"You're going where?!" asked a friend. "Lhasa," I repeated. "How long does the flight
take?" he asked. "I don't know, I'm taking the train," I replied. After I had gone
on to tell him that I would be sitting on a "hard seat" for more than 45 hours, he wished me luck. Not that I wouldn't prefer a bed of course, but all the "sleeper"
tickets had already been sold by the time I got around to deciding that I would return to Tibet. On the plus
side (and I am sure you can understand why I think it's an incredibly small 'plus'), the "hard seat" for the
close-to 2,500 mile train journey costs only 389 yuan (or the equivalent of about US$58 or 37 pounds sterling).
The last time I travelled there, I took the same "Sky
Train", the T27, which departed from Beijing West Railway Station at 9.30pm on New Year's Day, 2008. Then,
I had been lucky enough to get a "hard sleeper" ticket – my preferred style of travel during my 35-day 10,603 mile (about 17 thousand km) rail journey around China. The
4,096km ride was so exhilarating that I swore to do the same trip again one day. As well as offering a wonderful opportunity
to listen to dozens of people talk about themselves and about their reason for making the arduous trip, the backdrop
to these conversations is simply awe-inspiring:
The shift in altitude from Beijing West railway station at about 35 metres above sea level (masl) to the
end of the line at Lhasa station at 3641 masl (just short of 12,000 feet) is ear-popping enough, but it is the final
two sections between Golmud, station "number 6", and Lhasa that are most dizzying. 80 per cent of the
track from Golmud to Lhasa is at more than 4,000 masl, including 550km of which has been sunk into permafrost.
The beauty of the early-evening arrival time into Lhasa is that you can spend the entire "Day 3" of the journey
enjoying eye-poppingly wonderful vistas.
The highest point of the journey (indeed, the highest point of any rail journey in the world) is reached
a couple of hours before Nagqu, station "number 7". The height on the altimeter to watch out for is
5,072 masl (16,640 feet), which signals that you have reached the Tanggalu Pass, the boundary marker of Qinghai and
the Tibet Autonomous Region. From here, it's downhill (about a vertical mile) to Lhasa.
All of this assumes, of course, that I am allowed to cross into Tibet. Most websites
that profess to be experts on tourism into the area tell you that you will not be allowed in without a special
travel permit (the process for getting one is a long and uncertain one I understand). On my last attempt,
I managed to get all the way there and back without one (the hefty price of which includes, by the way, an "official
guide"). No one is quite sure if there has been a tightening of the unwritten rules since my last visit...
Well, there's only one way to find out...