A very, very long way to the top

Fellow passengers help pass the time as Fionnuala McHugh ventures more than 6000 kilometres by rail from Hong Kong to Lhasa.

IT TAKES two trains to get from Hong Kong to Lhasa - to go from China's special administrative region in the south to its Tibetan autonomous region in the far west. Of course, you can fly - also two separate journeys - but the last time I flew to Beijing, a month earlier, the front page of the China Daily was reporting the previous evening's plane crash in Heilongjiang (42 dead).

Inside the paper, there were details of a nine-day traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway: truck drivers sat on the road in the August heat, playing cards and eating instant noodles, exactly as if they had been on a Chinese train, except no one was going anywhere.

And so I took the T98 from Hong Kong to Beijing (2475 kilometres - in 23 hours and 30 minutes), in order to take the T27 from Beijing to Lhasa (4064 kilometres - in 45 hours and eight minutes).

It was September, autumn in China's north, yet still so humid in Hong Kong that the mainlanders fanned themselves as they waited to board at Kowloon station and in my four-berth soft sleeper a young woman produced a colourful box labelled "Body Dampness Expelled Granules".

Her name was Susie, from Beijing, and she had been staying with relatives in Hong Kong. "Such a Western city," she said. "Different from China." But our fellow passengers - two Turkish women, a mother and grown-up daughter, who were stuffing bags and suitcases into every corner of the compartment as if arranging dumplings in a steamer - said: "To us, Hong Kong is very Chinese."

Shortly afterwards, before the leaves had settled to the bottom of my first cup of green tea, as we crossed the Shenzhen River that officially separates Hong Kong from the rest of China, Susie said, looking out of the window: "Different atmosphere!" It's true. Immediately, the giant neon words on the skyline shift shape (Hong Kong still uses the traditional characters that, after 1949, Mao simplified in the rest of China), the traffic jams are on the opposite side of the road, men squat along the platforms coddling cigarettes and the sky turns a powdery grey. We were on a through-train so there was no immigration halt at the frontier but the Chinese border had emphatically announced itself.

Everyone changed into the free slippers and I shook out a map - printed by 1206 Factory of the People's Liberation Army - that I had bought in a foreign-language bookstore years ago. Over in the west, there was a long, red, dotted line running south through black dots (for desert) and blue dashes (for swamps), from Nanshankhou to Lhasa. Railway Under Construction, the legend read. You could look at that geological Morse code and think it would take forever. But the line was finished in 2006.

I pointed to Lhasa. The Turkish women smiled and nodded. Tibet, however, was thousands of kilometres away, ungraspable; they were more interested in learning about Susie. What personal freedoms, for example, did she have? Could she talk freely about human rights? Susie looked alarmed.

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"I am just the home person!" she cried. "I go to my work; in the evenings I am with my family. I don't know about these things."

Then what, asked the Turkish mother, did Chinese people think of the Turkish people? Susie had mentioned that she had studied business administration in Sydney. Now she said: "I meet some Armenians in Australia, when they talk about Turkey they always use this word" - she hesitated, then said - "massacre? To do with killing?"

Leyla, the daughter, repeated this rapidly in Turkish. After that, her mother spoke for a long time while China's 21st-century metropolises got on with slicing and thrusting their way past, in sunlit flashes of steel and glass. By late afternoon, despite airconditioning, that sun was toasting our compartment. What with the net curtains and antimacassars and fake flowers, and the female attendants who accessorise their military look with big navy bows in their hair, intercity train travel in China can resemble an unusual cross between the set of Upstairs, Downstairs and a 1950s Sino-propaganda film.

In the T98's dining car, the waitresses marched indignantly to and fro in frilly aprons, like parlourmaids trained by the People's Liberation Army.

"How is gender equality in China?" Leyla asked as she perused the photographs on the menu, trying to decide what looked least like pork. She said her impression was that Chinese women weren't threatened by lustful men: "I don't feel I would be hassled."

And that's one of the pleasures of Chinese trains, especially for a foreign woman travelling alone. On the whole, it feels as safe and as sociable as a sleepover with people whose names you just don't happen to know.

Later, I changed into my pyjamas and wandered up and down the corridor. There was a six-day-old baby in the compartment next to ours, tightly wrapped in a pink blanket and laid out in the middle of the lower bunk like a delicious offering of dim sum; there was a ring of card players two compartments along, laughing and groaning over piles of yuan; there was a line of teeth-brushers and hawkers and spitters in the washrooms; there were early snorers and late snackers.

After I had filled my vacuum flask with boiling water at the end of the corridor, I got into bed. The pillowcase and quilt rustled in a way that suggested satisfactory laundering. The train ran on through the powerful dark outside.

By dawn, in Henan province, there was fog lying on fields of harvested corn that might have been painted by Monet - if Monet had included gigantic pylons and the shadow of a pulsating horizon in his landscapes.

The T98 reached Beijing West station on the dot of 2.50pm. We had lived together for 24 hours; and within minutes of exiting, we had dispersed into our separate lives.

At exactly 9.30pm, the Lhasa train left Beijing West station. In the compartment, three Chinese men lined up, politely, on one lower bunk and I smiled at them from the other. I produced my Hong Kong permanent resident ID card as reassurance. But I knew that it wasn't enough and what they would be puzzling over was: why is she travelling by herself?

Giving the four of us time to adjust, I went for a stroll along the train. Its very existence had been deemed impossible because of the terrain, the altitude and the climate.

There were signs in three languages - Tibetan, simplified Chinese and English (although announcements were in Mandarin only); and there were a few Tibetan symbols (the endless knot, the double-fish) dangling from the ceiling of the dining-car; and there were the much-publicised oxygen outlets above each bed to offset the effects of altitude sickness.

But apart from that, it was an ordinary intercity Chinese train with - half an hour after departure - no soap in the washroom dispensers, a blocked sink and half an inch of water slopping to and fro on the floor of the Western loo.

By morning, the view outside the window once more was of the mist and yellow earth of China's heart, as the train dipped south. In the dining car, I talked to a German technician working in Shanghai. He had understood that there would be showers (there aren't). He had thought there would be two-berth compartments (there aren't). Three Canadians nearby had been hoping there would be an observation car to sit in (there isn't).

By late morning, according to the digital temperature reading in the dining-car, it was 32 degrees beyond the airconditioned window. One of the men in my compartment had fetched in a group of friends from next door including a young woman, called Liu Ming, who spoke some English.

"Do you feel lonely?" Liu Ming asked. "You are by yourself; Chinese people don't do this."

I looked around - there were now seven of us on the two lower berths - and laughed and said no, I definitely wasn't feeling lonely.

By nightfall, we were climbing. The railway attendant handed out leaflets titled Plateau Travel Information, warning of health side-effects, which everyone had to sign. At 3.30am, when we stopped at Geermu (2829 metres), the departing passengers left a gleaming spoor of discarded slippers; a clutch of shadows was crossing the windy platform outside, hunched under the swaying lights. A few wispy trees shivered. That suddenly felt like a quintessential train-travel moment: the land's abrupt change, the cold, even the railway sign - Exit West - made me inexplicably happy.

And in the morning, a yak stood outside the window. Then another, then another. Tibet had taken over - with its grasslands, its marmots, its prayer-flags, its skeins of rain and distant ice-cone mountains - overnight. It was seven degrees.

At breakfast, passengers compared levels of queasiness and by mid-morning, when we passed Tanggula (5068 metres), the highest railway station in the world, some people were on their bunks on oxygen or throwing up in the washrooms. I was light-headed but it seemed the perfect way to acclimatise: lying flat, with a vacuum flask of green tea, while the scenery did all the work.

There were no observation stops, though. That was another myth about the train.

I was in a hard seat when I saw the first military trucks outside Lhasa. The grasslands had given way to cultivated fields. After a while, the fields gave way to roads, then tiled buildings, then shops, then car showrooms - the classic Chinese sprawl. In the distance I could just see the Potala Palace. That, 6500 kilometres later, marked journey's end. But soon the track curved and it disappeared behind the newer buildings.

"Just like Hong Kong," someone remarked and I said: "No. Not yet."

Trip notes

Get on board

Hong Kong to Beijing is 2475 kilometres and takes 23 hours and 30 minutes; Beijing to Lhasa is 4064 kilometres and takes about 45 hours. Hong Kong to Beijing (soft sleeper) costs about $120. Beijing to Lhasa (soft sleeper) costs about about $165.

Helen Wong's Tours can assist with obtaining the required visa for China and permit for rail travel into Tibet as well as booking the journey between Hong Kong and Lhasa via Beijing, including two nights' accommodation at any stopover point. (02) 9267 7833 or 1300 788 328, helenwongstours.com, email hwtaus@helenwongstours.com.

The two-night train journey is available as part of a World Expeditions 11-day trip between Beijing and Lhasa. Cost is $2390. worldexpeditions.com.

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