On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.
A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.
Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level. Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.
Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.
I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes. It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.
Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet. We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.
A PLACE UNCOVERED
Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.
Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.
Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.
From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.
A NEW TIBET?
China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?
What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?
Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.
Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.
One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.
I stare down at it. Is this really happening?
I look again. It’s still there.
My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.
TO BE CONTINUED ….