A Changing Landscape

From sea level to the roof of the world by train

By: Gary Bowerman

Fifty-one hours and 35 minutes after departing from Shanghai, my train pulled into Lhasa’s spacious new station. I’d made it overland to Tibet. Passing through the station’s exit gate, I breathed in the cold evening air, tightened my scarf and pulled down my hat. Before jumping in a taxi I looked back, and I’m glad I did because the facade of Lhasa’s train station, just a 15-minute drive from the city, is an impressive modernist representation of Tibet’s most famous landmark: the Potala Palace, former home to the Dalai Lama.

The adrenaline rush just a few minutes later as the real white and burgundy Potala eased into view set on a mount against a framing backdrop of sharp snow-capped peaks was truly breathtaking, and not just because of Lhasa’s high altitude.

My taxi set me down near the Jokhang Temple in the historic Barkhor district of Lhasa, which dates back to the seventh century. Darkness had closed in, but Buddhist pilgrims were still performing multiple prostrations in front of the temple, and a few elders were sitting on the steps fingering beads and gently waving prayer wheels. In a little more than two days, I had clearly traveled a long way back in time: from Shanghai’s frenetic urban futurism to Lhasa’s otherworldly Buddhist traditions and timeless rhythms.

The Shanghai-Lhasa train line was opened in late 2006. This followed on the heels of last July’s high-profile launch of the Beijing-Lhasa route, inaugurated by China’s president, Hu Jintao, a former party secretary of Tibet. Next year, a Sino-foreign joint venture company called RailPartners will launch a luxury train, managed by a five-star hotel brand, on the same route. A Web site has been launched to promote the new train (www.tangula.com.cn), and bookings can be made starting in May.

For now the option is a little less deluxe, but certainly not uncomfortable. China is investing billions of dollars into its rail infrastructure, and the new train features clean four-bunk sleeper compartments, each with a television, air conditioning and emergency oxygen masks. Clock-watching travelers will observe that it arrives and departs from each station rigorously to time.

Pulling out of sea-level Shanghai on a late Friday afternoon, we made rapid progress to the nearby cities of Wuxi and Nanjing. At both stations, we passed the new CRH (China Railways High-Speed) bullet trains, which are modeled on and closely resemble Japan’s high-speed passenger trains. They are an impressive sight.

The journey then melded into darkness, before the sun rose around 7 a.m. across the flat, dusty plains of Shaanxi province. At 8:15 a.m., we arrived at Xian, the home of the famous terra-cotta warriors. For, travelers seeking to break up the journey (though you will need to buy a separate onward ticket), this is a good option, as the ancient capital of Xian is one of China’s most intriguing and fastest-changing cities.

A little while later the landscape changed, with rounded mountains rising from the flat plains, many of which have been heavily terraced over generations for agricultural purposes. Dozing in and out of the book I was trying to read, I fortunately kept my eyes somehow peeled, because these rounded mountains soon became atrophied, and we slipped though a broad causeway of anvil-shaped ridges and deep canyons. This spectacular landscape subsequently morphed into sharper, walnut-colored mountains backed by higher snow caps.

Passing in late afternoon through the industrial city of Lanzhou, the bright blue sun was fading fast and the mountains turned into shadowy outlines. I picked up the official information booklet, which told me that tomorrow I would cross the Tibetan plateau on the Qinghai-Tibet line, which is built at high altitude (averaging around 15,000 feet) and cut through year-round perma-frost. Reading further, the booklet said it took some 40 years of research for the railway to be designed and built across the Roof of the World.

At 8.45 a.m. the next morning, the sun slowly rose over the Tibetan plateau, and so began the most spectacular part of the journey. The flat scrubby landscape was buffered on both sides by dark, lightly-leavened mountains dusted with snow. As we proceeded further this dusting became more of an icing, until we reached the magnificent Tangula mountain, with its spectacular central ice glacier glistening against an intense azure sky. Few postcards look this good.

A short while later, a narrow frozen river meandered in synchronicity with the train track and the plateau earth had evolved into a deeper red hue, not dissimilar to Australia’s outback. That changed again as the mountain backdrop grew starker and more dominant. Short of a few thousand cacti, it could have been the Mexican mountains separating the central provinces from the Yucatan peninsula.

Into the afternoon, a vast frozen lake ebbed into view, and virtually everyone onboard pressed their faces to the window, digital cameras in hand. The frozen banks were only about 20 meters from the train tracks, and the ridges across the lake suggested that the icy temperatures caught some waves unaware whilst still in motion. Further away, the remaining unfrozen waters refracted the sunlight in the deepest shades of aqua blue I have ever seen.

At this point, there was a palpable sense that we had experienced the trip’s scenic highlight, but the remaining views were far from second rate. As we descended gently from the plateau heights into Tibet, the mountains and clouds seemed almost to touch as the vast clear skies of earlier in the day receded. Adobe Tibetan farm houses, with four corner turrets and colorful prayer flags atop each one and stone walls hemming in a small backyard, dotted the landscape, some located on perilous ledges.

And then the conductor, who had been admirably cheerful throughout, knocked on my door to say we had just 50 minutes remaining. I hastily packed up my books, magazines, camera and clothes strewn across the compartment. As I finished, the train slowed towards its final destination, but not before the conductor had asked me to pen a few lines in his visitors’ book. As the only foreigner aboard this particular journey, my signature seemed to carry some added cachet.

I jumped off the train thrilled to have reached the Land of Snows by journeying from sea level to an altitude of 12,000 feet. Along the way, we had crossed seven count ’em: Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai and Xizang (Tibet) provinces of China, and traversed through the world’s longest tunnel cut into perma-frozen soil and passed through the world’s highest rail station, at 16,640 feet. This really is a magnificent journey.


Entry to Tibet: The LowDown
The Shanghai-Lhasa train runs every second day (leaving Shanghai at 4:11 p.m., arriving in Lhasa at 7:50 p.m. two days later) and costs $170 for a soft sleeper berth. (The Beijing-Lhasa train takes 48 hours and runs on a similar schedule. A soft sleeper costs $166.)

Tickets must be purchased in advance, and are only issued 10 days before departure. They can be bought at the rail station or through a Chinese travel agent (Tibet Tourism Bureau, www.tibetmate.com, in Shanghai is recommended, 86-6257-8747) for a small surcharge. Note that some agents will try to insist clients purchase a Tibet tour package this isn’t necessary if visiting Lhasa only.

The entry rules for foreigners to Tibet are confusing. If visiting Lhasa only, it is safest to purchase a Tibet entry permit (Tibet Tourism Bureau can arrange this) in advance for approximately $130. You will need to show this permit if purchasing the train ticket in person, although not if a Chinese-based agent or a local person buys it for you. Likewise, you will need to present the permit to book a flight out of Tibet. However, for clients who plan to travel beyond Lhasa, an extra travel permit is required, and this can be purchased as part of a package trip (again, Tibet Travel can advise).


House of Shambhala
Stylish new 10-room boutique hotel set in a traditional Tibetan courtyard house in old Lhasa. Can also arrange English-speaking guided half-day and day tours of Lhasa.

7 Jiri Erxiang, Lhasa
Doubles from $60

Yak Hotel
Spotlessly clean hotel popular with backpackers and FITs. English spoken and centrally located near the sights, restaurants and shops of old Lhasa.

100 Beijing East Rd., Lhasa
Doubles from $70 (offers excellent low-season winter discounts)

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