Tag Archives: off the beaten track China

Of Trains and Toilets and Tibet

The continuation of last week’s story about my travels into Tibet on the Beijing-to-Lhasa train:

Given the still-sensitive nature of the Chinese occupation, my husband and I knew before we left the U.S. that we would have to adhere to strict Chinese rules to move about Tibet once we got there. Rather than get stuck in travel-permit hell, we decided to join a Canadian travel outfit for a small-group adventure tour, who would arrange the permits and drivers for us. We’d be with the group for about two weeks.

After the train ride, government-mandated Tibetan drivers would take us deeper into Tibet, then overland to Kathmandu.  First, though, once off the train, our itinerary called for acclimation time to the high altitude (and high level of yak-based meals) in Lhasa before the Land Rover portion of our trip.  The eight days of the trip would be slow going, with bumpy, dusty roads and overnight stops in the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya — before a cold sleep at the Rombuk Monastery Guest House at the foot of Mt. Everest. Rombuk is the highest-altitude monastery in the world.

Without thinking too hard about it, I grab the toothpaste tube in the toilet, wash off the tube and my hands. I do this as thoroughly as I can, seriously considering how I might use boiling water to sterilize the tube some more.

Back in our sleeping compartment, my husband is appalled when I tell him how I rescued the toothpaste. So are the others in our group. I’m not sure if he’s more surprised about my thrifty desire to save a $2 tube of toothpaste, or my willingness to retrieve anything at all out of a Chinese squat-toilet. In many ways, I’m looking in the mirror at my “travel-self” for the first time, and it feels like everyone else is looking too, pointing out the flaws. Just like outsiders seem to be doing with China and its flawed politics and flawed dog food and flawed kids’ toys.

But on this train at least, it seems the Chinese want nothing more than to protect us. There are no outdoor viewing decks on the train, and no windows that open. Instead, double-sealed and glazed doors and windows protect us from the cold, wind and from strong ultraviolet rays at the high altitude.  We’re also protected from sinking into the permafrost. Strange stone square grids made with hand-placed rocks line the train tracks, part of an intricate system of raised rock beds underneath. The Chinese have used these, along with clever uses of pipes and near-frozen concrete pylons, to create a cool bed of air underneath the rails. It’s a fairly simple way to ensure that the permafrost never has a chance to get warm enough to thaw.

You wouldn’t know a rugged geological uprising is happening right under us, as the Indian and Eurasian plates crash together to create the heave of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quiet here, and save for a few small towns, the most common sign of human life is the nomadic herders and their tents. And the yaks, scattered in groups of ten, fifty, a hundred, look small here. The few Tibetan antelope we see spy the train and flee. For hours, we see nothing but distant Himalayan peaks.

My husband stares out the window, running the compact video camera, his eyes moist behind its lens. I’m intrigued by what lies outside too, but touched to a greater degree by his emotional reaction to seeing the Himalaya for the first time.


Like him, I wish I were outside in the emptiness. My semi-solution to get away from people is to take frequent long walks through the other train cars (where there are yet more people), then back again. On a train it’s the closest thing to going for a stroll. I like to keep moving, up and down the length of train, through the seating classes, glimpsing the shades of economic and cultural difference that they represent.

It’s much like a city: the rich live in the periphery (the first and last cars), the poor in the middle. It reminds me of wealthy suburbs surrounding the struggling inner cities of so many world metropolises. But the poor on the train are not so poor by local standards. Buying a ticket on this train isn’t possible for most of the Tibetan population – the ones we see herding yaks, or in the yurt camps, and so many others we never see. The poorest are on the outside looking in. Do they know where the train stops and starts? Did anyone tell them it was going to slice through the openness of their land?

I wonder how the herders and their families must feel looking at us behind our windows, zooming by on the rails. Can they see our table stacked with chips and apples and tea and warm Chinese beer? Can they see our $1,200 high-definition video recorders, our $1,000 digital SLR cameras?

Perhaps this new train somehow intensifies their knowledge of their “poorness.” Or was that already done decades ago after the Chinese invasion? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nomadic yak-herding families remain, at least for now. It’s their home, train or no train running through it.

Some of my fellow foreigners (which include urban Chinese) never seem to emerge from first class, hiding inside four-berth sleeper cabins with sliding doors that close them off from everyone. The next class down, which we have booked, is made up of foreigners and wealthier Chinese. These six-berth sleeper cabins have no doors.

In second class, the train’s “inner-city,” passengers creatively attempt to sleep on the floor underneath or between seats, or on the cold hard metal floor between cars.  The price to be able to lie down on a bed – even stacked three high in an 8 foot by 5 foot space — is high enough (about $100 for the entire route) that most locals cannot afford it.

On this journey, there is only one foreigner who sits here, a young woman who keeps to herself and looks utterly miserable. After the first day, I don’t see her anymore.


On this train, the Tibetan and Chinese passengers sit mashed together in uncomfortable-looking seats placed way too close together. Like the uncomfortable relationship between China and Tibet, it looks peaceful on the surface. People tolerate one another despite invasions of space. Legs and arms stick out in the center aisle. Sometimes spilled and mashed food blocks the way and makes the passageways between cars slippery. After a while it starts to look and smell like vomit.

I walk quickly through and slide on slippery goo. I catch myself by flailing my arms and bolting back upright. The worst part of my train walks, though, is the leering men, whose eyes lock on my chest anytime I pass through.

The train stops during one of my long walks. I’m on my way “home,” just three cars away from our cramped sleeper berth, and the familiar faces inside. By now I’ve thrown the toothpaste tube away under severe peer pressure from my husband and our temporary roommates.  Their teasing is good-natured, and I’m discovering that I’m fond enough of them to know that 10-hour days bumping along in Land Rovers with these people will turn out all right. Plus, someone will loan me their toothpaste.

But as the train stops, so does my long walk home. All the doors seal shut, locking everyone where they are. This is the Chinese solution to keeping people in their places during embarkation and disembarkation: seal everyone off from one another, so one sneaks on the train without a ticket, or sits in the wrong class.

The stop is only a minute or two, but the lockdown lasts nearly 20 minutes. There is no spare seat for me in this compartment, so I’m stuck standing on the metal floor in front of the toilet door.

At first, it feels like the whole car is staring at me, the lone foreigner. A tall man stands four inches away, waiting to use the bathroom. Before long he begins to leer. I try to keep my head pointed away from him. His eyes slowly survey my neck and chest, but there is no where for me to go. Soon he has his cell phone out, and oh my, he’s is taking a picture of me with it.

Is he sending my picture to his entire address book? I will never know, because I do not speak Chinese and I choose not to make a scene. No one in the car says anything. With nowhere to sit, nothing to read, and no window for scenery, the minutes drag. After about twenty minutes, a stern-looking train employee walks by. I motion to the locked door, and he opens it with a key.

With a loud ka-push, the seal breaks.

I’m the first one through the door. I walk fast. I’m relieved to get back to my compartment. I feel bad for feeling this way, but I can’t help it. Like it is in so many places, the privileged are semi-comfortable passing through, but we can’t stay. We can’t sit down and get comfortable. We look different. The rules for men and women are different. And cultural differences, while it’s easy to say they don’t matter, do.

Even the Chinese-Americans on the train can feel the strong cultural division, and it seems a few of them don’t feel they fit in all that well either. A few compartments away from ours, I meet a bright-eyed young woman, a recent Harvard graduate. She explains that she is traveling with her Chinese-born parents, who like to come back to China to visit family; this summer she decided to come along. She confides that she’s tired of speaking Chinese, and oh wow is it so great to have some English-speakers here. She’s got a job lined up at Google in San Francisco.

The scene feels a bit weird, as if the train and the instant camaraderie of talking with another American temporarily cancel out where we are in time and space: racing across the Tibetan Plateau, closing in on on its holiest of cities, Lhasa.



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To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


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.


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.


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.



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The Real China, Part 2

The continuation & conclusion to last week’s post, “Finding China, beneath the yellow fog”

Thankfully, age has not jaded Jinshanling,a town that has instantly won my vote for ‘favorite place’ in the People’s Republic of China. Like a sheltered child, the ancient village has a lovely innocence about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Jinshanling’s communal village toilets — just below The Great Wall’s ramparts — a place that harkens me back to a more innocent bygone era. There’s just a wide open “door,” nothing more than an opening in the wall, open to the main street. Villagers come and go like it’s no big deal. Inside the toilet’s stone walls, rows of holes carved in long slabs of stone over a flowing “river” constitute the toilets. I count at least 50 of these. I know I must try this, just once. I hope, pray, that no one else comes in; I complete my business with the speed of a Nascar racetrack mechanic.

It’s clear to me now that Jinshanling is not a place many foreign tourists come to —er, experience things like this. Or to stay.  The military require that all visitors buy a pass to visit the Great Wall of China before they’re allowed to enter the village, and there are just two guesthouses. A foreigner would probably be suspect if he said he simply wanted to poke around town; he’d most likely have to pay, Wall or no Wall.

Most tourists usually come and go in a day, taking a quick walk up to the Great Wall, riding the creaky gondola (salvaged and moved from a defunct amusement park) up to a viewpoint, and snapping photos before heading back to Beijing.

Once paid up and inside the gate, we see a giant parking lot with huge spaces for tour buses. Next to the parking lot sits a row of identical 10-foot-by-10-foot stores with identical blue garage doors. Shopowners stand out front and shout “water!, water!” if anyone passes by. Inside each shop stocks identical bottles of water and Coca-Cola. I didn’t see anything else in these stores—  except potato chips.

We drive the equivalent of three city blocks to where the town ends. Jinshanling has only one street. The street leads directly up to the Great Wall. We park the van just off the road in a gravel lot and Hai Li introduces us to Mr. Wong, one of the town’s  shop owners.  We rest at a plastic table in front of Mr. Wong’s store in an old brick building that abuts the street. We eat peanuts and drink beer before setting out for the first itinerary item: a short evening climb up onto the Great Wall of China.

We walk on The Wall only as far we can until signs tell us to stop walking. We quickly hit a militarized zone, where Chinese soldiers train in the rugged hills. On the way up, I run my right hand along the old stones of the Great Wall, and it feels exhilarating to be touching something so historically significant. At the top, we pause to take in the view of the forested hillsides dropping below us on either side of the wall. Like a snake disappearing into a burrow, The Great Wall disappears into the smog in both directions, even though from here it stretches at least 2,000 miles each way. There is no sunset to see, as the smog is deeply settled in the hills all around us. Mr. Wong points over The Wall and says all of that was once Mongolian territory. Smog obscures the view in that direction, too.

The Wall once stopped the Genghis Khan, but it can’t stop the wafting cloud of pollution from Beijing. Smog can travel up to 300 miles a day, much faster than Khan’s armies ever could, and can scale the Great Wall effortlessly.


It’s dusk by the time we scramble back down the steps and set foot in Jinshanling again. When we arrive, Mr. Wong’s wife, her sister and a handful of cousins and friends have made dinner for us in the Wong house behind the shop. We eat on a white plastic table set out on the street as Mr. Wong’s children dart under and around our table.

Giddy and talkative from the rice wine and beer, we set out with flashlights to go back up to the Wall, but this time in a different direction than before, along a wooded path that switch-backs.  Our watchtower awaits. Tomorrow, we’ll walk the other direction — away from the militarized zone — for about eight miles until we reach another village.

Mr. Wong and Hai Li lead the way up an ancient stone staircase. We have to use our hands to brace ourselves as we climb into the tower. Mr. Wong, though, does it carrying a plastic fold-up table and chairs. Hai Li negotiates it carrying our breakfast food in a bag. After setting up our sleeping mats and sleeping bags, we spend the evening enjoying the rice wine and practicing our English with our hosts. We’re laugh and laugh until at least 1 am, but no one is near enough to hear.

Our toilet is a plastic bucket in a far corner of the watchtower, with no curtain and no toilet paper. Another ‘real China’ moment. As night settles in, the yellow fog disappears and the stars appear.

Since the long flight from the U.S. to Beijing, I’ve been suffering from an ear infection, and I can barely hear out of one ear now that we’re camping on the Wall. The ocean is crashing inside my head, and we’re nowhere near the ocean. And there’s loud ringing too, though this is a quiet place. My equilibrium is off too, so my steps are slow, deliberate. I do my best to sleep; when I can’t, I look up at the stars from this incredible watchtower perch.

Still feeling my cold the next morning, I eat hot Chinese noodles from a box for breakfast, the spicy beef flavor.  Mr. Wong boiled the water before the rest of us rose. Hai Li says it should help my cold. That’s what she eats when she has one. She is sincere, and I can’t help but smile.

We set out after breakfast and begin to hike. Within the first two hours a stifling heat settles in, and with it more smog from faraway Beijing. Little ladies and old men selling Coke and guidebooks and postcards sit inside some of the watchtowers. They shout out “post-card?” “cold water?” “guidebook?” in broken English as we approach. But other than the vendors we only see a few other people on The Wall all day.  With the exception of two European women near Simatai, they are all Chinese.

The walk is long and hard and stunning all at the same time. Some of the steps are so steep and crumbling that it helps to steady myself with my hands. By the time we reach Simatai, where lunch awaits, we are overheated and exhausted. The temperature has risen to nearly 100 degrees. I’m amazed and humbled by the Chinese laborers who built The Great Wall.


It’s a relief to get back to Jinshanling, where we can clean up, rest, and with time, cool off with the setting sun. But Jinshanling is a place not entirely braced for sweaty Westerners. Perhaps we want too much relief.  After the hike, we’re out of drinking water. My husband, gracious, tells me to take a shower first while he goes out to the bottled-water-and-Coke-shops to (hopefully) find some bottles of water for us. I shower in the dark bathroom where the water comes out of a spigot in the wall between the toilet and sink. When my husband returns, there is no bottled water. The few shops still open at 4 pm have soda only, and warm beer. He brings back a 2-liter of Coca-Cola.

And as my husband steps into the shower, there is no water for him. Not even to flush the toilet. We would soon find out, through Hai Li translating for the woman at the front desk, someone suddenly turned off the entire town’s water supply.

“When the farmers need the water for their crops, the water supply to the village is shut off,” the woman tells my husband. “It will come back on eventually. Just wait a while.”

Wondering how long he would wait, my husband asked if he could call the front desk from our room to check in if necessary. With a sweet, matter-of-fact voice, the woman answered:

“Oh, the room telephones aren’t actually connected to anything. They’re just for decoration.”


On our last morning in Jinshanling, Hai Li suggests we ride the gondola up to a special viewpoint, so we can get a panoramic view of The Wall. The smog is clearing, just a little, and the sun is as hot as ever. At 10 am, the temperature is already approaching 85 degrees.

My husband and I knock heads scrambling into the tiny gondola carriage, a Plexiglass contraption barely big enough for two adults. The cars do not stop or slow down in the loading zones. Once we are inside for a few minutes, the car becomes stiflingly hot.

The Carpenter’s plays from a loudspeaker attached to each support tower, blaring “Every sha-la-la-la, every oh-oh-oh-oh …”.  My husband and look at each other and smile, and the song fades again until our car rattles up to the next tower, “Every shing-a-ling-a-ling . …”

Once at the top, the music stops. I wonder, were The Carpenters our in-gondola entertainment? Is talk – or silence, for that matter — too dangerous in China? We are the only riders on the gondola this morning, and once we are off at the top, the operators, sitting in little sheds at the top and bottom, stop the whole apparatus.

Up here, there is not much except a hillside with some paths leading uphill – our lookout spot. We reach the top of the rise to see The Great Wall. This time, the Wall is actually below us.

The smog is thinner today, and we can see it stretch long in both directions. We take a breath to take it all in and … whomp! Chinese propaganda music blares from behind, a kind of Communist anthem. Someone has set up a loudspeaker on top of a telephone pole. It’s loud and jarring and shrill and echoes down the hillsides and off the Great Wall. The next song is a less brassy, but no less amplified.

The music doesn’t seem to bother Hai Li, who begins picking nuts off nearby trees, filling a plastic bag. It’s a family tradition to cook the nuts with vegetables, she says.

“Good for health,” she says, one of her favorite things to say. She also says this about Jinshanling’s rice wine.

She is soon joined by three old women picking the same nut. They claim this nut is hard to find in stores, and is expensive. As she sidesteps down an precipitous slope to reach a tree, my husband decides it’s time to help her. I take a picture of the old women, who are happy to pose, with the Great Wall in the background and the all-important nut trees in the foreground.

The music abruptly stops. The women smile. I click the camera, and snap a “Real China” moment.


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