TIBET Part 1: Getting There

FOREWORD:

This story continues in Part 2, which you can read here.

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It was the 25th of September and the day of departure had finally arrived. I had woken up way too early, made sure my bags were packed, cleaned the house, showered, packed my toiletries, rechecked my bags were packed by adding a few more pairs of socks and another jersey, tidied the house some more, checked that all our tickets/passports/permits were at the door and was then dragged off for a coffee at Starbucks by Desmond in an attempt to normalise me again. A coffee certainly did the trick and we returned home to fetch our suitcases before setting out to the metro stop on our block in a first step into our great adventure. We were on the way to the railway station and our journey to Tibet was officially underway.

We trained (a personal neologism to express “took trains”) all the way through to Shanghai where we disembarked and jumped into a cab to explore the city center in search of the Lomography store that apparently existed there. Despite making our driver take us around the same block twice, no such store was spotted so instead we jumped out to discover the quaint little road we had found ourselves on. As we walked past stores and into alleyways, we marveled at the street art and oddities of this new city we had found ourselves in. Indie stores and sidewalk art rebellions were something we’d deeply missed in China and it was invigorating to see such things again. Our ambling soon shifted into seeking shelter however, when the light rain of the morning turned to heavy downpour and began to both soak us and our luggage . A little restaurant called MaxiArt caught our eye and we dashed in, shaking ourselves off and trying not to flood their floor. We settled down and ordered a warm beverage with happy hearts, absentmindedly staring out the window at the people passing by to the soundtrack of heavy rains hitting sidewalks and windows.

We sipped and checked the time, realizing we still had a few hours before our train to Lhasa – the capital of Tibet – that would only depart at 8pm that night. So we did what any reasonable person would do and ordered a plate of hot chips and discussed our next move. Whilst munching on delicious treats, we decided to walk a block or two down the road to another suspected Lomography store location just as soon as the rain calmed down, taking pictures of the city on the go. We paid our bill and proceeded on, loving the architecture and mood of Shanghai. There were various quirks along the way, like Macaws on perches outside fashion stores, and we were having a great time despite being noticeably damp. Shanghai hosted a far more varied culture than we had found in Hangzhou with bookstore and coffee shop blends, international cuisine, fewer people attached to phones and cigarettes, school children walking around before 5pm and places to sit and enjoy outside. We never found our Lomography store and ended up soaking wet but were in high spirits when jumping in another cab and heading to the train station for our evening train.

After a 3 hour wait and a bad fast food dinner in the train station, surrounded by indoor smokers below no-smoking signs, the crowds bustled to the ticket check entrance where the conductors were readying themselves to let people onto the platform. The Chinese are notorious for disregarding queuing and this instance was no different: people flowed like a river through the narrow gap, hustling and shifting into any free space that opened in front of them. Des and I found ourselves separated and shouted over the crowd that we would just find one another and regroup on the other side of the door. Once reconnected, we walked to carriage 13 of a 19 carriage train and had our tickets and passports checked before boarding and discovering that we were in cabin 1: the cabin directly next to the bathrooms and hot water dispensers. We looked at the 6 beds and quickly grabbed the bottom bunks separated by the narrow isle in the middle of the room. I sniffed the air and remarked that it smelled a little of smoke but attributed it to a rebellious member of the cleaning staff who probably snuck a cigarette before the train was allowing passengers to board. Unfortunately, I was proven wrong on this point, as soon as the train began to move smokers took to the connections between the carriages. With no door to our room and being directly adjacent to this activity, my lungs began to ache and I felt a rise in my anxiety over the train trip I had expected versus the reality unfolding in front of me.

Deciding that the best remedy was sleep, we tucked ourselves into our beds in order to allow for the night to pass by some time. We were woken a few times by ticket checkers shining torches in our eyes when others had boarded the trains and they rechecked everyone’s tickets, seemingly not knowing which travelers were new in the room, but other than that we managed to have a good night’s sleep. I awoke the next morning on my 24th birthday and stared out the window at the never ending urban sprawl that the Chinese mainland offered. I knew I would be spending my day of birth on the train but had been expecting the viewing decks and dining carts that the PDF had raved about whilst toting this train as an engineering marvel. Left without wifi, drinking water, toilet paper or cake, I submerged myself in my yearly practice of reflection and intention; considering what had passed and been achieved since my last birthday and setting my goals for my next lap around the sun.

 

I was getting a little lost in thought and homesickness that I was feeling for my friends and family for the first time since our move 6 months ago. These sensations were also being amplified by the fact that my intense observation of the world outside the window did not offer an even 30 second time frame without seeing natural landscapes drastically manipulated by the human hand. The population density in China was overwhelming and their dominance over nature something quite beyond compare. Desmond, being the caring partner that he is, slid a handmade card across the table alongside the new film camera and slab of Cote d‘or he had gotten me for the occasion, distracting me from the slightly dark mental tunnel I had found myself in. We chatted and laughed about how far we’d come in fulfilling our aspirations over the last year and marveled at the fact that we had just a short month left in China before we will be moving on to Thailand, another place that will surely be filled with adventure and new experiences. I was back to feeling content, now accustomed to the idea that this was not the train trip of national pride that I was expecting but rather a way to get from A to B… And that B was still going to be Tibet and Mount Everest and a land that seemed so far away, mysterious and full of wonder. We had another 30 hours to go on the train and I settled down into my seat, watching the world go by, feeling excited for the immediate adventure that lay ahead of us as well as all the other change and travel that was yet to come.

The day passed by, uneventful, until the evening when we had readied ourselves for bed only to discover that we would be stopping at the upcoming Xining station and switching trains. Since we were not privy to the information that our current train was not suitable for the high altitudes we would encounter the following day, this switch was unexpected and bizzare. We gathered all our things and crossed the platform at about 9pm that night and I deeply appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors, taking it as a birthday offering from the universe. This time when boarding the train our permits to enter Tibet were also checked, following which we collapsed back into our beds in cabin 1, carriage 13, and succumbed to a night of sleep. The following morning I awoke early and with a start, instantly looking out the window. The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and I jumped out of bed to wake Desmond (now on the top bunk) so we could grab our cameras and rush to the seated carriages of the train.

We settled down and stared out the window at the endless and beautiful Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, currently being lit up an amber orange as the sun rose over the distant horizon. After months of congested cities, being able to stare into a distance without the interruption of apartment blocks or buildings or roads was almost spiritual. We each took to trying to photograph the landscape without getting the train windows or window reflections in the shot and were not completely successful. Often we’d cry out to one another from opposite sides of the train whenever we spotted a small herd of wild donkeys or deer that were native to the region. Desmond was thrilled to spot many falcons hunting in the morning light, shooting and swooping in 2s or 3s a few meters above the ground. As the day progressed the mountains rose around us, colourful close to the train and snow-capped in the distance. Around midday we began to spot yaks and are quite sure that we noticed a lone bear in the distance whilst listening to a voice over the intercom explain how the railway was built to be as environmentally friendly as possible by including features such as animal highways so as not to interrupt migrations and metal devices to release heat so as not to alter the permafrost.

My spirits lifted with the altitude and when we found ourselves at about 5100m up, I was equally elated to be surrounded by nature in form of both flora and fauna untouched by the human hand. Small farmsteads were spotted every few hours, consisting of 8 to 10 houses together, and sometimes there would be a herdsman walking with his yaks or cows. We passed endless mountains and bodies of water with billowing cumulus clouds floating above in the bright blue sky. This was the China I’d been looking for and the holiday I’d been needing and I couldn’t wait to get off the train and begin to move around these spaces and learn more about Tibet, it’s nature, culture and history over the course of the next 10 days. With only hours left until our arrival in Lhasa, I settled down in my seat once more, tingling with excitement and completely saturated with happiness and a sense of impending discovery, photography and adventure…

– To be continued –

SIGHTS FROM THE TRAIN WINDOW