From Siberia to Tibet: Lhasa and Tibet

The final long-distance train of our journey was also the nicest.  Few of China’s trains are branded, but the Tangzhu Ancient Route (唐竺古道号) from Xining to Shigatse via Lhasa had been bestowed its label only a few months before our trip and the entire train was decked out with pretty, purple-tinged Tibetesque frippery, down to the vase of plastic violet roles on our table.

We left Xining in the evening and slept through the slow climb up the plateau, crossing the 5,072m Tanggula Pass — the highest stretch of train track in the world — conveniently after breakfast.  The combo of acclimatization, a precautionary course of Diamox (acetazolamide) and the oxygen being piped into all the cabins worked a treat, and none of us felt more than the faint echo of a headache.

Arrival into Lhasa, at “only” 3,656m, was somewhat anticlimactic. The station is located on the newly built, heavily Chinese-flavored west side of Lhasa.   Our Tibet permits were scrutinized for the fourth time on this ride (rest assured, sneaking into Tibet is not a thing any more), our mandatory guide was waiting our mandatory van, and we drove through what felt very much like just another Chinese city, full of construction sites, shiny glass-fronted buildings, and the odd concrete building or bridge tarted up with some Tibetan detail, already fading and peeling off after a few years.

And then we arrived in the old city around Barkhor and stepped back in time a thousand years.   The penetrating funk of yak butter wafted around the narrow, twisty streets (we would soon come to realize that this was the smell of Tibet, in much the same way that boiled mutton is the smell of Mongolia), shops sold dried cheese, fresh yak meat and temple offerings, our hotel the House of Shambhala was decorated with near-Indian amounts of color and statuary, pilgrims prostrated themselves as they circumambulated the temple of Jokhang…   this, emphatically, was not China.

It is difficult to write about Tibet as an outsider.  For the Tibetan exiles who supply Free Tibet bumper stickers to soccer moms in Berkeley and the predominant Western view of the country, the Chinese presence is nothing short of a violent occupation intent on reducing their country into a theme park, and it’s hard to disagree with this.  But from the Chinese point of view, the army liberated Tibetans from an oppressive absolute theocracy, where a tiny elite of lamas ruled teeming masses of miserably poor serfs, and brought in modernity and economic development — and it’s hard to disagree with this either, particularly after having visited the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala and witnessed the lethal roads and Indian squalor of the settlement.  The excesses of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government straight up razed everything that didn’t fit the program, have long since been dialed back and at a casual glance, it even looks like China is actively supporting Tibetan culture now.  Every single road and shop sign had Tibetan script above the Chinese, albeit often in an illegibly small font, and vast amounts of money have clearly been pumped into tidying up the once-decaying old city.

All that said, it was still clear that this is a land that the Chinese government keeps in an iron grip.  Security checkpoints and CCTV cameras dotted entrances not just to train stations and museums, but to Barkhor and the city itself, and it wasn’t enough to show your bags, you had to scan your ID as well.  Many guards and low-level police were Tibetan, but the heavily armed riot squads stomping around the Old City were all Han Chinese.  Lighters were banned and fire extinguishers prominently placed in any spot where a self-immolation might lead to bad publicity. The few Tibetans we had a chance to talk to spoke in stage whispers if offering politically incorrect opinions (“The Chinese are like rats!  They’re everywhere!”).  Political propaganda, a subdued presence on the streets of Beijing but more visible in Xining, was pumped to a fever pitch here, with fervent invocations of Prosperous Strength (富强 fùqiáng) and Harmony (和谐 héxié) .  Even posters of Xi Jinping, which nearly disappeared from the rest of the country during our visit, could be found in abundance.  And in the center of town, roped off in the middle of a heavily guarded square, stands the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, raising a permanent middle finger towards the Potala Palace opposite.  Subtle it was not, and you can only wonder if even Party apparatchiks genuinely believe this kind of thing will convince any Tibetans of the errors of the Dalai Lama’s splittist ways.

The Potala Palace is still standing though, its simultaneously graceful yet fearsome hilltop bulk dominating the city like few ancient structures still can.  In its own way, it was much like Beijing’s Forbidden City, only now with supplicants climbing up endless flights of stairs to experience the spiritual wisdom and earthly power of Tibet’s former god-kings.  Today they’re long gone and the supplicants have been replaced by tour buses of Chinese tourists, with tours of the interior limited to a choreographed controlled 60-minute dash and interior photography strictly forbidden.

The heart of Lhasa for Tibetans is the comparatively modest temple of Jokhang — although “modest” doesn’t seem quite the right word for a structure largely plated in gold — and Barkhor Street looping around it.  Serious pilgrims traverse the circuit by prostrating themselves on the ground, sliding forward, standing up, saying a prayer and repeating this over and over again.   Equally serious beggars have also realized that they can make a nice bundle of cash doing this, particularly if they force a few grubby five-year-olds into doing the same and collecting money from passers-by; probably the saddest sight on this trip.  Both are far outnumbered by Chinese tourists and the vast majority of the Barkhor’s shops now sell tourist tat and yak yogurt cakes.

On our final day we paid a visit to Sera Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, unremarkable except for the spectacle of monks debating in the open air with resounding claps whenever a question had been posed, and the rather more spectacular Ganden Monastery, perched atop a mountain at 4,300m, a good half a kilometer higher than Lhasa itself.  We were now up in clouds that had squatted low over Lhasa, so everything was blanketed in a chilly mist, with the ground covered in mud and occasional squalls of rain.  It’s like this in midsummer, just how cold does it get here in the winter?  Yet we were the only tourists around, and our guide explained why: “The Chinese come to Tibet for the nature.  The culture does not interest them.”

img_20180714_183557

Suddenly it clicked into place.  To Westerners, Tibet is all chanting lamas, tantric bliss and deep spiritual teachings, but to the Chinese, it’s like Alaska or Switzerland: a place of clean air, sweeping views and climactic extremes, where you can experience the power of raw nature and get away from the concrete warrens of Shanghai or Xi’an.  This explained the photoshopped blue skies of every single Chinese ad for Tibetan products and why our in-train publicity magazine was full of nothing but nature shots and extreme sports, in precisely the same way that Alaskan cruises “into authentic wilderness” relegate the native inhabitants to a optional excursion on a stopover.

And in the same way that it’s exceedingly unlikely that the United States will one day decide to hand over the keys to native Alaskans and decamp south of the 49th parallel, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Chinese will ever decide to head to lower altitudes and leave the plateau to the Tibetans.  They now form the majority of the population in both Lhasa and Tibet as a whole, they control the levers of power, and those levers are set to “open the floodgates”.  So while you can certainly dispute who ought to control Tibet, the reality is and will be that the Chinese do, and the best the Tibetans can hope for is accommodation and respect — and even that seems like wishful thinking.

On a stodgier note, I should mention the food in Tibet, which is uniformly terrible, at least when visiting as a tourist.  Much like Mongolia, actual Tibetan cuisine is circumscribed by the extreme, vegetable-free climate, meaning that momo dumplings, yak meat (basically gamey beef) and barley are the staples, washed down with copious quantities of the justly infamous butter tea.  Mongolians drink a variant of this too, but they’re generally content to stick to milk and a pinch of salt, whereas Tibetans blend in vast amounts of yak butter — and this isn’t an inoffensive pale block from your neighborhood supermarket, but the cultured, cheesy, funky stuff sold on the streets.  The only way I found to make it palatable was to mix it into tsampa, the roasted barley flour that was once a staple of Tibetan travellers, making salty but edible porridge.

Since the average Westerner can take only so much of this, tour guides helpfully take them to a dwindling set of largely empty Westerner-friendly restaurants, serving yak-ified attempts at Western food (yak steaks with french fries, yak burgers with maraschino cherries on top) and denatured Nepalese food (bland yak curries and samosas) that persists as a sort of vestigial, withering appendix of the pre-2008 glory days when hippies could easily cross over from Kathmandu to Lhasa.  The Chinese have their own restaurants too, the tourists heading to places serving yak-ified Chinese food (hotpots, noodles, etc) and the residents inhaling chillies and breathing fire in the many Sichuanese places.

On our last day, we grabbed our packed breakfast of toast (and that’s only toast, without even jam or yak butter), zipped out of Lhasa down a motorway that punched its way through several mountain ranges, checked in at the packed Lhasa Gonggar airport (which, inevitably, is being expanded) and flew out to Hong Kong via Chongqing.

<<< Beijing, Xi’an and Xining | China as a Tourist >>>

 

Advertisements

From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

<<< Irkutsk & Lake Baikal | Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert >>>

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Train 9, First Class, Riyadh-Dammam

As a bit of a train buff, I tried my best to google up some info — any info — about the services of the Saudi Railways Organization before our trip, but virtually none was forthcoming, and eventually it was Trsqr who did the (considerable) legwork of reserving tickets. He rustled up the number of Dammam‘s train station from somewhere and got an Arabic speaker to proxy, and it turned out that even the SRO website’s schedules are inaccurate. There was, however, still an evening train from Riyadh to Dammam, it just left an hour earlier, and there was availability in all three classes: Second, First and the delightfully named “Rehab”, which I’m told is always patronized by Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears on their visits to the Kingdom. Second cost SR60, First was SR75 and Rehab was SR130, so we opted for First and showed up at the train station half an hour before departure.

Like most governmental buildings in Saudi, Riyadh‘s train station is improbably huge, especially given that it caters to all of four trains a day. All passengers were subjected to a quick security check, and the guards in proper TSA style even demanded the removal of beep-inducing footwear, but at least liquids were not on the no-ride list.

SRO doesn’t assign seats, but finding two seats wasn’t a problem — although we were shooed out of the front-facing ones, these being reserved for families, and kicked back into the rear-facing bachelor section. “First Class” hardly qualifies as luxurious, but neither was there much to complain about: it was clean and the seats were reasonably comfy, with tray tables and a token amount of recline. Second Class seemed to be much the same, with slightly narrower pitch, while Rehab had big leather seats and roof-mounted TVs featuring the latest in Islamic programming, and their pax also get to use the VIP lounges at the stations. Snack carts equipped with an ever-dwindling array of plastic-packed pastries, chips and drinks rumbled through every now and then, and the cafeteria car offered more of the same.

The problem with riding trains by night is that there’s nothing to see, especially when the line passes through the vast emptiness of central Saudi. It was supposed to be a 3:45 trip, but that much time had already passed by the time we finally pulled into Hofuf, much of it alternatively sitting or crawling through the desert at a siding while we waited for the train in the opposite direction. (The entire Saudi network is single-tracked.) It was thus past 1 AM when we finally pulled in Dammam, five hours after we left.

Dammam’s terminal is an exact carbon copy of Riyadh’s, to the point that I couldn’t help wondering if this was all some colossal prank and we’d somehow missed the train turning around and returning to Riyadh… but no, there was a tang of salt in the air, and a lunatic cabbie (is there any other kind in Saudi?) careened us into the Holiday Inn Al-Khobar in no time.