Print Edition - 2014-11-22  |  On Saturday

Across the roof of the world

- Semanta Dahal
Across the roof of the world

Nov 21, 2014-

I would soon regret not taking into account the Beijing rush-hour traffic. I took a cab at 6 pm, two hours before my train’s departure time from a junction in Beijing Wudaokou, to catch my train from Beijing West Station to Lhasa. I only had to cover 15 km to reach the station, but the maddening Beijing traffic, and especially the traffic congestion in Wodaokou, had me stuck in the gridlock. Time was running out and I only had one hour before my train was to leave the station. In that desperate moment, my friends who were with me—Bhoj Raj (a post-graduate student at Tsinghua University) and Rupak (a PhD candidate at Renmin University of China)—decided that we should take a chance and use the Beijing arterial subway. Thanks to their familiarity with Beijing’s subway maze, I managed to reach the station panting, with a few minutes to spare. A train with green-coloured coaches was stationed at the platform. And as I approached it, attendants in navy blue uniforms checked my visa and permit for Tibet before allowing me to embark on the train.

Upto Golmud in Qinghai Province

The train departed at 8 pm sharp, and we left behind Beijing’s infamous smog, as we started on a journey during which we would touch the high blue skies of Tibet.

As the train slowly pulled out of Beijing, I stepped out of my berth to grab some food and water. While ambling around the aisles, I noticed that the train had one first-class and three second-class sleeper coaches and a number of seat cars.

I was drawn to the dining carriage, which had a restaurant-like setting and where the attendants, I was told, served meals three times a day. I bought a cup noodle, poured boiling hot water available at the terminus of each coach, and slurped it for dinner.

When I woke next morning, it was dawn and we were in the Ningxia region, and the train was making its way through a snow-kissed, sandy landscape.

Through the windows, the sunlight reflected from the dunes uncovered by the unevenly distributed snow was filtering into the train.

Around midday, the train crossed the Yellow River to reach a major industrial city in inner China, Lanzhou in Gansu province. After setting off from Lanzhou, the train finally reached the Tibetan plateau, and we arrived at Xining, Qinghai, the starting point of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway journey. We whizzed from Delhi (in Qinghai province), passing Chaerhan Salt Lake along the way and arrived at Golmud, situated at an altitude of 2,828 m, at midnight. The Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was completed in 2005 and came into operation only in July 2006.

From Golmud to Lhasa

From Golmud the real ascent to the higher altitudes started. As we climbed, I found out that through the vents placed near each bed, there was oxygen being released to increase its levels inside the train. At seven in the morning, we crossed the Qinghai-Tibet border at the world’s highest railway point—through Tanggula Mountain Pass, at 5,072 m above sea level.

When the first rays of the morning light penetrated the windows of the train, almost all the passengers of my coach were so mesmerised that they all rushed to the windows to take in the glorious sight. Outside under a canopy of clear blue skies, unbesmirched by clouds, lay vast stretches of golden grassland, and in the distance, white-capped mountain ranges and frozen tundra. True to its name, the “Sky Train”, I realised, does touch the sky even as it trundles over the earth.

We then travelled along Cona Lake, which lay probably less than 80 m from the tracks. One of the holy lakes for the Tibetans, it glittered like a sapphire amidst the brown grassland. After zipping past Cona Lake, the train stopped at Nagqu Station, situated at an altitude 4,513 m. The station was freezing cold and I felt dizzy, but the view from the platform of the endless Changtang Grassland was too good to pass up. A few hours before we got to Lhasa, we started coming across herds of grazing yaks, nomadic herders tending their flocks of sheep, prayer banners and farmers ploughing the fields using yak-drawn ploughs. But just as I was taking in this picturesque view, the train was suddenly swallowed by the darkness of a long tunnel (3,345 m long). After a few minutes in the

darkness, and we emerged into the open, near the bridge over the Lhasa River. We crossed the bridge and pulled over at Lhasa station at 2:40 in the afternoon. The journey had been a long one, 43 hours and 40 minutes, but I would love to make the trip again just to re-experience the beauty of the Trans-Himalayan region.   

Dahal [Twitter (@the3rdbanch)]travelled on the Beijing-Lhasa train from Oct 30 to Nov 1


Published: 22-11-2014 10:29

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