Tibet, the mystical land and dubbed "Roof of the World" is now easily accessible with the exciting launch of the train that runs from the various cities in China to Lhasa on 1st July 2006. This train has aroused much of the world's attention and it had certainly caught our attention to try out this novelty ride.
The starting point of our train ride was in Lanzhou. The entire train ride from Lanzhou to Lhasa was 29 ½ hours. Our train K917 departed Lanzhou at 4.45pm on 20th Oct 2006 and arrived in Lhasa the following night at 10.30pm.
This railway is certainly something to rave about - from being the world's highest and longest plateau railroad to being an engineering marvel with technological breakthroughs in the railway construction since almost half of the total track was being built on permafrost (frozen soil). The railway track is a total of 1,956 Km from Xining (capital of Qinghai Province) to Lhasa. About 960 Km of the track is located 4,000 meters above sea level with the highest point being 5,972 meters at Tanggula Mount.
The scenery along the Tibetan plateau is simply breathtaking - snow capped mountains, miles and miles of vast wilderness, yaks and sheep roaming around in the grasslands, highlands with nothing except permafrost and the beautiful Cuona Lake which is a huge lake covering 300 square Km and the highest freshwater lake at 4,594 meters above sea level.
The construction challenges include permafrost, oxygen deficiency, freezing coldness and ecologically vulnerable environment including the wild highland animals. To prevent the permafrost from melting and the railway track from sinking, insulated thermal rods and thick gravel pads have been used to keep the ground cool.
The inside of the train was regulated with oxygen just like in an aircraft from 3,000+ meters onwards. There were many oxygen outlet points along the entire train, including under the seats and tables in the dining car. Unwell passengers suffering from altitude sickness could easily obtain the additional oxygen by plugging a nozzle into these outlets located next to seats / sleepers and along the corridors.
The soft sleepers that we had booked were very comfortable. The soft sleeper compartments consisted of four cushioned beds with thick blankets and pillows. Each bed had its own TV screen at the foot of the bed including headphone and reading lamp. There was also a control to adjust the volume of the train announcement to avoid any disturbances at night. As the train ran very smoothly along the track, one could get a good night rest.
The cuisine on the train was local Chinese food. There were a variety of choices and set meals were available too. For a set dinner costing US$60, we had nine dishes including excellent cod fish, meat and vegetables and herbal soup with cordyceps (Dong Cong Xia Cao) which was supposed to help with altitude acclimatization.
This train ride is a great alternative way to flying into Lhasa. Not only was the view of the Qinghai province and the Tibetan plateau breathtaking, it also allowed the body more time to start acclimatizing to the higher altitudes.
Lhasa - Potala Palace
A trip to Lhasa is never complete without a visit to the Potala Palace - famous for its grand buildings, complicated constructions, devotional atmosphere and splendid artworks. It comprises the White Palace (administerial building) and the Red Palace (religious building). It is a 13 storey building with over 1,000 rooms. The climb up was tedious, especially with the much thinner air at 3,850 meters but the view of the city with the neat rows of buildings and the snow capped mountains in the horizon was rewarding.
The White Palace was used as the winter palace for Dalai Lamas and the walls of the palace were painted white to convey peace and quiet. The Red Palace is located in the middle of the Palace and is renown for its religious status, gorgeous stupas and precious culture relics. The walls were painted red to represent stateliness and power.
Inside the Palace are interesting cultural relics, beautiful and religious murals painted on inner walls and the corridors as well as the various figures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Dalai Lamas showing the genetic stories of Buddhism.
Yomdrok Lake and the Great Mother Nature
Yomdrok Lake is one of the three holy lakes in the Tibetan Plateau. This is a huge lake spanning 130 kilometers long from east to west and 70 kilometers wide from north to south. The clear turquoise blue water in the lake with the reflection of the surrounding mountains really made a very pretty sight. Weather was perfect that day and we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains.
The drive out of Lhasa to Yomdrok Lake and onward to Shigatse was rewarding in terms of the breathtaking and magnificent scenery of the beautiful snow capped mountains, rushing rivers, vast river deltas, lakes, gorges and the autumn foliage
We spent some great time enjoying the fresh mountain air, brilliant sunshine and the solitude of the vast space the nature of Tibet offers.
In summary, the trip by train to Lhasa and seeing part of Tibet as well as our onwards cruise down the Yangtze River back to Shanghai gave us an overview of the regions in China with their different cultural and historical background. We were impressed by the enormous developments that have and are taking place in China due the political will, determination and capability of the Chinese government to let all parts of China participate in the modern future.