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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
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
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
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.