My sleeper compartment

SYNOPSIS:  22 hours in transit.  About a special train, a special ride, and a special welcome.

By now the increased police presence at train stations is part of what I expect, and after seeing the militarization of Urumqi and Xinjiang province, Xining felt outright benign.  Every travel book on Tibet written in the West, warns that its possession will cause problems.  Luggage checks on trains and at airports are common.  If a book on Tibet is found, it will be confiscated. 

But policies change as fast around here as the urban landscapes.  For nothing had I wrapped my beloved German Tibet Guide by Karl-Heinz Everding in cloth, stuffed it in a small purse, and then hidden it under my baggy clothes.  Body checks, even though common now, serve a different purpose.  I was not concerned.  But the unexpected luggage check…  I even hid the book under my train sleeper’s mattress, just in case.  But all went well.

In 2007, the train connection between China and Lhasa opened.  It is considered one of the marvels of train engineering.  One of the highest trains in the world, the route crosses over passes more than 5000 meters high.  You can’t tell by looking around you, as the train slowly moves up.  You cross endlessly wide valleys as barren as any desert, dotted with the occasional river, herd of yak or sheep, and small villages here and there.  The mountains left and right still tower, but these are peaks going up 7000 meters and higher! 

Soft-sleeper compartments are limited, and the most coveted on this ride.  It sleeps four to a compartment rather comfortably.  Hard-sleepers house six people to a compartment and if you can’t even secure one of those, then good luck, riding this train in an ordinary seat.  My ride lasted only 22 hours; some people take this train all the way from Beijing and spend nearly 2 days on it.  I had booked my soft-sleeper weeks ago.  But I lucked out even further.  I had the upper bunk.  My lower bunk companion with whom I shared the seating only rode with me for about 6 hours.  And the two guys from Hong Kong, across from me traveled with a larger group of people.  They disappeared to spend time with their companions, drinking, playing games, partying.  I was left to a quiet time of work and blogging.

Come nightfall, I popped a sleeping pill, stuffed my ears with ear plugs and drifted into a sweet slumber from which I emerged refreshed in the morning.  My Hong Kong companions did not fare quite as well.  Plagued by headaches, they tried to cope with the altitude adjustment.  I don’t know why I got so lucky.  I could not even tell that we had crossed these high passes.  Was it the time I had spent by now at 3000 meters that helped?  Was it the altitude medication?  Or was it just the oxygen supplied through the entire train that offset the worst?  Small vents of fresh oxygen were positioned next to every sleeping passenger’s head hissing along soothingly all night.


Lhasa’s train station is relatively small but modern.  Long lines form at the tourist checkpoint where papers are checked just one more time.   The majority of tourists visiting Tibet are from China.  They can enter without any special permits.  Tibet has become the new “hip” destination where Chinese girls get married, dress up in fancy local Tibetan outfits and pose in front of known landmarks.  They often even hire professional photographers to capture the moment for posterity.

I was one of the few Western tourists.  One of the immigration officers who checked the lines pulled me out and ahead of the cue.  The Chinese government — after making you jump through loops and hoops to get your TAR permits — is trying to do everything to not upset you any further.  Pushing Western visitors in front of lines is one of those goodwill gestures. 

Lobsang, my appointed guide, was nowhere to be seen, but eventually showed up with a big smile and a white scarf which he wrapped around my neck as a welcome gesture for good luck.  We took a taxi to town, passing several modern Chinese-style suburbs.  Lhasa looked nothing like I had expected but everything like another modern Chinese town.  The taxi dropped us off at an intersection in the center of town.  We had to walk from there.  The scenery changed.  This was the Lhasa I had hoped for!

Within seconds we were enveloped by the 19th century.  There were small alleys, no more cars, just people, electric bikes, children, vendors, wares spread out on the sidewalks.  How cool!  For one week, this would be my world.  Lobsang took me to a local restaurant and gave me a brief orientation of the area.

My little guesthouse was tucked into one of those old streets.  It is owned by a Chinese-Tibetan business team and beautifully designed in medieval Tibetan style, filled with Buddhist symbols.  Furniture and paintings are all executed by local artists. 

I will love it here!

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  1. What a magnificent train ride! What beautiful decor in the guesthouse! Enjoy.