Home » Travel

Getting high in Tibet

Posted on 28th August 2007. No Comment

Email This Comment Email This Comment

Chloë Fussell leaves China’s Tibetan region via the world’s highest railway…

Communist triumph or tool of domination?
The one-year-old Lhasa Railway Station today’s most potent symbol of China’s so-called liberation of Tibet and its efforts to modernise the country. From the station trains traverse the mountains and plateaux of Tibet to arrive at Golmud in north-west China, and from there on to Beijing. The railway is a triumph of Communism, an awesome feat of engineering and a hugely expensive and dangerous project that risks buckling and altitude-sick passengers. It is both a lifeline that brings supplies to a remote country, and a tool of domination, bringing more and more Chinese and their culture to Tibet.

The train station is brand-new, clean and possibly the only Chinese station where you are not obliged to crouch on the floor. We joined some thousand passengers filing through security, and signed the obligatory declaration that our health was up to altitudes of over three kilometres above sea level.

In this Communist society, the rich or frivolous board comfortable four-bed compartments, whilst the proles squeeze eight seats into the same amount of space and sit squashed together for the 48-hour journey to Beijing. A Tibetan escaped from his allotted seat where five others were snoring and promptly fell asleep on my shoulder.

China versus geography
As the train travels along an incredibly flat valley enclosed within sudden lines of mountains, I begin to question my basic knowledge of geography – how can the same forces produce the highest jagged mountains in the world and, just a few metres away, the flattest land I’ve ever seen?

The word ‘plateau’ also seems confusing. At 3900m above sea level, you’d imagine being surrounded by steep drops, and being able to see all that lower land. Instead, the flat land and shallow, fast-flowing rivers only feel strangely close to the low clouds and huge, open sky.

We pass isolated hamlets of stone houses, which resemble ancient architectural finds. We spot the lone inhabitants washing clothes in the river or tending yaks. These creatures, who die at lower altitudes, have decided that the four-kilometre high plateau is not high enough, and have clambered up the steep sides of hills. I’m certain they can sense the yak noodles and yak dumplings we have eaten over the last week, and edge away from the train.

The Tibet-Qinghai highway runs along the other side of the valley. A seemingly endless convoy of Chinese army trucks, each bearing the Chinese emblem and a red slogan banner, makes its way towards Lhasa. We travel through the world’s highest railway tunnel and over a high mountain pass where we are level with the limits of the July snow.

Carrying more than just passengers
As we near Golmud most of our travel companions have fallen asleep – the old Chinese man opposite us has managed to lose the two sat next to him and gain the luxury of stretching out over three seats. Others are noisily shovelling instant noodles into their mouths and the surrounding area.

I notice a Tibetan monk travelling to China, his trunk emblazoned with Tibetan colours and a Buddhist swastika. He’s quietly chanting to himself, a sound familiar from Tibetan streets. Later, the five snoring Tibetans wake and sing a few lines of songs in their own language. The railway may indeed be bringing a lot of China into Tibet, and changing the face of the country, but this particular train is also taking a bit of Tibet into the edge of China.

No Comment »

  • Cindy said:

    WOW, i mean like, I never knew China had like mountains

  • Anonymous said:

    "The railway may indeed be bringing a lot of China into Tibet, and changing the face of the country, but this particular train is also taking a bit of Tibet into the edge of China."

    I think perhaps the article could have benefitted from a bit of background and accuracy over the position of Tibet as either a part of China (TAR) or as its own 'country'. To state it is the latter and continue a distinction between China and Tibet as separate countries throughout (though it's a bit confusing referring to Tibet as a country, but also 'Chinese') isn't really informing anyone – this does, in fact, provide a lot of discussion on the building of the railway itself, if the background to it had been explored by the writer.

  • Chloe said:

    Hi anon, sorry if it was confusing. I was reading a lot at the time about only writing about first-hand experiences so tried to avoid the whole political detail thing – i probably should have put in something though! must try harder ;)