Riding the highest train in the world!

19 01 2011

With less than 3 weeks on our visas and with more than 2500 Km to go to the border with Vietnam we started to mildly panic. Our train out of Lhasa into mainland china (we can only start cycling again, on our own, in China proper) had already been delayed by a day with the un/happy consequence of us getting an upgrade to a soft sleeper (http://www.seat61.com/China.htm).  To get across Tibet by land you have to go with a group and be on a group visa; ‘and you are SURE we can extend it?’ we asked our slightly too snappily dressed travel agent in Nepal; ‘Totally’ he crooned.. ’no problem’; ‘and you are SURE we can get our bikes on the train with us?’…‘Totally’ he simpered dismissively ‘no problem at all!’

The Lhasa to Chengdu train takes a mere 48 hours and runs across the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) above sea level, makes it the highest in the world.  Lhasa, however sits at a pithy 3,490m.  Now, we’d walked around a bit at this altitude – but we hadn’t really done anything strenuous. Not that cycling 6km to the station is strenuous, surely?!

The persistent cold had started to take its toll and the night before departure Liz had raging flu through the night. With Liz sweating like a spit roast and the niggling bike-on-train concerns nipping at our ankles we woke and set off early. After about 10 mins of cycling Liz started to lag behind, her pace slowing to a wobbly crawl which soon whimpered to a stop as she clambered off her bike and slumped on the sidewalk. Her breathing was shallow and light and she was fazing in and out.  We had to make the train! If we missed it, it might be days before we could get on another!  But with Liz’s lungs, legs, and will power folding panic/hysteria set in.  And the great thing about panic/hysteria is that it is highly motivational. After a brief rest, and much cajoling, bracing, and rallying we set off again, one little wheel at a time, for every turn of the pedals we coasted for a while, slow but do-able. Slowly slowly we teetered our way to Lhasa station.

Once through the security x-ray we hit our first ‘no’. ‘No bikes, not possible’ a smiley security lady informed us – ‘whatever’ a grey Liz grimaced back as we pressed on through into the compound. We found the holding area for our train; ‘No, No bikes’ the brusque ticket inspector snapped and shooed us back out the door… ‘here we go’ we thought. Eventually a random security guard directed us to the China Railway Express Delivery office.  So in we marched (Liz was exuding the pink glow of ill health that was making her look wonderfully unhinged) to a sea of baffled faces.  ‘No, no bikes. Fly. You will have to fly’. The fat-controller decreed before waddling off into his office.

A farcical debate then ensued with a slightly deranged Liz having to speak with not one but two English speaking ladies on the phone – neither of whom were anywhere near Lhasa or knew much about railway delivery methods.  Intermittently the fat-controller would swagger into the proceedings and plop unhelpful and dismissive dictats into the mix about planes and impossibilities etc. Liz was gritty with flu-driven determination, her eyes blood shot, her brow glistening, there was no way she was letting this one pass. Stubbornly we took the pedals off the bikes and prepared to start the conversation again… when (as is so often the case) an angel turned up…

The angel came along with 2 more western cyclists also hoping to get on the train to Chengdu.  They had said angel/guide with them. An angel/guide who spoke Chinese and English (hoorah!).  Suddenly the absolutely-no-ways and you’ll-have-to-fly’s turned into – ‘bikes on trains? To Chengdu? Sure! They’ll be there in 3 days, just fill out this form and pay us some money’… It took about 10 mins to sort the paperwork and we (and our bikes) were on our way to mainland China…. we hoped!

The Chinese eat pot-noodles. They eat LOTS of pot-noodles – thank goodness, then, for the little hot water dispensers available everywhere. Without them instant noodles could not be consumed at such a pace! Hoorah for hot water dispensers! They also served us well on our 48 hour epic train journey… we had a limitless supply of free hot water to drink! .. what a shame we didn’t think of bringing hot chocolate or, indeed, pot-noodles! *sigh* Good thing the buffet car did corking, fresh cooked (ish) meals, shame it was rammed full of smokers / smoke. No open windows in this weather and at this altitude. Joy.

A dull (though wonderfully warm) 48 hours later we arrived in Chengdu. Where upon we found out that we couldn’t extend our group visa. Super. Good to know that our simpering Kathmandu travel agent had stood up to our low expectations. .. and to top it all off our laptop broke – stamps of ‘lifeless’ and ‘doornails’ were clumped upon it by a day’s worth of Chinese techie geeks, so we brought a new one, and then to top that all off it started working again *sigh* but at least it was hot and sunny again, so we sent our winter coats home, and then to throw a cherry on them bananas it started to snow…. great. Roll on Vietnam.

Lhasa – A tale of two cities

11 01 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..

If there is one thing you can say about the SS is that they sure were snappy dressers. The peaky hats, the gleaming skull and cross bones, the natty red on black. They may have been void in the humanity/morality department but they really were up there in the sartorial stakes. And the Chinese guard is pushing hard in the glamour direction too… though without the same effortless command as the third Reich.

The airless road from Nepal to Lhasa and beyond is dotted with po-faced little green toy soldiers boxed in little Perspex boxes, standing on little red plinths, hemmed round at ankle height with a little red braided silk rope. Their little white gloved hands pointing sharp little fingers down to the occupied / liberated territory of Tibet. Once in Lhasa the little boxed guards are reserved for the gates of bureaucratic centres, those that walk the streets (of the Tibetan area only) are heavily armed in riot gear and supported by rooftop snipers. These are the Lhasa city markers; the streets of city number one, the one that the steel toe-capped boots of the military mark all day and all night, and the streets of city number two where they don’t. City number two is the modern Han occupied Lhasa with a ubiquitous euro-asian feel – bright clean streets, (Chinese) modern shops, bars, fast-food joints, a major Chinese-tourist tourist boom … this is what China has brought to Lhasa; itself. This is its Chinese liberation facelift, a progressive rewriting and re-landscaping of Tibetan history and identity. A trip to the Tibet museum offered a naked example of how true it is that history is written by the victor.

The museum offers a thin collection of artefacts and relics that desperately wheeze a spluttering justification of the Tibetan ‘liberation’ by China. It is littered with wonderful gems such as the proclamation of the love shown to Tibet through the ‘tender care of the Chinese Communist party’ and exclamations of ‘correct leadership of the Tibetan Autonomous Region’ and the apparent proof that is afforded by a few bits of jade that ‘Tibet is an indispensable part of Chinese territory in the history’. All of this seeming to jar quite unaccountably with the extremely heavy military presence, the monastic clamp downs, the travel restrictions, the banning of the Tibetan flag etc etc that we witnessed.

Back in the bus a hilarious couple of hours later and Liz ventured an un-askable of our Tibetan guide … ‘So, Dawa, what do YOU think of the museum’. He paused for a brief few seconds before venturing a pointed but diplomatic… ‘I think it’s good that you have seen it’.

Passing through – Tibet tour…

9 01 2011

Note to all – As we are in China and we can’t access our blog (or facebook) properly as it is a blocked site, we have put pictures up on fliker – see this stream for pics of Tibet http://www.flickr.com/photos/53820442@N02/sets/72157625718139144/

The sound of clattering prayer wheels, the long sliding swooshes of pilgrims falling their prostrations over and up and over and up and over… The thick, glutinous, sticky scent of butter lamps ripe in the air, overlaid with a bite of tangy juniper incense. We stand before the Tashilhunpo monestary. Huddled deep into our thick fake coats, hunkered down under our woolie hats; pulling thin tugs on the light mountain air. ‘Buddism is all about karma’ our snappily dressed guide, Dawa, informs us, ‘and you are all rich in it! You are here and you have passports. These are signs of good karma. In Tibet I maybe will never get a passport. I put an application in 6 years ago.. maybe I will get one tomorrow.. maybe in a life time.. maybe when dead….’ we all eye each other suspiciously – we FEEL like a slightly grubby, slightly tetchy group of ‘independent’ travellers who have been forced onto a group tour by Chinese bureaucracy and paranoia … not a spiritually superior entourage of karmic passport wielding Buddhist pilgrims.

‘Winter is a good time to visit Tibet’ Dawa whirls swiftly on, ‘most of the pilgrims are farmers and this is when they have least work to do – many will have performed their prostrations over many MANY kilometres.. so be careful not to tread on them as we go..This is their prayer. So now we go in. No photos please!’ he pivots briskly on low heeled boots and is off, plunging hatlessly through the sea of worshippers into the main temple.

Temple fatigue is as easily caught as what-more-wat-ism or chateau-blow-out. And after 6 days of temple-tasticness temple fatigue was certainly peeking its baggy eyes over the shoulders of the thousands of Buddha statues that line the walls of the monasteries. Were it not for the jagged undercurrent of Chinese oppression that runs its benevolent strangle-hold over everyone and everything we would have given up any last blink of interest some considerable time ago. It is the pervasive presence of the hollow CCTV camera eyes that keep us sharp to the reality of life in a Tibetan monastery. The monks have invariably been at the forefront of opposition to the Chinese occupation in Tibet ever since they invaded/liberated in 1950. And the Chinese authorities are keen to this. In the past any young boy could be admitted to monastic life, now the intake is strictly controlled by the state.

Most of the monasteries were destroyed during the cultural revolution and even though China is making a show of rebuilding some of the key ones they are all merely thin paper wrappings of their former incarnations – they are not even made of the right materials; ‘concrete’ Dawa mutters in resignation ‘traditionally we build out of wood and stone.. they rebuild with concrete’. As we shuffle along with streams of grinning pilgrims, all chancing their luck for a cheeky little squeeze of the foreigners – each hoping to gain a smear of good karma in the process, we note that the 11th Panchen Lama (who’s traditional home this is) isn’t in. There are currently two Panchen Lamas – the one the Dalai Lama picked (Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) who mysteriously disappeared as soon as he was named; and the ‘active’ one (Gyancain Norbu) who was named by the People’s Republic of China. Gyancain Norbu (surprise surprise) lives mostly in Beijing.

While the Chinese claim it is their right to name the next Panchen it is Tibetan Buddhist tradition that the Dalai and the Panchen must be mutually recognised. It is thus a clear and cynical ploy by the Republic to gain control over the one person who will be responsible for naming the next Dalai and thereby increase their hold over Tibet.

So with the tight winds of oppression pinching at our cheeks, the silence of a thousand un-askable questions fluttering in our wake and yak noodle stew (thukpa) sitting warm in our bellies we load ourselves back on the tour bus… and on to Lhasa….

Christmas in Tibet

29 12 2010


‘Don’t even think about trying to cross Tibet overland in December – all the roads will be closed.’ Gustav a seasoned overlander warned us. And he was far from alone. This is the advice we have been constantly given since we started out. This advice is both right and wrong. Trying to cycle would be almost impossible – it is simply too cold. Even if it were possible for us to cycle alone (which it is not) or if it were possible for us to travel with a cycle group (which it is – but too expensive for us) while the sun burns the wind rips a clean sub zero lash across the wide open plateau and straight through to crush our gasping lungs. Frozen waterfalls hang silent licks down the sides of mountains and across the arid ground. This would make a beautiful ride – a smooth empty road weaving silently through such a majestic landscape is irresistible. As the road rises to 5000+ meters the peaks of Everest and Cho Oyu stand only a few thousand meters up, their sharp noses crowning the horizon, pushing up into the clean crisp blue sky. An apocalyptic vision of Mad Max-ery zips past us; a dusty be-goggled biker swaddled in a patchwork of leather thigh coverings strapped over thick yak trousers, his torso buried deep beneath roles of multiple layered animal hide, his hands crushed within thick leather gloves; his rusty glinting bike trailing snakes of material off the ends of the handle bars, his engine seemingly tattooed with bright dancing dragons. As if his core were a giant magnet pulling all manner of wayward objects to itself, so his pillion rides high with a mishmash of unidentifiable objects – one at least being a spade, another a red sinewy sheep’s carcass. His broad weathered face turns to crack a toothless ‘tashi delay’ (hello) at us and he is gone.

Winter is a raw time to visit Tibet. The cold crushes in almost constantly – the concept of heating is confined to one communal dung-burning stove in one room in a building. It does not extend to us; it does not exist in either hotel or hostel. We live in our jackets and we sleep buried deep in our sleeping bags topped by whatever blanket option we can scavenge. The jagged air nipping at our pink noses as they poke bravely out from beneath the swaddled depths – pulling desperately at the thin air as we struggle to regulate our breathing. Both of us have been affected by the changing altitude; mostly in shortness of breath, a giddy tippysyness, and varying degrees of splitting headache. Catherine spent much of the second day holding down green sweating waves of nausea. But now it is day 3 and we are settled well at 4000m.