From Edinburgh to Tibet on the longest and highest railways in the world
I imagine that you will, like me, be fascinated by that instinctive feeling that people call a sense of place; discovering that something historic has happened in the very spot that you’re occupying. The hairs on the back of my neck often stand up as I try to imagine that exact moment in time and its connection with me here in the present day. Taking advantage of this, I planned my adventure while sitting in a room in what was Channings Hotel and before that was once the Edinburgh home of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The simple connection of sitting and thinking in the same place filled me with inspiration.
I marked the route that I had planned on my vintage National Geographic map in red ink. It wasn’t the most obvious way to go, not that there is an obvious way to reach Tibet. It began easily enough, with a short train journey to Newcastle and a ferry to Amsterdam. Once across Europe, I chose the Trans-Manchurian train, known as The Vostok, to take me across Siberia and the long way around to reach the rust belt of northeast China. From Beijing there is now a daily service, a train west to Xining and onward on the Qinghai-Tibet railway to Lhasa.
It wasn’t possible to reach Lhasa by train before 2006. But everything changed when a new section of the line was completed. This miracle of modern engineering has cut through the mountains by creating a series of tunnels, the longest and highest in the world. Almost half of the track has been elevated above the unstable permafrost, where ammonia heat exchangers keep the temperature of the ground – and thus the ground itself – stable.
After your train has been climbing across the Tibetan plateau through the night, dawn breaks shortly before you arrive at Tanggula, at over 5,068m, now the highest railway station in the world. On board it’s train travel, but not as you know it. The carriages have been specially built to protect passengers from the extreme environment. Oxygen is pumped into the passenger compartments, which have special windows fitted to protect you from the dangerously strong UV radiation at this altitude. You even need to sign a health declaration before departure, and a doctor makes notes about your condition in his little black book.
In Lhasa, every single temple and shrine transports you back in time. The year could be 1619 or 2019; you feel that nothing has changed. As you climb cobbled paths towards a nearby monastery, holy men ring bells and blow their horns, clouds of juniper incense waft out of doorways, and above you the powerful sun in a cloudless sky illuminates and warms the whitewashed walls. I stop every few minutes, not just to take in the views, but to let my heart rate recover. Pilgrims easily climb past you in the thin air, spinning prayer wheels, some in a trancelike state. Monks dressed in dark red robes and yellow hats welcome visitors to the monastery, some walking, others making the final part of their journey prostrating themselves at each step.
Life on the rails is an experience that soothes my soul. It scrapes off the rough parts of my personality and gives me some perspective on life back in my world. But on this journey, it wasn’t just my soul that received attention. My cabin mates on the train from Beijing to Lhasa fed me an endless supply of rather strange-tasting vials of Chinese medicine to cope with the altitude. Room service in my Lhasa hotel included bottled oxygen, and when I finally reached the top of the Potala Palace, I was introduced to a nun who saw that I was wearing glasses and offered to fix my eyesight. It wasn’t an offer to be turned down, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results when I next visit the optician.
The night is long, and at times rather rough. I lie in my berth panting and suffering from periodic breathing. I awake several times in a panic. A further altitude-related complication are the side effects of taking diamox. I am sure that without the drug I would be feeling much worse, but it makes me want to pee more, so several times in the night I have to navigate my way down from my upper bunk and through the wet end of the carriage. Whilst I’m getting better at negotiating the drop down from and the climb back into my bed, I’m finding that it requires seemingly large amounts of motivation and effort to move.
When I wake at around 5am my ears are popping a lot and my body is very hot. The train seems not to be able to support air conditioning and an enriched air supply at the same time. As it’s impossible to sleep, I get up and escape the hot dark smelly pit that our compartment has become. In the comparative coolness of the corridor I pull down a little seat and perch by the window, waiting for the first light of a Tibetan dawn.
Other than a mild headache and heavy breathing, I feel fine. A cup of hot sweet tea gives me the energy to go for a wander down the corridor to consult the altimeter: 4,950 metres. I am as high as I was at school camp on Mount Kilimanjaro, but without having had any time for my body to acclimatise from the near-sea level of Beijing. And we’re still climbing. I have read somewhere that the extra oxygen-enriched air being pumped in will keep our carriage at an equivalent altitude of around 2000 metres, rather like a jet plane. But the carriage isn’t pressurised like a plane, so I’m not sure how this can be possible.
As the sun creeps above the mountainous skyline I have my first view of the plains of frozen lakes punctuated with the nomadic tents of isolated farmers. And then my first sighting of a yak, an animal that I will come to depend upon for sustenance in the days ahead. This is surely an I-Spy book cliché́: how many points for both a yak and yurt?
Thinking through my memories of the night spent tossing and turning in my berth, I recall someone joining us at one point. My memory comes back to the surface when I next peer in through the gap in the door of our compartment. My cabin mates are both sitting up in their beds, dressed in their puffa jackets and breathing from oxygen nose-tubes. They look far worse than I feel. I think they must have called for help in the night, but I must have been comatose or delirious at the time. I don’t remember anyone offering me any oxygen. I smile at them and make a thumbs-up sign. Andy does his best to look happy, but they are clearly both miserable. They decline my offer of tea, but that’s understandable; what self-respecting Chinese person would trust a westerner to make their tea?
When we reach Nagchu at around 8:30am, I decide to stretch my legs and try to breathe some fresh unenriched air. The guard who does most of the paperwork and ticketing agrees with me that this is going to be a 20-minute stop, denoted in international sign language by two fingers and a pointing gesture at one’s watch. The only problem is that it’s just a six-minute stop. I’m just a couple of carriages away when I realise something’s wrong and dive for the nearest set of doors. I’m thankful to be back on board the Z21, even if it does smell badly of cigarette smoke and stink fruit.
The Railway to Heaven by Matthew Woodward is published by Lanna Hall in paperback at £8.95 and Kindle at £3.99. Out now, @OnTheRails