From a young age I have dreamt of travel, as a child I would lay down on the floor with the atlas open on one side of me and books about ancient civilisations on the other – my favourites were ancient Egypt and ancient Japan. During my university years I became infatuated with Asia, this is what spurred on my trip to Japan and ultimately my move to China. While I was living in Shanghai, I researched and picked out places I really wanted to visit and came up with some top places: they were Yunnan, Sichuan, Beijing, Harbin, and more than all of the others was Tibet. Tibet is a place that for a long time has always stuck out for me, it is entwined in history, mystery and has a certain magical allure to it – there is something about this place that drew me to it, the fact that it is nestled up thousands of metres in the Himalayas, starved of oxygen and surrounded by the worlds highest peaks, this is a harsh environment yet people have survived and thrived here for thousands of years.
When we travelled to Tibet our journey started in Shanghai and once again we were working on a budget, so while it is possible to get a direct flight from Shanghai to Lhasa it was relatively expensive in comparison to taking the train, also taking a two day train is so much more of an adventure than jumping on a flight.
We couldn’t get the train from Shanghai to Lhasa as it was fully booked up, due to the fact this line spans thousands of miles across China with multiple busy destinations on the way, as a result we decided to book the last remaining train that we could which left from Chongqing in Sichuan province, much farther west and closer to Tibet than Shanghai on the far east but the train journey still took almost the same amount of time.
As previously mentioned, the train journey from Shanghai to Lhasa in Tibet takes around two days, so if living in comfort is your thing then perhaps sharing a small sleeper carriage with another five people on triple tier bunks isn’t for you. If you’re a bit more adventurous then I would highly recommend making the journey to Lhasa by train, do this with a few friends, take a load of beer, bai jiu, cigarettes if you smoke and a pack of cards and you’ll have an amazing time as you ascend though the more barren, unoccupied parts of China ascending towards the Tibetan plateau.
First of all, a bit of advice: Lhasa sits at a whopping 4,000 metres, chances are that you will get altitude sickness and it won’t hit you until you get off the train. You might ask, “why don’t you feel it while you’re on the train?”. Altitude sickness is the manifestation of low oxygen content in the air and also low pressure, the low pressure makes it harder for oxygen to enter the blood, this coupled with the naturally low oxygen in the air at 4,000 metres means your brain won’t be functioning as it should, nor will the rest of your body to some extent. You won’t feel it on the train as there are oxygen outlets dotted all over the train which pump fresh oxygen into each cabin; with the supplemented oxygen you don’t really notice it until you get off. When you get off at Lhasa you will notice a higher military presence than any other stations in China, this is due to the dispute of ownership of Tibet (Xizang) but I am not really going to focus on that.
When we arrived in the hotel, the altitude sickness set in, well, at least it did for Tommy and Taylor who were shitting for hours, I thought I had gotten away with just a bout of severe lethargy which the other two also had. We had a short nap and some water to recuperate but it still felt like we were on some kind of drug, even walking was an effort. Later that night when we went to sleep I woke up in the night with a feeling of discomfort, I didn’t know what I was feeling so I went to the bathroom and within minutes I was throwing up for around an hour. We all woke up the next day feeling completely fine and were ready for exploring Lhasa.
Hope you’ve liked this post, I’ll be doing another post about Lhasa after I have a drink and a snack – in the next post I’ll focus on some of the monastaries that you can see and also the Potala palace.