A Journey To Tibet

A Journey To Tibet By Qinghai/ Tibet Train

Train journey from Xining to Lhasa takes 26 hours.

Main railway station at Xining, we are going on a rail ride for 1947 km.

It is quite hard to buy train tickets for the soft berth. Each carriage is divided into soft and hard berth or seats. We are lucky to have the best berths.

Travelled 780 km in a night. Reached Golmud in the morning, a place 2780 metres above sea level. Oxygen is at 80% of normal level on plain land.

The ride for the next 15 hours covered 1172 km and the service took us through towering mountain passes, snow-capped alps, big lakes, plains, non-habitanted land. This marvellous 'Sky Road' was built by the most advance technology under thin air with low oxygen atmosphere. Snow-capped alps within reaches.

Wild donkeys at Kekexili.

Tangula mountain is 5231 metres above sea level.

A night view of Potala Palace at Lhasa.

Tibet is one of those places that we had always intended to visit but never quite got around to. We did check with a couple of tour agencies last year on the link up travel to Tibet using the rail road but the answer was always negative. Just before the start of the MATTA Fair recently, we thought of doing another check with a certain tour agent. Circumstance has changed and since response was good, this trip is positive. Our dreams were suddenly close to becoming a reality.

A week before departure, we had a familiarization talk by the tour coordinator who briefed our group of 31 members on the general aspects and provided us with the travelling itineraries. Accordingly, the temperature for that week hovers around two degrees Centigrade at night. Winds can be extremely strong and cold at certain places. Under such extreme conditions, one should have a range of special clothing suitable for the cold. We spent a little fortune buying an assortment needed. We were also advised to bring some food to see us through. A warning was signalled to us not to expect a high level of tasty food. Generally, a small bottle of cooked sambal belacan and a packet of bbq meat (long yoke) can bring relief when one cannot tolerate very bland meals. We knew we do not need all these as both of us are made of stronger substance than this. We have embraced harsh situations during our quests of food trekking but adapted fairly well. Yet we have this strange feeling that we should be well-equipped too. Yes, nothing much but just in case so we bought a packet of bbq meat to keep up with all The Jones.

Deep in our hearts, we had anticipated a tough trial to Tibet. We would be cooped up in the coach for 26 hours without any shower facilities. But this should not be a primary concern as the weather is not sweaty hot. We must start to feel enthusiastic about the cross-country travel as this can probably refresh our fatigued spirits. Well, on a train, you can walk from one section to the other and still see the landscape of the world outside. A nod here and a smile there, traveling would not be so rigid and impersonal. Can the swaying of the train rock us into deep slumber? All these long hours of observation may show us a good introduction of the upcountry, yes we must feel positive. But questionable thought again began to envelop us as we are drawn to our problem of altitude expressions. It's just a simple query really, yet there is no straight forward answer, can we cope with the trek and ascend high enough to appreciate the Himalayan grandeur? Well, it's left to be seen.

(24/02/2007) Tuesday - 1st Day
Kuala Lumpur - Xi'An
Our flight to Xian departed KLIA at 2pm and we touchdown some five hours later. After dinner, we were transferred to Le Garden Hotel.

(25/04/2007) Wednesday - 2nd Day
Xi'An - Xining
The day started off early in the morning with a visit to the Emperor Qin's mausoleum and his army of Terracotta Warriors. This was a historical discovery of all time by a farmer in 1974. You can't help but marvel at the magnificent warriors as each was designed with unique expressions on their faces (some 8,000 or more) because they are believed to protect the Qin Emperor in the afterlife. Later, we went to the city mall for some snacks. At 8.30pm we left the hotel to board a domestic flight to Xining, some two hours of flying time needed. Temperature in this city was very cooling indeed, at 10 degrees Celcius as we strolled out of the airport in the night.

(26/04/2007) Thursday - 3rd Day
Xining - Qinghai/Tibet Train
Xining is one of those old historic cities with a history dating back 2,100 years ago.
Population is around one million, built at 2,275 metres above sea level. From April to
May, the weather is occasionally chilly as temperature lingers around 5 degrees Celcius to 19 degrees Celcius.

Here, the only place of interest is the huge temple, known as Kumbum Monastery which is located not far, just a 20 minutes bus ride away. This famous attraction is one of the six temples in China to boast of a treasure trove containing Buddhist religious documents and literature.

We stopped for lunch at a city restaurant. We bought some commercial anti-altitude illness pills, hoping to reduce the chances of serious reactions. After a quick meal of steamboat at 5pm, we packed and headed straight to the railway station, reaching at 6.30pm. Puff-puffing to Tibet is an experience to savour as everyone of us wore an expression of anxiety on our faces.

26 Hours of Rail Travel

(26/04/2007) Thursday - 3rd Day
Qinghai/Tibet Train
The train we should be boarding comes in from Lanzhou and tour leader, Miss Looi Mei Ling had set instructions to help us clear barriers. As we have only 20 minutes to board, all baggages must first be shipped up into the train's compartment before anyone tries to ascend that particular unit. Half of our group members are into their golden years with the oldest being 84 years old.

At 8pm the Qinghai-Lhasa Express K917 arrived and everybody made a beeline to the platform. Oh gosh, the train has stopped on the opposite track platform Two. Literally, it means we have to physically lug our big baggage of 20 over kgs right to the end of platform One and lug it down a flight of 40 plus steps. This is not the end but we have to continue to walk along a long section of an underground pass and lug the big bag up another big flight of 40 plus steps before racing to the exact platform site. City slickers like us could only pant and grasp for breath as we were exhausted reaching the carriage. We may be staggering but we guessed we came first in the race amongst fellow tour mates. Richard helped me to pushed and heaved all our bags up, then laid them down in our allotted room. Richard has a soft spot for the elderly folks and rushed down to give them a helping hand. With his remaining stamina, he helped to haul up their belongings. The commotion deemed a mini battlefield and poor Richard was weary as he was helping out on the strength of circumstance.

This express train has 17 carriages with engine compartments taking up the front and rear ends. Carriage ninth is the dining coach or buffet cart and both tenth and eleventh carriages are fitted with soft berths (each carriage has eight rooms and each room fits four passengers). The other eight carriages are fitted with hard berths (each carriage has 10 rooms and each room fits six passengers). Another four carriages had only hard seats and all passengers here are huddled together sitting in a mass. Going by census count, it carries a total of 747 passengers. Washroom is squeaky clean and all waste will only be desludged at Golmud station and the main Lhasa station. This is a good move to protect the environment of the highlands.

The aisle along the soft berths is a confined space, so tight that two average built bodies could only stand in a tight embrace. All windows are encased with double-layered glass protection and if you sit close to the glass, you can enjoy the morning view. But right now it's dark and we unlatched the door to make a quick inspection. The two double decker beds and pillows were fitted with clean bed linen. A small side table was placed near the window and a tray placed on top of the table had a hot water flask and a small alarm clock. On the lower tier, a trash bin was fixed to it.

The room had no other passengers and we had privacy. We guessed we rejoiced too early as the train pulled into a small station around 9.20p.m. two big and burly men joined us. Sharing a cubicle room with two strangers for the night was not something we had looked forward to. Don't call us unneighbourly or impolite, the man on the upper berth next to our bed was asleep even before we could say Jack Robinson. Soon the sounds of the train was drowned by his real awful loud snores. The other couldn't be better with his share of heavy snorting sounds. How can we catch 40 winks. What is the point of a complaint to the lady attendant as there was no room for changes. It was way past midnight when I sneaked into a fellow tour member's room to rest. Poor Richard had such a bad sleepless night, he greeted us with panda bear eyes in the early morning as he tried to film the scenery at close range.

(27/04/2007) Friday - 4th Day
It was a hassle-free moment as the train pulled into Golmud station around seven in the morning and our two hefty men disembarked. We thanked our lucky stars that they will not be our companions for the entire journey. The room was our private cubicle once again. We have covered a journey of 11 hours, tracking 830 km. There is nothing much you can do at this stopover of 20 minutes except to snap some photos and stretch your legs. After breakfast on the coach, most of us took the pills bought for high altitude illness as the coming route can be tough going. We thought the medicine did not have the particular strength as our heads were throbbing away. The ride for the next 15 hours covered 1,172km and the service took us through towering mountain passes, snow-capped alps, big lakes, plains, non-habitated land. This marvellous 'Sky Road' was built by the most advanced technology under thin air with low oxygen atmosphere, for the running of cars and this altitude express train.

The train equipped with comfortable seating is the perfect start for us to unwind by watching the passing view. We crossed bridge after bridge and some are so lengthy, there seemed to be no end. We pulled into Tang Gu Lu station soon, 5,068 metres above sea level (nearly four times the height of our Cameron Highlands). According to folklore, fairies lived carefree on the serene mountains a long, long time ago. Puffing into the Kun Lun Mountain tunnel of 1,686 metres is quite an experience to savour. It was a delight watching the 'Clear Water River Bridge' on a 11.7km route, there is something so picturesque as the train passed large river banks. We sat close to the window to enjoy the best countryside lens but how we wished they had allocated a little time for us to capture all these on camera. Most stopovers are nothing more than a fleeting glimpse.

Many tour members were heard screaming with joy as wild animals came out to play. Nature plays its role as the symphony draws out wild donkeys, wild yaks but antelopes went into hiding at this junction. All wildlife were enjoying a frolic in uninhabitated areas (the ones we see back home are all caged up). As we pulled through the Kekexili area, wildlife were grazing on pastures. All of us got very mesmerized by the solace and beautiful splendour. It becomes hard to describe in words but the beauty of nature stayed in our minds.

It was dusk when we reached Na Qu. Below the snowy mountains, the land was dry with yellow looking grass. Nomads herded their flock and this is the region best known for herbs. Cordyceps and snow lilies flourished in abundance. Finally the journey came to an end at Lhasa station. We needed a good shower after traveling for 26 hours but we must confess, we did enjoy a Tibetan experience of rail travel. This must be a good eye-opener for the whole tour group.

Tibet - The Land Of Snow, The Roof Of The World

(27/04/2007) Friday - 4th Day

We got a rousing welcome from Mr.Zhang, our tour guide from Szechuan at Lhaza rail station.

He gave us a little lecture on what to expect on everyday health. As oxygen has thinned to 70% of normal air in the lowlands, the body's heat-regulating mechanism can break down. Long continuous periods of exposure can leave you unprotected to high altitude illness. The symptoms are feeling unwell, headaches, loss of hearing, panting, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever and feeling drowsy. In severe cases, the person shows a lack of coordination, confused, aggressive, delirious and poor memory surfaces. The hearing, sight, smell and taste can be affected. Sometimes the body can swell as too much cold and too little oxygen can lead to such a condition.

Our Malaysian tour guide, Miss Looi concluded with extra advice. We should avoid all strenuous form of activities, do things in a relaxing manner and walk slowly. It was a special request that we should not bathe tonight. If anyone insists on not following this advice, then try not to use very hot water and do not close the bathroom door as air cannot circulate. It lead to much laughter. This has happened before with some stubborn tourists who bathed with very hot water and were found unconscious as the bathroom's oxygen had been occupied by hot steam. Some may come down with a cold or pneumonia. We had to banish the thought of soaking in a nice bath. Well, we will forgo bathing for another night and wait till morning comes. Though Tian Hai Hotel is only a 3 star range, yet the room feels comfortable after a long rail travel.

(28/04/2007) Saturday - 5th Day
It was past midnight when Richard had a severe headache and breathing difficulties. He found it hard to sleep and took the high altitude illness pills. It had not much effect. Morning came and I could not believed what I saw. Richard's face was puffed up
with a threadlike line as eyes. He had lost his appetite and later managed to eat only half a bowl of plain porridge. This time, he took another set of the anti-altitude illness pills together with medicine for his headache. Slowly he felt better. At least one third of our tour group had the same symptoms.

Jokhang Temple

We visited Jokhang Temple very early in the morning. Built in 647 A.D., it was the first Buddhist temple built in Tibet. There is a statute brought here by Princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty for worshipping. The golden statue showed Siddhatta Gotama at 12 years old before he became the Enlightened One, the Buddha. This has become a sacred ground for many worshippers. What is publicly available is experience enough to crowd the appreciation of most tourists and locals alike. Lhasa's name was coveted because of this temple. Interior of the temple was musked with ghee smell. Worshippers clamoured to pray and bowed to touch the ground as signs of respect. Next tour was around the street with eight sides (Barkhor). This is a commercial area and there are a lot of things to attract your money.

Potala Palace

The other sightseeing highlight of the city includes Potala Palace built on a hilltop in Lhasa city. Built 1,300 years ago by the Tibetan King as a wedding present to Princess Wen Cheng, the palace is divided into the red and white palace. The palace follows the contour of the hills, 13 storeys high with 999 rooms and is the highest palace in the world, at 37,000 metres above sea level. The red palace cradles Buddhist worships and the vicinity for religious administration office. The white palace is the official residence of the Dalal Lamas cum government offices. Unesco has listed the palace as a heritage site.

Daily , only 2,500 tourists and worshippers are allowed to tour the palace for an hour, all ticket must have the stipulated time for entry. Our China guide divided us into two groups. The first group of 13 members visited the site at 11am and the second group at 2pm. Before entering the site, you go through a check-point as all matches and lighters were taken away. No imflammable material please. In order to reach the palace ground, I had to scale the thousand year old steps. I was tired but I kept pushing myself to endure a bit more. It was getting hot as I peeled off one jacket after another. My legs became weary and throat parched badly. I have finally made it after passing through a four metres thick tunnel, as the palace nestled in a landscape touched with natural beauty. Richard had done it too.

After a 10 minutes rest, I joined the rest of our group to enter the palace ground. Photography is strictly prohibited, a sense of religious and cultural respect. Close circuit cameras are installed at many points to watch all tourists movements. What made the effort worthwhile was the opportunity to view beautiful collection of Buddha statues, bas-reliefs, scriptures and works of Buddhist literature on display everywhere. It was so imposing, a tour here is really a good merit point, all worth its salt and fair share of trials. Later in the afternoon, we visited the Summer Palace and Nobulingka, place associated with Dalal Lamas and their work. Dinner was served at a restaurant in Barkhor and we watched a cultural performance.

(29/04/2007) Sunday - 6th Day
Namtso Lake

We set off on the Lhasa highway which runs parallel with the railroad. The three hours drive is not as exciting as the destination of Namtso Lake as all along, we saw only yaks tilling the land, woolly lambs grazing on yellow grass, mastiffs (Tibetan dogs) guarding the flock and acting as shepherds. The view looked so peaceful on the snow-capped mountains and frozen waters in the lake started to melt into crystal-clear waters. We are going up a winding stretch and the last few kilometres ascending a hill road to reach the summit some 45 minutes later. From the highest point, we got a spectacular view over the lake. It had an awesome sense of space and this salt-water lake stands as the highest lake in the world. The wintry chill in the air ran down our spines. It was only a short minute view before we ran helter-skelter into the coach. It felt good to recuperate on inhaling extra oxygen from the tin compressor as the air got very thin. I saw the beautiful Tangkula Mountain with snow-capped top which formed the perfect backdrop at the end of the road. It was breathtaking beautiful and serene.

The to and fro journey took a total of eight hours. We were taken to some touristy shops for shopping around evening time. I bought some beads at a slashed price of 90% discount from the original price. Our tour guide took a fair number of us to the local clinic to set us on medical drips for two hours. It worked as we felt so much better. Our stamina returned and we really needed the extra energy to withstand the effects of both physical and mental strain. This prescribed method is our pioneer attempt as we have never seek such treatment before. A word of opinion, the elder folks were all doing fine adapting to the extreme change here. This altitude illness is apparently taking its toll on the younger and middle-age group. We must have taken big strides in our paces and moved hastily from one end to the other. We need to learn and slow down in order to enjoy Tibet and allow our health to recuperate.

(30/04/2007) Monday - 7th Day

273 kilometres away from Lhasa is Shigatse. The road journey was not too bad as we are on the highway route but the latter part was bad as the road surface was so uneven. Back seat passengers were thrown about. Yamdrock Lake at 5,030 metres is a popular destination to visit. Considered as one of the three sacred lakes in Tibet, the waters originate from the foothill of the snowy mountains but there is no outlet where the waters can flow out, yet the surface was totally unruffled. It looked so unreal, more like a scene from a painting. Tibetans would pose with their decorated yaks and mastiffs for 5 yen per photo as I had to pay them to model.

In Shigatse, most of the bussiness people are from Shandong or Shanghai. This district serves as Tibet's financial hull and the main core for business activity. A major architectural style of building here is another monastery with 13 levels pagoda and known as the highest pagoda in the highlands. The main hotel is Shigatse Shandong Hotel with a 3-star rating, stands tall in the city area.

(01/05/2007) Tuesday - 8th Day
To make the most of the day, a visit to Tashilhungpo Monastery means an early morning start. Tibetans offer prayers here to a golden Buddha statue with an imposing height of a five storey building. Every May, a large tangka is hauled to a special platform for the rounds of prayer. We were touched spiritually. After lunch we returned to Lhasa.

(02/05/2007) Wednesday ?9th Day

The city's signature museum is just a place for an overview of Tibetan craft and a host of unscrupulous traders manning the shoplots located in the basement area. After lunch we headed to the airport for a flight to Chengdu but not before stopping at a Tibetan home to be their guests for the afternoon. We had a taste of home-brewed yak butter tea and tsamba. Tibetan hospitality is best experienced at mealtime. That night after our flight landed in Chengdu, we went to the city to savour a spread of snack food. The facilities at this Railway Hotel (4 star) are good as it provides comfortable accomodation.

(03/05/2007) Thurday - 10th Day
Chengdu-Shenzhen- Kuala Lumpur
It was drizzling when we left Chengdu to catch a flight to Shenzhen. MAS has stopped the direct flight from Chengdu to K.L. so this has become very messy. On arrival at Shenzhen, we tried Mongolian food. Tour guide tried to squeezed us once more by persuading us to buy some souvenirs of the forthcoming Olympic games and other mementos. We wished he is not so pushy and aggressive with sales, it gave us some bad impressions. It may be a trifle thing but it could mar the image of a country.

This trip has helped us to bond new friendship and gave us an insight of a strange and different world. It has been a memorable visit with a tinge of soft adventure but definitely not a fun place for city slickers.