Tibet isn’t the most obvious destination from Central Asia, but it’s where I wanted to go next. Although there is a road from Kashgar through Western Tibet it’s illegal for foreigners to travel and can be quite dangerous. While I was in Central Asia I tossed the idea of hitchhiking on a truck around but in the end I decided that it was getting too cold to be going over 5,000 meter passes in a truck that might break down, on a road that I might be turned around on by the police.
Because of the plateau and mountains the closest road to Lhasa started in Golmud, a few days away by train. Even with three day notice I wasn’t able to buy a hard sleeper train ticket so I ride in the hard seat car from Urumqi to Dunhuang—12 hours. The lights never turned off and every time I woke up from a brief nap I found someone new sitting across from me. Sometimes they were just staring at me and eating sunflower seeds. Others talked loudly to or listening to music (without headphones) on their mobile. I didn’t sleep much at all.
Because the train to Dunhuang doesn’t actually go to Dunhuang I grabbed a shared taxi for 1.5 hours to town. Unfortunately, the next bus leaving for Golmud wouldn’t be until 7:30pm so I had a day to kill in Dunhuang. In-between eating I spent a lot of time walking around town. I just wanted to sit and read but every time I sat down I fell asleep. And even though I hadn’t slept in a long time I had a hard time sleeping during the bumpy bus ride to Golmud.
When we arrived in town an hour earlier than expected I was overcome with confidence that I was going to make the 6:41am train to Lhasa. During phase 1 I was excited to go to Tibet because I would be beating this very train. At the time the railroad wasn’t finished and was projected to open in 2007. This railway line is very controversial because it’s built partially on permafrost through lands with rare wildlife and a delicate ecosystem. I felt a tinge of guilt taking it for that reason and because it will bring more Han Chinese tourists and businesses into Tibet, further decimating the local culture. My other option was a 30 hour bus ride with almost guaranteed break downs along the way.
A man approached me while I was getting my bag off the bus and told me he worked in Tibet. I suggested that we walk to the train station together and get some tickets. During the two block walk I explained that I had no ticket and that I wanted him to buy me one. He didn’t completely understand but when I refused to go inside the ticket office he came out and said “oh, I help you buy the ticket, okay!”
You see, I was trying my luck and hoping to get on the train without a Tibet Permit. Permits are required of all foreigners entering Tibet. It’s easier to enter Tibet from China than Nepal, but it still involves a lot of extra cost. There’s no official statement regarding the price of the permit, but it can range from $6 — $70 depending on where you get it. All flights to Lhasa include this “permit” which the foreign traveler will never see. Going by land, you’re required to buy a “tour” from an agency for around $200 before buying a bus or train ticket.
Because the permit rules are all over the place I thought that I might be able to get away with just getting on the train. I knew that I wouldn’t be sold a ticket without a permit, but my new Chinese friend easily bought two tickets for us. We were an hour early and I spent the time keeping my head down and avoiding the stares of the many policemen standing around the departure hall. I kept telling myself not to worry, at the most they would not let me on the train. And if I was turned back I would just have to suck it up and pay for the permit.
The announcement for the train came and we lined up. My Chinese friend took my ticket to the front to be punched by the attendant. The line started to move and no one stopped me. I made it onto the platform and through the ticket check at the carriage door. I was in. But we weren’t moving and I wasn’t going to gloat until we were heading up into Tibet. My seat partner was a Tibetan monk who sat barefoot and crosslegged, chanting in my ear for the first few hours. After the attendants and police had passed me many times I began to let my guard down, changed seats and settled in for the 14 hour trip, permit-less.
My compartment had all of the few Tibetans on the train and consequently smelled of sheep and yak butter. As I passed from car to car the difference in smell was noticeable. This railway is the highest in the world and uses many pioneering technologies. This is what the English announcements told me while we ascended to over 5,000 meters. I’m not as confidant in Chinese building methods and would rather the railroad had been a year late being built than over a year early. But the ride was smooth and I didn’t feel the altitude unless I tried to take a big breath. I tried out the disposable breathing tube I was given, which attached to an oxygen source under my seat. Despite announcements some passengers smoked inside the carriages while the oxygen was running. I do give them credit for not actually wearing the oxygen while smoking—that wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
We passed by Namtso Lake, the highest fresh water lake in the world. Once we were at that height packs of antelope, horses and yaks ran alongside the train. Closer to Lhasa we started to see a few small towns and herders tending to their flocks. All of the Chinese tourists were straining to take photos of the wildlife while the Tibetans continued chanting and touching their prayer beads.
We sped through the last two hours in the dark at 94km an hour, racing toward Lhasa. When we arrived my Chinese friend took care of me, leading me onto the bus to to town and then onto another local bus. He didn’t do so hot getting me to the right area of town but I was able to shake him and find a taxi for the final leg. Now I’m in Lhasa, walking among the pilgrims while they twirl their prayer wheels and bow incessantly in front of the most sacred temples. It’s cold, but the sun is warm and the sight of The Potala Palace is more than enough to have made the long journey worth it.