Epic train journeys in China
A little note before you read this article about this epic train journeys in China: This is a Chinese travel report and some of the literature references are probably unknown to most Western readers. But this train trip is nonetheless for all train enthusiasts to add to their bucket list. Furthermore, all foreigners need a special permit to travel to Tibet, which adds an additional hurdle.
The Shanghai-Tibet Railway / Z165 or “The most difficult train ticket to grab”
Before deciding to take the train to Lhasa, I never thought that the train to Tibet was such a difficult ticket. The scheduled travel date at the end of August, I thought it was past the peak summer travel period. I didn’t expect that the ticket purchase information column for each train still read “standby, standby, standby”. Later, I learned that the Z165 train is also known as “the most difficult train ticket to grab.” So, we had to wait for three trains for three days, thinking about which day we could get the ticket, and leaving on which day. I didn’t do Plan B at that time. Maybe I felt that I would definitely grab a train ticket to Lhasa.
Such a beginning has added a lot of unknowns to our trip, and such unknowns have brought more surprises.
At ten o’clock in the evening on August 24, there were two ding-ding sounds. I picked up my phone and took a look: The standby order on August 26 was fulfilled successfully! Thanks to Hyundai Technology and 12306 for allowing us to buy standby tickets without queuing up and staring at our phones all the time. Now I just have to pack my bags and get ready to go.
Z165 – Qinghai Tibet
Z165 departs from Shanghai, the whole distance is 4327 kilometers, and the running time is 47 hours and 27 minutes. The train arrived in Xuzhou at 2:12 in the morning of the first night. From Xuzhou to Lhasa, we had to spend 41 hours on the train. For these 41 hours, we prepared a large package of snacks, two books, and many movies. It freed up the memory space of the mobile phone that was considered sufficient at the time (later proved that no matter how large the memory is, for a trip to Tibet it’s not enough), and it has enough power for all electronic devices.
Most travelers choose to go to Lhasa by train for two reasons. One is from the fear of high altitude. Take the train and slowly climb from low-altitude areas to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. During this period, the train will have continuous diffuse oxygen supply, and the body has a process of adaptation. Naturally, it is much more comfortable than directly fly to Lhasa, which is 3,600 meters above sea level. And of course, the legend cast by the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and its beautiful scenery along the way. From “That is a magical heavenly road that takes us into paradise on earth” to “get on the train to Lhasa and see the magical Potala“. The songs describing the Qinghai-Tibet Railway aroused many people and they longing for amazing train travel routes. When I was a primary school student at the time, these songs were always played in mp3. Whenever the passionate female voice sounded, I always imagined that on a sunny day, I was sitting by the big train window with a knitted hat. With big headphones, the scenery of the plateau flows outside the window.
In fact, starting from Xuzhou, the Longhai line before entering the Qinghai-Tibet line is equally beautiful. When I woke up, the train had passed Zhengzhou and was passing Sanmenxia, and the scenery outside the window was slowly yellowing. From Xi’an, Baoji, Tianshui, to Lanzhou, trains are running on the Weihe Plain, and from time to time you can see the yellow Weihe River flowing under your feet. Under the sun at the end of August, the scenery is familiar and warm.
Passing by Qinghai
Before arriving in Xining, the conductor preached about the possible altitude sickness caused by the high-altitude areas that we would pass the next day, and recommended the blueberry fruit in his hand that is said to alleviate the high altitude. Everyone got a free sample of blueberry fruit, and a bite, sweet and sour. It is estimated that no one would believe that this small plum can make the thin air of the plateau less daunting, but for most passengers, after 30 hours of wandering on the train, this one is endowed with mysterious power. The blueberries can also be a seasoning for boring train travel food.
At nine o’clock in the evening, the car stopped at Xining Railway Station. Here, all passengers have to pack all their luggage and go to the other side of the platform to change to the train that will actually take us into Tibet. The bright warm light illuminates the carriage. Everyone is excited when they see the Tibetan language on the car, the words “Qinghai-Tibet Railway” on the curtains, and the oxygen supply ports on the bedside and in the aisle.
But with the excitement comes tiredness. This is my dad’s explanation for buying a small bottle of highland barley wine, a can of Qinghai Lake beer, a pack of peanuts and a pack of dried tofu on the platform of Xining Railway Station. I don’t know if the bottle of highland barley wine made him feel a little relieved of the long-term train ride. But what we now know is that entering the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau under the nourishment of highland barley wine is really not a good beginning. The effect of alcohol on the body more or less affected my dad’s ability to adapt to high altitude. Insomnia caused by lack of oxygen at night will also accompany him every night until the end of the journey. But he said that such an experience is equally painful and happy.
The two people in the same box who got on the train in Xining went to Delingha. One of the petite aunts said that she was doing business there. On the road, especially in a small confined space such as a train, if someone curls up in their corner and is not good at speaking, someone is willing to take one more step towards you, so that you can feel the joy of communicating with people without having the sense of crisis of your personal space being invaded. She sat on the shop opposite me, asking about my next trip, frequently praising my dad’s great fatherly love, and when I looked down at the computer, she insisted on putting my pillow under the computer to prevent cervical discomfort.
When it comes to Delingha, Haizi’s poem is nowhere to be seen. The night is shrouded, the end of the grassland, the desolate Gobi, and the phrase “Sister, I don’t care about humans tonight, I only miss you”. I forgot when I saw the news, saying that Delingha mosquitoes are raging. I don’t know if I step on the platform in this early autumn when the weather is getting colder. In the drowsiness, the train arrived at Delingha, probably because the eyelids had reacted to the rising altitude. It became so heavy that it couldn’t lift it up anyway, to say goodbye to the people who met briefly.
Golmud – not the end of the Chinese railway
“To Golmud, China’s railway is over.” Zhou Yunpeng wrote these words when reviewing his trip to the west from Beijing in 2001 in “Green Train”. Now, nearly two decades later, Golmud has long gone from “the end of the Chinese railway” to a 25-minute stop on the road to Tibet for countless travellers. At four o’clock in the morning, at Golmud station under the curtain of night, most people, except for the arriving passengers, are still slowly feeling the chill of the plateau at night in their dreams. In these 25 minutes, the Z165 was replaced by an electric drive with an internal combustion engine locomotive to welcome the upcoming no-man’s land, rising altitude, and thin air.
For passengers, this is also the beginning of the highlight of this train journey. From here, this train will cross Hoh Xil, pass the Tuotuo River at the source of the Yangtze River, cross Tanggula Mountain, and finally enter Tibet.
Early morning in Hoh Xil
When he woke up again, the train had already shuttled through the Hoh Xil no man’s land. Jumped out of the sleeper and felt the coolness of the plateau early in the morning before opening the door, and quickly put on a coat.
Open the door, the car window you see is like a huge viewing frame, and every frame that slowly flows through the window is a postcard-like scenery.
At this time, the sun had just risen from the horizon at 7 o’clock in the morning, and the diagonally falling sunlight reflected the golden color of this slightly desolate land. It reminds me of the sea of stars in the documentary NHK “To the Sea of Birth of Stars~Journey to the Source of the Yellow River in China~”. At this time, Hoh Xil seems to be the marshland called the Sea of Stars, spotted with light and shadow. Quietly, it contains huge energy, and it is so beautiful that it is awe-inspiring. The rolling snow-capped mountains in the distance were still shrouded in morning mist, emitting a little blue light, she was equally quiet and firm.
On the G109 national road not far from the railway, heavy vans shuttle back and forth. “There is no way in this world. When there are more people walking, it becomes a way.” And as long as there is a way, someone will walk. The day and night of truck drivers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is certainly not as full of leisure as tourists, but who would not be moved by such a rising sun.
Men in yellow vests
When everyone wkes up, I can feel that everyone is more excited than when they changed cars the night before. Most of the places I have passed today are above 4000 meters above sea level, and Tanggula Mountain, which is about to be crossed at noon, is the highest place in the whole trip, exceeding 5000 meters. After the beauty of this day, what awaits everyone is the holy city of Lhasa at dusk.
Before crossing the Tanggula Mountain, the conductor gave a full-hearted account of the construction history of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. For more than half a century, in this restricted area of life known as the “third pole of the world”, how many railway soldiers have endured the physical torture of high altitudes, cast a legend with flesh and blood, and how many young lives have fallen asleep like this Here. She said, today, when you see those road guards wearing yellow vests beside the railway, please don’t forget to extend your respect and gratitude to them.
However, when I noticed the small figures beside the railway, what I saw was the salute hands they had already raised. That flash of yellow is the most beautiful colour that this plateau train passes by.
Mountains, rivers and lakes, cattle and sheep everywhere
As the train traveled over 4500 meters above sea level and went straight for 5000 meters, the carriage gradually became quiet. I finally felt my head swelled and drowsy. The north-eastern girl in the opposite shop had already rolled herself in the quilt and leaned on the pillow, and kept admonishing my dad not to make any large movements and was about to cross Tanggula Mountain. As the highest altitude of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, this mountain which means “the mountain that the eagle can’t fly over” in Mongolian is both yearning and awe for travelers. It should also be the most talked-about name on this train. Located in the permafrost zone of the Tanggula Pass at an altitude of 5,068 meters, Tanggula Station, the highest railway station in the world, was once one of the most important sightseeing stations on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. It’s a pity that this train no longer stays here, but it is just a flash, and it can’t help but make the long-awaited passengers excited. After all, this is the highest pass we have ever experienced on the way to Tibet.
After crossing Tanggula Mountain, we sat quietly on the pavement, watching the low clouds outside the window and the slow-moving cattle and sheep not far away, drinking hot tea and enjoying the sunshine of the plateau. I heard that the Tibetans live in such a leisurely way, as if time has slowed down here, and there is nothing in the world to do in a hurry.
Before arriving in Lhasa, we encountered a large lake. At first, I heard the exclamation of the aunts from Shanghai, and got up from the drowsiness brought by the high anti-reflection, only to see that the blue lake in front of us was so close to us, and the train seemed to be along the lake. This is Lake Cuona, the highest freshwater lake in the world, with an altitude of 4650 meters. Like Nam Co, this blue lake between Nyainqentanglha and Kunlun Mountains is a holy lake that Tibetans often visit. To see this kind of scenery on the train, I still sigh that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is worthy of its legend.
The first time I heard Zheng Jun’s songs were “Cinderella” and “Back to Lhasa” sung by my father when I was young. This time, I heard the sound of “Back to Lhasa” in the carriage again, and the train was slowly entering the city of Lhasa. When Zheng Jun was able to write such a touching song when he had never been to Lhasa, it is enough to show that the name “Lhasa” and “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” alone can give people endless imagination of that land. On the journey to Tibet, you will not be disappointed anyway.
Dad said that for the young people of our generation, the green leather train is a beautiful yearning and longing, which has been romanticized by literature and film and television works. For them, in the early years, they ran around on the road, traveled north and south, slept under the lower berth with a spread of newspapers, and stood next to each other in the crowded carriages, and because the carriages were too crowded, they could only be caught by people. Pulled the car through the window. All this made his memory of the green-skinned train slightly unbearable.
Therefore, I am very grateful to my dad for agreeing to accompany me on this forty-hour plateau train. I hope this Z165 in the summer of 2020 can add some beauty to his green leather train memory.