I first read about the Beijing-Lhasa train — officially the Qinghai Tibet Train — about five months ago, and have dreamed about it since.
On Saturday May 30th I anxiously waited for day to become night so I could finally go to the station and catch the 9:30pm train to Lhasa. I left for the station much too early according to everyone I had dinner with, but I couldn’t stand the wait any longer. I didn’t want to chance it that I’d run out of time if I hit traffic or the taxi driver miraculously got lost.
Once I arrived at the train terminal I felt the excitement really start to kick in. I was so close to starting my 48-hour train ride to Lhasa!!
The instant boarding began I became engulfed in a sea of running and pushing Chinese people, making me wonder if there would be other foreigners aboard. I didn’t quite understand why everyone ran because there were assigned seats. I saw no reason to rush, especially as I was weighed down by my backpack and bags of goodies: apples, mangosteens, dragonfruit, bread, peanut butter, jelly, toilet paper, and water.
Walking through the train the next morning uncovered the reason why everyone ran: they wanted to be the first in their train-cars so they could put their luggage in the storage areas before they filled up. The last to get seated got stuck with their luggage under their feet or on their laps.
I was lucky to be in a soft-sleeper car with cabins that sleep four people and have front doors. The cabins in the hard-sleeper cars sleep six people and don’t have doors. And the cheapest cars have just chairs. I can’t imagine sitting for 48 hours straight with luggage on my lap. Some people get around this by laying beds of newspapers on the spaces between train cars. Only two people fit in these nooks, so you have to be either very lucky or quick to get a spot.
My first impression of my cabin was that it was way too small for four people and their luggage, but then we found the overhead storage bins which solved the space problem. The two lower beds were occupied by two Germans, Georg and Chris, with whom I chatted with for the entire ride. Among other things, I learned important German phrases like “Kiss my ass” and “The machine is broken”, which became indispensable later when things started getting a bit rough. The fourth bed — eye level with me — was taken by a Chinese man who, after 20 hours, we realized was a policeman. He was rather odd, sleeping in his tidy whities, and staring at us and in particular at me.
The train spent the first part of Day One mostly driving through cities, and the second part driving through countryside and farms. For most of the day our car was quite warmer than the others, reaching about 80 deg F. We complained to a train officer, who promptly suggested that I go to a different car, an infuriating idea because there wasn’t anywhere to sit in the other cars.
This was right along the general service on the train. Everyone was genuinely pained if they had to deal with you. God forbid one of the 20 train employees sitting around chatting actually had to do any work. The trash-pickup service was timely, though, as was the bathroom cleanup for the first day. This said, I don’t recommend using the squatter toilets at any time because the floors are perpetually covered in a centimeter of urine. That being said, I also don’t recommend wearing pants that drag on the floor.
When the altimeter hit 3,000 meters on the second evening, my Germans cabinmates and I shared some Budweisers and watched a lightning storm in the distance before going to bed. I was slowly waking up the next morning when I felt a slight tug on my blankets. I looked down to see Chris pointing out the window to gorgeous snow-capped hills. I flew out of the cabin, pulled back the left hallway’s curtains, and there they were: huge snowy mountains!! I was ecstatic!
And then back to Chinese reality. The first clogged toilet happened mid-morning on Day Two, which wasn’t much of a surprise after seeing the kitchen staff pour buckets of food remains down there. It started getting really bad a few hours later when they disabled the flush buttons on all toilets. We didn’t have any stations where to unload the waste, which probably was the reason for the problems. This quickly became very inconvenient because you are supposed to drink plenty of water after the train reaches an altitude of 5,000 meters to prevent altitude sickness and dehydration. But with the toilets nearly overflowing you don’t have much of an incentive to stay hydrated…
When the toilets were just about to overflow I began wandering the train hoping to find a decent bathroom. The train officers have emergency flush buttons, but didn’t use them until it looked like they might otherwise need to do some nasty clean-up. So I hoped that by walking the train I could either find a toilet that had been recently emergency-flushed or ask an officer to use his almighty flushing powers to help me out. I just couldn’t bear the idea of urine and puke from at least 15 other people splattering back at me or sloshing onto my shoes while I peed.
When I finally asked an officer about the bathroom problem, he grumpily instructed me to use it anyway. Like I said before, the service was certainly unpleasant — making my newly learned German phrases very handy.
So I started day-dreaming a public announcement that went something like this:
Thank you for traveling aboard the China-Tibet Train.
If you need anything please DO NOT ask us because frankly we don’t give a damn. We have decided that the dining car and the car with all the foreigners will not get air conditioning for the first half of the trip. If this makes your trip uncomfortable don’t bother telling us because we won’t fix the problem.
You will notice that at the front of your cabin there are volume, light, temperature, and service buttons. Only the light button will work for you. If you need something, do not press the service button. Your best bet in this situation is to take out the net that you should have brought with you and try trapping a train officer. If you forgot your net then you are out of luck.
As you know, we will be traveling to an elevation of 5,072 meters. To assist your acclimatization we will pump oxygen through the air conditioning systems, that is, if the air conditioning is working. You will also notice that each seat is equipped with a plug for an oxygen mask so you can have your own personal oxygen supply if need be. Should you require this source of oxygen, we regret to inform you that we don’t care and we don’t plan on passing out oxygen masks so go f*** yourselves if you want one. If you get really desperate, try sucking the oxygen straight out of the hole where you would otherwise plug in your mask.
During the last leg of our trip you will no longer have access to bathrooms that aren’t covered in urine, feces, and vomit. If this is a problem for you, we suggest you stop drinking all liquids immediately.
Thank you for choosing the Beijing-Lhasa Train. Please come back soon, but don’t misunderstand and think that we want you to travel with us again because we like you, we really just want your money.
Despite the Chinese-style travel amenities, I’m delighted I did it. The views were stunning and coming into Lhasa by plane wouldn’t have been nearly as thrilling!