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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Railway to Lhasa

October 12, 2007

11 Oct, 2007, 0000 hrs IST,
Narayani Ganesh, TNN, Economic Times, Indiatimes.com
Taking the train to Lhasa is like boarding a capsule to the moon. Thank
God its steepest climb happens during dead of night when you’re fast
asleep. So you have no inkling as the Beijing-Lhasa train runs on the
Qinghai-Tibet railroad, the highest altitude railroad in the world,
girds its loins to make that steep climb to the highest plateau in the
world.

It, in fact, takes you halfway up the world’s highest peak — the 8,848
metre tall Mt Quomolangma, better known as Mt Everest. Well, in a manner
of speaking, that is, as you reach a height of 4,000-plus metres albeit
on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the “roof of the world.”

Luckily, few in our group of 18 women journalists suffered altitude
sickness or violent headaches because of the rarified air that has less
oxygen than we’re normally used to. Well, it’s partly because the
train’s interiors are designed for comfort and relaxation, with oxygen
outlets near every berth for any emergency.

But we had also fortified ourselves with the Yangke Tibetan Rhodiola
Root Capsules made of roots, herbs and fruits including ginseng and
seabuckthorn, recommended by our Chinese escorts from the All-China
Journalists Association, Zhang Bingshun and Fang Xin Jian. The Tibetan
medicine helps the body maintain its equilibrium in high altitudes by
raising your resistance to oxygen deficiency and enhancing immunity.

The Lhasa experience – and the journey itself — is definitely worth the
48-hour, 4,000 km train ride to what was once arguably the region’s most
powerful kingdom, straddling both spiritual and political realms under
the stewardship of Dalai Lamas, the guardians of Tibetan Buddhism.

Today’s Lhasa is China’s flagship tourist destination, boasting three
world heritage sites: the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Monstery and the
Norbulingka, the traditional summer residence of the Dalai Lamas.

A modern engineering marvel, the railroad connects what was once an
inaccessible, mysterious kingdom to the free market economy with its
resplendent infrastructure that includes glitzy malls, towering hotels
and state-of-the-art bridges and roads.

Debates apart on whether drawing Tibet into mainstream development is
such a good thing, you cannot also help wondering if it is fair to
expect unique culture and tradition bound communities to remain tucked
away, insulated, while the rest of the world enjoys the freedom to make
that choice.

There was palpable excitement and anticipation as we set foot in the
newly renovated Beijing West railway station, all set to make the
pilgrimage to a region that once fertilised imaginative and artistic
conceptualisations of a Shangri La. Hey, had we wandered into a mall? A
department store?

When we bargained with the smartly uniformed and incredibly young
porters to haul our baggage (at 10 yuan a piece) to T27, the
Beijing-Lhasa train, we didn’t know it was a mere escalator ride away
and that we would have to pass through a store that had everything from
toilet rolls and sun-protection lotions to instant noodles, tea bags,
fruits and assorted snacks.

Ladies, ladies! Pleading, Binghun shepherds us to the spotless, empty
platform that, in the grey twilight, took on the contours of a Harry
Potter setting. No teary-eyed relatives here, pressing their noses
against windows to say goodbye to their loved ones. Gingerly, we
approach the coach whose doorway is at platform-level, a small ramp in
place for wheeling in baggage, a uniformed officer standing to attention.

The train’s interior is carpeted, except for the toilets and wash-area.
Our group has been allotted berths in carriage one and four,
three-tiered “hard” berths that do have decent padding and bedding
including a quilted top cover, under-sheet and pillow. An oversized
flask and steel basin sit on the counter near the windows, the former to
store hot water and the latter, to throw trash. Beneath the counter is a
pedal-operated dustbin.

Having supped before boarding the train, we take position by aisle
windows — with seats that fold up against the wall – in the long
corridor that runs right through the carriage on one side. We notice
that below every alternate corridor seat there is an electric outlet
where you can charge your camera and phone.

The chaircar section is occupied mostly by Tibetans and backpackers; the
three-berthed cabins for six persons has mostly Chinese and official
visitors while the two-berthed cabins that house four passengers have
foreign leisure tourists and Chinese party officials. The rates are
US$50, $100 and 1$50 respectively, food not included.

Since its inaugural run in July 2006, the train has been booked full for
the next two years, we’re told, and it is impossible to get a seat if
you haven’t done your homework. Don’t carry oversized luggage; it could
pose problems getting fitted into the rather low baggage space below the
berths. Otherwise, you have to haul it up all the way to the top berth
where on the side, there’s some space for baggage.

A 24-hour hot (boiling) water dispenser in every coach caters to those
who like to drink tea through the day, and is convenient for
cup-o-noodles fans and instant soup drinkers. What a wonderful idea. The
dining car, however, is attractively designed, with its picture windows
offering a wide-lensed view of the unusual landscape fleeting by, as the
train speeds past mountains and lakes, upcoming towns and factories,
power stations and monastries.

The menu is Chinese, mostly non-vegetarian, and beverages including beer
and other drinks are available through most part of the day. In fact,
most stations we paused at had vendors selling beer, roti-like soft
breads, fruits and snacks. And on the train, too, at regular intervals,
you have trolley-pushing salesboys and girls selling food, beverage and
fruit.

“Xinxian Shuiguo!” (Fresh Fruit!) calls out a young girl in a charming,
lilting tone. And for 10 yuan, you can pick up pre-packed juicy grapes,
melon, orange, banana and other fruit. For 15 yuan, you can buy
pre-packed Chinese food with a throwaway bowl and chopsticks.

On Day Two after daybreak we pass the 2,220-metre tall Huashan
Mountains, among the five most famous in China, with sharp snowcapped
precipices and steep cliffs. You wake up to the sweet melody of Fur
Elise, and listen to the story of the mountains from a co-passenger as
the piped music plays first Maiden’s Prayer and then Tchaikovsky’s Swan
Lake.

According to legend, a fairy fell in love with a human, married him and
had a son. Heaven punished her by pushing her beneath the mountains and
it was only when her son grew up and vowed to rescue his mother that she
found release from her long imprisonment!

We pass X’ian city, ancient capital of Shaanxi province and home to the
terracotta warriors. By now the music on the train has turned
traditional, playing old Chinese instrumental music.

Between stations, piped music and announcements, you can listen to
narratives on Tibet, the railway, tourist information, and so on. Our
friends inform us that in Lhasa, though the locals are very gentle
people, migrant shopkeepers and vendors could turn nasty if you bargain
too hard and then leave without making a purchase.

By noon the flat landscape turns mountainous again but this time they’re
green with rivers laden with silt. We catch a glimpse of China’s mother
river, the Huang He or Yellow River. We pass through several tunnels
before napping in the afternoon, only to wake up to the singsong sales
call: “Xinxian Shuiguo!”

Every station stop is impressive, with its brand new, spotless
platforms. The total number of stations stops is eight, between Beijing
and Lhasa. They are Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, X’ian, Lanzhou, Xining,
Geermu, Naqu and finally, Lhasa. Only the last two are in Tibet.

Passengers rush out to click pictures, both of the station and the
train, some standing close to the train’s signboard that says
“Qinghai-Tibet Railway”, others keen to capture the name of the station.
Interestingly, trained staff locks the toilets each time a station
approaches, and opens them only once the train leaves the station.

That explains the clean and odour-free tracks. On the train, too,
regular sweeping and emptying of dustbins ensures a dust-free,
trash-free environment, a refreshing change from what one is normally
used to.

Wildlife spotting is an occupation that can keep you busy for hours, as
the vast expanse on either side of the track is home to chiru, yak,
sheep, antelope, birds and many others including pandas in the forests
yonder. Of course, one ends up seeing only some yak and sheep that stray
close enough.

However, throughout the journey, the entire rail track runs between
fences on either side, meant to protect animals and the train from
mishaps. At regular intervals, under bridges enable the animals to carry
on with their migratory journeys, unhindered by the railroad.

It’s only when we reach Geermu in Qinghai province at 2,800 metres above
sea level – well, it’s 5am – that it’s really chilly, and we run to get
our jackets and mufflers before clicking pictures.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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