Lhasa railway station (altitude 3,500 meters) competes with the mountains in size. Made of tinted glass and marble, it is galactical, standing arrogantly on the Tibetan Plateau surrounded by nothing except the distant barren mountains. Inside, x-ray machines peer into your luggage, escalators escort you to vast expanses of gift shops and lounges with overstuffed leather sofas in pleasing almond bekon. There is no smoking, but there are western toilets with no footprints on the toilet seats.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened officially on July 1st, 2006, to intense worldwide news coverage, from "the Chinese are occupying Tibet", to "a great feat of engineering". The Chinese built 18-story high bridges on top of the permafrost. According to our Chinese guide, they have the technology in place to keep the permafrost permanently frozen along the railway line – no matter how warm the earth gets!
Keyhole into the planet
The railway crosses what geologists call "the keyhole into the planet"; a seismic belt where the Eurasian and Indian plates collided into each other in 1981, causing a 400-kilometer rift, which the Chinese overcame. UV protection and anti-riot glass on all the carriage windows protect the occupants. Along the route, miles and miles of snow and sand fences have been constructed to protect the train. There are oxygen outlets everywhere for anyone suffering from altitude sickness.
Before boarding, passengers must read, sign and submit the following document.
Plateau Travel Instructions Fellow Passengers
1. According to the sanitarian department and doctors, the passengers can travel to the plateau only after, finishing their physical examination and approved by the doctors. Passengers are not suitably travel to the plateau area where above 3,000 meters when they have one of the following diseases:
- Each kind of nature heart disease, apparent heart heat abnormal or the heats are above 100 times per minute, the hypertension II, blood dissease and the brain vein disease.
- Chronicity respiratory system disease moderate above blocking lung disease including bronchia tube asthma, bronchiectasis, pulmonary emphysema, activity pulmonary tuberculosis, dust pulmonary tuberculosis etc.
- Diabetes out of control, the hysteria, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
- All the symptoms including catching the heavy sickness cold, upper respiratory tract infection, the body temperature above 38 C or the body temp is below 38C but the system of the whole body and respiratory is obvious should postpone to enter the plateau area until recovered.
- Once diagnosed has contracted the plateau pulmonary oedema, plateau hydrocephalus, a noticeable rise of blood pressure of plateau hypertension sickness, the plateau heart disease and plateau red blood cell increasing.
- Highly dangerous pregnant women.
2. Please aware of protecting plateau ecological environment.
We are at the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Co., Lhasa Station. We have a soft sleeper; that means sharing our cabin with another couple. Our cabin has four berths; measures 6.5 feet across by 10 feet high. I'm using my in house slipper as a measuring tool. No matter, the cabin is smaller than my walk in clothes closet back home.
Two German hikers enter; ruddy faced with enough dusty gear to cause a sandstorm. They are pleasant company, but doesn't the Arian race have specimens shorter than 6'2" without flatulence problems? It is cramped and for the next 25 hours, it will be our home. Each berth has a TV screen with Chinese movies – who needs movies. I'm absorbed in contemplating the layers of landscape unfurling past my window.
The Tibetan Plateau, hugged by the pre-Himalayan mountain ranges is desolate, powerful and humbling. Occasionally snow capped peaks reveal themselves; they glisten in the sharp sun against a forget-me-not blue huge sky. Black hairy yaks dot the tundra feeding on green vegetation and two women, clad in long black robes are walking. Where are they going? Where are they coming from? There is no community to be seen for miles.
The train is climbing. I have a grinding headache behind my left eyeball; it's altitude or cramped quarters. I venture out and bravely decide to walk the entire length of the train (13 carriages and 2 locomotives). Passengers are informed of today's date, that the present altitude is 4,266 meters, that the outside temperature is 25 Celsius and velocity is 95 kilometers per hour. My left ear pops.
The third-class carriage has rigid, but well padded seats in indigo blue with white polka dots, just what anyone suffering from a grinding headache needs to see. It is empty save for one white capped Muslim Asian man kneeling across three seats on a carpet murmuring prayers and bowing in the direction of Mecca. Absorbed in Allah, he ignores me.
The next carriage is overflowing with an ocean of Asian faces, sunburnt dark copper faces, uncombed matted hair. A large blonde headed creature coming through hushes them. All eyes are upon me; not vacuous animal like stares, but behind these eyes there is a glimmer of soul. Children stop eating their noodles, mothers in Tibetan garb stare; a spoonful of Ramen in mid-air. The musty smell of unwashed bodies tinged with wood smoke is thick in my nostrils. "Tashi-dele" (hello in Tibetan) I say and smile. Tashi-dele, tashi-dele echo and re-echo between the seats accompanied with hearty laughter and uttered unintelligible exclamations. Smiles lit up the entire carriage. The Tibetan passengers impart an hospitable heart that warms me; some have courage enough to say "hello".
Between the carriages, their luggage is piled high, burlap bags sewn closed, some are patched. They vie for space with carton boxes tied with rope and ribbons. There are carriages with six berths. I pass through to the hissing sound of oxygen being used. Clear plastic tubes are delivering relief to passengers whose faces are contorted with persistant headache, hands to forehead, they gasp in oxygen and don't move. I smell cigarette smoke in the air – oxygen and cigarettes are a deadly mix. The no smoking rule is being tested. It is not working.
The Danggula Mountain station, at a gasping altitude of 5,072 meters, is the world's highest altitude station. It is at the border of Qinghai province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. I sit alone in the empty third-class polka dotted carriage. Our altitude now is 4,772 meters, the outside temperature is two Celsius, and we are travelling at 94 kilometers per hour. Patches of snow are on the ground, a dark sky is heavy with rain clouds as I sit and enjoy the music being piped in.
I'll take the good times, I'll take the bad times. I'll take you just the way you are.
I inhale the familiar and feel happiness to be here. The dark sky and horizon blend into a seamless fog. I love you just the way you are.
The clouds open and drop their contents on the Tibetan train. It's a blizzard of snow – snow – snow! Is there a window open? I want to stick my head out, close my eyes, open my mouth wide and catch snowflakes on my tongue. The Tibetan Plateau in its brilliance has mesmerized me for hours. I feel a remarkable drowsiness beginning to fold. I return to my berth. Why does the Arian race snore so loudly? I plug my ears with earplugs and burrow into the comfortable cocoon of my berth.
It's all downhill to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province – altitude 2,275 meters. When I awake, there will be air to breathe, no grinding headaches. My lids are heavy, dropping over my eyes. Through the earplugs, I hear the steady soft rhythm of the train's wheels, "lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub". They awaken within me a long forgotten memory of my mother's heartbeat. I sleep like a baby.