For over 4,000 kilometers we rattled on. Past sprawling apartment complexes, inexhaustible spatterings of unfinished construction projects, and cities so big they seemed to blend one into the other. Past ancient city walls, miraculous and formidable in their endurance, and past the more frequent sighting of modern buildings, which looked anything but miraculous and formidable, shoddy shells polluting the polluted landscape. And all the while we sat on the train, unseen observers of the world moving past us outside of the windows.
Eventually the scenery would take a sudden and permanent turn towards the awe-inspiring. Roiling cities gave way to rolling green hills, under whose slopes the train passed through with such frequency that the inside of the train car had a lethargic strobe light effect as it brightened and darkened through each passing tunnel. The landscape, once crowded with housing blocks and shopping malls, turned to an open expanse, the views over which only came to an end due to snow-capped mountains sitting clearly in the distance. We had just entered the Tibetan plateau and were now chugging steadily towards Lhasa.
Tibet isn’t referred to as the roof of the world lightly. Lhasa sits at roughly 3,656 meters above sea level and is one of the more moderately elevated places on the plateau. Our train, the highest in the world, occasionally climbed to an upwards of 5,000 meters along its journey. Reaching such literal dizzying heights, lack of oxygen and, as a result, altitude sickness, was a concern for passengers. Above each bed was an emergency oxygen valve and train attendants frequently made their way down the hallway to ask and ensure that everyone was feeling comfortable. Fortunately, nobody seemed to ever have any problems, us included.
While the level of oxygen wouldn’t be a problem, the state of it would. Bathrooms sat like crime scenes at the end of each car, the languid odors of which mixed with the warm, stale, human-scented air of fifty or so people being trapped in a metal box together for two days. Thankfully, we didn’t notice it so much while on the train, our minds granting us the mercy of obliviousness. It was only when we left the train at certain stops and reentered that the smell hit us, gripping our lungs as we choked and winced our way back towards our cabin. Air, we decided, should never have texture or taste as this batch seemed to have.
One worry of ours about the train ride before boarding it was time, and specifically how we would pass it over the course of two days. One would think that being stuck on a train with nowhere to go but your bed or a chair in the hallway would spell certain boredom, but, to our delight, it didn’t. The aforementioned scenery played a big part in that as we could sit and effortlessly pass away hour after hour just looking out the window. There were also cat naps, card games, crosswords, knitting projects, books, and, three times a day, meal preparations, to keep us busy.
While preparing our meals, we would often garner a lot of attention and at times, small crowds, who would mutter amongst themselves as they watched us do things like make peanut butter sandwiches or roll up a taco. The food must have looked horrendous to them, gloppy brown paste spread over bread being just one example of this.
Unashamedly, the people observing us would ask questions as if we were actors in a living history museum and not real people trying to enjoy their meal. In one instance, a befuddled policeman watching us make tacos pointed to our tub of brown rice inquiringly and was surprised to find that is was, indeed, rice. So sure of his misunderstanding of our answer, he asked again, and then pulled a train attendant aside to ask her as well. Her answer, an almost offended “Rice!” still seemed to not convince him.
And that brings us to one other thing that kept our boredom at bay for the duration of the train ride: people. When taking a train for 48 hours, confined to a crowded cabin and an even more crowded train car, you’re bound to come across characters who you observe with a cautious amusement and others on whom you exert a considerable amount of energy futilely attempting to ignore. My special talent in cases like this is to attract the loudest and most relentless snorers the world has to offer, which is why on this particular journey I was armed to the tooth with ear plugs.
By some miracle though, our cabin mates were fairly quiet sleepers though that didn’t mean we were exempt from other disturbances from them, particularly during the day time. Our one cabin mate, whose only admirable quality was that he didn’t snore at night, possessed an arsenal of other less admirable ones, including lifting his leg every few minutes to fart audibly, coughing violently into our faces and food as we tried to eat and converse, and having the gall to complain about how we were quite rude for not letting other people sit on our beds.
There were also the slew of passersby who would stop in front of our cabin, stare at us in a bewildered manner and then, without fail, proceed to mutter “foreigner” to themselves before continuing on down the hallway. One of these bemused passengers, a child no more than ten years old, became captivated by us, and me in particular. During a trip to the dining car, which involved a few minutes of shakily maneuvering through crowds of people, the boy shadowed me the entire way, finally working up the courage to ask if I spoke Chinese. “A little,” I said, which garnered much the same reaction as if I had just swirled out of a magic lamp and granted him three wishes. With a smile from ear to ear, he asked me various questions all the while maintaining unbreaking and uncomfortable eye contact.
He followed me all the way back to our car, leaving my presence only to fetch various snacks that he offered to me like gifts. The snacks, a half eaten piece of watermelon, a handful of sunflower seeds, and a vacuum sealed bag of spicy chicken feet, I accepted in much the same manner as a dog owner accepts the gift of a dead bird on their doorstep, an obliging reluctance. The boy’s presence, however relentless, was charming for a while, made even more so by his oversized yellow shirt that read “‘Sup.” However, after an hour of his company we politely started giving the the boy signs that we were ready for him to return to his family, the last of which, the blatant hanging of a scarf to block our cabin from the hallway, finally served its purpose.
Time continued to whittle away until, finally, we pulled into Lhasa and left the train almost regrettably. It had served as a perfect introduction to the wonderful sights and experiences that were to come in Tibet.