toilet humour either.

Dan was fairly hefty looking guy. Overweight, but not so much to say that he was fat. More along the lines of saying you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with the guy. He was with his girlfriend and another couple. They’d all come down from their holiday in Beijing to see the Tibetan capital for a few days. Bad timing.

“That was some party eh?” smiled Dan, after ordering from the menu.

“Oui,” replied Quinnell, “to bad about it all.”

After staying quiet about where we had been, we listened to Dan as he told us they had been staying on the outskirts of the city when the riots broke out. Chancing their luck, and not knowing much about riots they’d ventured into the center of the city.

“We were in the shit I tell you.” he said rubbing his face, “Damn people running everywhere. Buildings on fire. What the hell? They were tearing the place apart. Quite a scene eh guys?”

He looked over at his this girlfriend as she feigned a smile in return. “Damn Army just arrived when we got there. We never even took a picture near them. But the ass holes still stopped us.”

It was easy to tell the man was angry, his fists clenched until his fingers were white. “Didn’t even say anything, one chap. Just tried to grab Tammy here’s camera.” He reached out with his arm and mimed his actions. “I stopped the fellow from going anywhere near her… but some another one of them pushed me away and grabbed at my camera.””

Dan’s facial expression changed from tighten anger to that of disgust, “Nothing we could do. They were all around us. One chap shouting ‘No picture! No picture!’ We argued back like. But they ignored us and drove off.”

There was awkward silence between us now. No one sure quite how angry Dan was. Telling him our story would not have helped. He was a man with a damaged ego. Proud to have led his friends into a ‘riot’. Used to getting his own way, until the Chinese gave him no option other than to submit.

“Quite a story,” Chirped Quinnell.

“Yea,” said Mara, briefly widening her eyes at the two of us, “At least you got away safely.”

The food arrived and it was a good excuse to change the topic. My order of Chicken Kung Pao was small, but tasty. The green vegetables were actually very fresh and crisp. Natashka had been studying Chinese for the past year and was quickly able to order us a second serving.

It was with the two Slovenian girls that I spent most of the time. They were fun to be around. Sarcastic, flirtatious and intelligent conversation holders. We exchanged book titles that we’d read, ridiculed our stories of failed romance and enjoyed regular jibes towards Chris’s lack of underwear.

As late afternoon approached the landscape outside changed from a barren rust colour to one of white snow. The sun was stronger than ever and created a shiny white glare on the snows surface. Black jagged rocks pierced through their soft icy blankets in random breakthroughs. Dunes of snow created a myriad of white hills.

Camera’s came out as the train slowed to a near halt. I would have gladly paid a high price for the privilege of getting out for thirty minutes. The trains window reflected badly as the high altitude sun flared all around us. Just thirty minutes for the blessing of being able to walk out into this destitute place. To touch the pure unpolluted snow, breath in the rare and precious air. To feel the sub zero temperatures sink in briefly.

Our train never fully stopped. We kept going. It wasn’t a disappointment though. A smile crossed my face and a feeling of serenity passed through me. It was something I had learned in this journey already. If we always get what we want, then where’s the fun in trying to achieve it. Somethings are better left in our to do list.

The night passed quickly, as did the next day. We were still catching up on our lack of sleep. The mountainous view continued and we soaked up the last of these precious scenes as they flew by. We lay there with the oxygen tubes inserted into our noses like dying hospital patients. The steady flow of cold air and the strange sensation of it all made everything seem so precious that lying in silence was well respected.

This silence was often broken into as Chris could only lye still for so long. His antics would entertain us like some adolescent school pranks as he the Slovenians teased him with outrageous flirts. Quinnell used his time to ponder his life while Stefan used it to empty out the bar. My time was spent finishing what would be the last of my travel books.

A shout from Stefan broke our little world apart. “Guys, Help!”

From his carriage door we looked down to see him trying to pick Karla up from the floor.

“What happened?” I asked trying in vein to squeeze into the little compartment to help.

Stefan propped Karla’s limp frame up by the shoulders, “I dunno. She must have been trying to get down from the top bunk and fell.”

“Is she alright?” asked Mara from the corridor outside. The compartment door was too small for everyone to fit inside.

Hoistingher by the shoulders Stefan lifted Karla onto one of the bottom bunks as I followed through with lifting her legs. It was a bad idea to move someone after a fall, but given as Stefan had already started and that we were on a moving train it seemed to be right.

“Well,” said Stefan looking closely at Karla’s pale unconscious face, “She’s still breathing.”

Turning back to the others I realised we needed qualified help, “Can someone call the train attendant?” I paused as a thought crossed my mind. “Natashka, you should go. You speak Chinese. And Chris, the other American group, can you see if any of them are Doctor’s or something?”

For a moment we were back in the hotel in Lhasa. It had helped. People moved quickly and without question this time.

“E’re is some water,” said Quinnell handing me a small bottle, “I think she ‘as not been feeling so well since yesterday.”

He was right. Karla had gone into a silent mood ever since we had left Lhasa. I had put it down to tiredness, or a kinda of post traumatic stress thing. But, still. She had never joined us for dinner, or in the other compartment.

Natashka returned with a tall Chinese attendant in a black rail road jacket. The man stared into the compartment with wide eyes. Natashka explained to him what had happened in Chinese as young female attendant appeared beside him. They both immediately covered their mouths with both hands in exasperated shock.

Seeing this Stefan pointed to the man, “You, go bring medical kit.”

“Ahh…ohhh,” gasped the attendant.

“Medical bag,” repeated an agitated Stefan. “Med…ic..al..bag.”

Natashka and translated and the two attendants disspeared off down the corridor.

Karla stirred.

Squeezing her hand gently I began to rub the back of it, “Karla? Can you hear me?”

She mumbled a response as her eyes darted left and right.

I tried again. “Karla? You fell Karla. On the train. You’re OK.”

She raised up her hand to her head, and spoke again. “Ish mannunan dul put?”

It was Swedish, or at least my interpretation of what Swedish sounded like.

“Something about falling.” commented Stefan, “I don’t speak Swedish but…”

The train attendant appeared at the doorway, a small red first aid box in his hand. Natashka spoke to him again in Chinese and he frantically tried to open it. A bundle of white bandages fell out followed by a some antiseptic.

We looked at each other as if to say we would even know what to do with a complete medical kit.

“I fell I think?”

It was Karla, here eyes opening up more. She looked around the room at the various faces looking in at her.

“How do you feel?” I asked backing away to give her some room.

She rubbed at her head a little and then shuffled her body slightly. “Ooh, I guess I am fine.”

Pausing she looked up at Stefan before giving him a stupid grin and slumping back. She shook her head slowly from side to side and then gave us a thumbs up sign.

Although we were unsure about the situation, we sent the attendant away with his medical bag and helped Karla to sit up. A retuning Chris also had to be sent away as he brought the group of non medial American’s with him and started firing off questions all around.

It turned out that Karla hadn’t eaten properly since she had lost her wallet in Shigasti several days ago. Her money was low and she’d run out from a loan another Swedish girl on the tour had given her. Not liking long journey’s she’s decided to take a sleeping pill to help sleep through a large portion of the train trip. An empty stomach and a sedative at high altitude did not mix well.

Our evening consisted of Quinnell’s toilet humour and our future plans of travel. The few quiet afternoons in Lhasa had given me an opportunity to email a hostel in Xi’an. It was right beside the railway station and had internet access plus a knowledgeable sounding owner. Though the Slovenians had planned a different place to stay, out gilding friendship meant that we would all head there for one night at least.

It didn’t bother me if they’d all headed off somewhere else. My purpose in Xi’an was not to everyone’s taste, and aside from reaching Shanghai was the last of my journey’s goals. It wasn’t to see the famous terracotta warriors as most flocked to see. It was to confirm and photograph something I had read about over 5 years ago. The Lost Pyramids.

A little known fact was that Xi’an was only the third place in the world after Egypt and Central America where these mysterious burial tombs were built. It intrigued only the Slovenian Girls and tales of there history and location swept us into our last night.

By morning the landscape outside had changed dramatically. From desolate dry rust colored soil we watched as it changed to dark moist brown hue with scatterings of yak’s. Then to a lush green as we lowered under 3500 meters. The Yak’s preferred high altitude and had been replaced by cattle, and farmland.. We were now passing through wide open pastures of flat land.

Occasionally we would see a mountain range, devoid of snow but still majestic. Towns were becoming more frequent too. First Spartan and run-down looking places, replaced soon enough be concrete grey activity and construction.

Our last day on the train brought about a shortage of food. The restaurant car had run out of chicken and beef. Still plenty of fresh fish on offer strangely enough. I settled for a double portion of pork noodles. We had all chipped in and bought Karla as much food as humility would allow her to eat. Guide books were out, and the group confirmed their plans.

Stefan an Quinnell would leave Xi’an in the next day or so and head to Chengdu trogehter. While the Slovenians and Chris were happy to stick it out for a few days with me Pyramid searching. After that Chris would say goodbye to his mother and come with me to Beijing while the girls headed south towards Thailand. Karla’s plan was to stay one night with us at the hostel before meeting up with a couch surfing friend who somehow had the answer to her financial woes.

A gentle dusk signalled our arrival into Xi’an. The station was crowded and the amount of people carrying suitcases, plastic bags and boxes filled with all manner of household items was staggering. It made India’s train stations look tame. Outside in the open was even more impressive. My first look at china proper at night was a daunting one. Crowds. Thousands of people all congregated around the railway entrance. Never before had I seen such a public mass of people in one area.

Crowds have always been less than appealing to me. A place where your pockets could be rifled through with easy. A place that made you vulnerable to the push and shove of humanity. My rush through in order to get to the main road meant we missed the first turn on the hostel owners instructions to find him. Thankfully Natashka’s Chinese came in use and through asking a host of dubious taxi men, local stalls and bystanders we soon found ourselves at Uncle Bill’s Hostel.

“You say one! But you very many for one person!”

Bill was an energetic young looking guy in his thirties. We were the only people at this hostel and he was more than glad to see us.

Lady luck fell my way and I ended up sharing a triple with the Slovenians while the others went for two dorms. Ignoring the topic of where we had just come from, Bill took us out to his nearby night-time eating establishment.

It was strange being in a modern built up city again. Bright neon lights flashed as people scoured the footpaths. Stream spewed out of wall side vents and night time hawkers peddled their trade. This was China.

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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