“The Beijing to Lhasa Express”

An editor at TNT Magazine has an account of his travels through Tibet:

Back in our now-fragrant cabin, we start the long crawl across thousands of kilometres of desert, dry hills and high-altitude plateau. On the way, we’ll cross nearly 700 bridges, heading through an earthquake zone (the last quake in 2001 measured 8.1 on the Richter scale), and gaining 5000m in altitude. We’ll be travelling through the world’s highest tunnel and stopping at the world’s highest station.

After 24 hours of the arid plains and dusty towns of northern China, I doze off to the realisation we’ve barely covered half the width of this immense country. I wake the following morning to silence and a dull altitude headache. There’s a hissing as oxygen is pumped into our compartment to mitigate the effects of climbing 5000m in just over a day.

I twitch the curtain and look out on to a monochrome world where gusts of heavy snow periodically obscure the surrounding peaks. We’re stopped at Tangula. A lonely concrete building sitting at 5068m, it’s the highest railway station in the world. It’s so cold, the single toilet (for a carriage of 50) is frozen and I have to wait for an attendant to unfreeze it before going for a pee.

The rest of the day is spent slurping Tsing Tao beers in the restaurant car and watching the bleak and beautiful Tibetan plateau unroll in front of us. No one really talks to us; English isn’t widely spoken here.

When we reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the military presence is immediate, in your face and stifling. There are more armed guards than passengers. You’re not allowed to linger in the vast concrete station. Instead we’re rushed outside where we’re met by Chun Kee, our Lhasa guide. As we follow her, I struggle for breath and have to pause every few steps like an asthmatic pensioner, gulping mouthfuls of thin air. And I still have that dull ache behind my eyes. It lasts for two days.

It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a party town. There aren’t any bars outside the tourist hotels that we’re allowed in to. At any rate, the ubiquitous army presence dampens any party atmosphere. I feel on edge and absurdly guilty under their gaze.

The highlight is the 1500-year-old Jokhang Monastery. It squats like a grizzled old monk in the dead centre of old Lhasa. Inside, a mass of chanting devotees worship serene golden Buddhas, leering black demons decked with skulls, and monarchs crowned with tiny gods. As I shuffle around, the close atmosphere, crowds and incense make it hard to breathe. Flames from yak butter lamps make the demonic eyes dance and a constant pulsing drum beat makes me feel increasingly peculiar. It’s my first brush with the intensity of religion here.

The only thing missing is monks. Monasteries should be heaving with them, but most have only a skeleton crew. I ask Chun Kee about this. “They’re in their rooms,” she says evasively.

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