Headed west out of Shanghai, we’ll be retracing much of our route from this morning – a few hundred miles of it in fact – with quick stops at Suzhou, Wuxi, and eventually Nanjing, whose station looks even more impressive by night. Not that we can see the river at this hour, but as a token nod to it, its lights out after the crossing of the Yangtze.We awake to lush but fairly nondescript countryside – a mix of farmland and built up areas mostly. Having traveled a fair bit west of Shanghai, I would have imagined it to be a lot more rural by now, but no such luck.
There are few takers amongst us for breakfast in the dining car this morning, the inclusion of fish on the menu having put off many. Its hardly a deal breaker for me though, and along with a healthy serving of congee, some pickled radish, spiced peanuts and mantou to soak it all up, I certainly make a meal of it.The mere mention of Xi’an makes my mouth water. Blame it on the namesake “Famous Foods” establishment in New York, if you will. Renowned for its Han and Muslim cuisine today, and long before that, for its terracota warriors, Xi’an is a stop for us on this journey, but we’ll see little of it other than its train station. And its an old-school one too. Featuring low-level platforms, a dated roof structure, a well stocked food stall, and the occasional session of Tai Chi, its a refreshing change from the airport-style rail terminals we’ve become accustomed to seeing through our travels in China.Racing through the western suburbs of Xi’an, we cross the Wei, the largest tributary of the Yellow River. It reappears to our south a few miles later, and for the next two hours or so, we follow its course through an incredibly verdant river valley. The meandering nature of the Wei having done little to deter rail or road construction in these parts. The Chinese simply preferring to build in a straight line, barreling their way through the mountainside, and soaring high over the fertile floodplains, when needed.Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, is another station with plenty of old world charm, and our next major stop. With enough activity to keep us rail fans entertained, and the light slowly beginning to change, it makes for a very pleasant evening stroll. SS, in fact, is so enamored by it, he’s already planning his next real estate move. As Chinese cities go, Lanzhou is not particularly big. But there appears to be a relentless expansion in the works, and its anyones guess as to where that 3.5 million figure would be a few years from today. If its swanky new high-speed rail terminal, and the accompanying maze of elevated track work is any sign, then its up and away… The suburbs of Lanzhou seem to extend endlessly into the west, with respite finally arriving in the form of the Yellow River, the crossing of which takes us by complete surprise. The second longest river in China, known for its constantly changing course, the Yellow River appears fairly tame here, as it makes its way east through Gansu Province, and beneath a succession of bridges.As JB and DG continue to hypothesize about the country’s future, there is a noticeable uptick in construction activity west of the river. Cranes precariously perched atop rapidly rising apartment blocks, and earth movers busy clearing land around them for even more development – another unnamed city in the making. It’s been a recurring theme since morning, in keeping with China’s drive to urbanize more and more of its populace; a figure, SS informs us, that is already over sixty percent.Whole fish, featured prominently on the menu, has been calling my name ever since my first foray into the dining car. I mean, how often does one get a whole fish prepared on a moving train? Add to that a side of steamed bok choy, tofu and mushrooms, and dinner turns out to be quite the feast. The beer though, I might come to regret.Xi’ning literally translates to “western tranquility” but there’s little of that to be found when we pull in to the station ahead of our scheduled time. Our fellow passengers, their luggage in tow, making a beeline for the doors, only to walk a few feet across the platform to another waiting train, with precisely the same seating assignments, and plenty of time to spare. Calm does descend on the platform eventually, and there’s good reason for a change of trains here. Simply put, the one we’ve come in on from Shanghai is not high-altitude equipped. Nor, for that matter, is the train crew. Xi’ning, at an altitude of 2,275 meters (7,464 feet) is the capital of Qinghai Province, and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. In the days of the Silk Road, it served as a major stop on the caravan route to Tibet, and fittingly today, is the starting point of the railway to Lhasa.
Our new soft sleeper carriage is more welcoming in its appearance, and our cabin is no exception, what with its warm lighting, embroidered curtains, and upgraded upholstery.
Before the road was built to Tibet in the 50s, Golmud was considered China’s wild west. In ’84, the railway reached Golmud from Xi’ning, some 815 km (506 miles) away, but the garrison town would remain a backwater for quite a while longer. That is, until construction on the railway to Tibet resumed in 2001. Five years later, when the railway finally opened in its entirety, Golmud suddenly found itself on the map. In rail fan speak though, Golmud has always been considered the actual start of the Qinghai – Tibet Railway, so despite it being a 4 am halt, SS, SK, KD and I are out and about on the platform to pay our respects; me nursing the very beginning of what appears to be a fairly long-lasting headache.With a pounding head, I awake to the vastness of the Tibetan plateau – alpine grassland across rolling hills, as far as the eye can see. Im already regretting that beer from last night, and instead try and focus my energy on everything outside the window.Continuing with the “more cheery interiors” theme on our newly inhabited train, the dining car is a lot more vibrant too, with flower vases adorning each four-top, and a decidedly friendlier crew manning it. Everyone, I should add, is very well turned out, from the carriage attendants to the wait staff in the restaurant car. Not to be outdone by the aesthetics, the breakfast here is a step up from yesterday as well.To our north lie the majestic Kunlun Mountains, comprising one of the longest mountain chains in the continent, and forming the watershed between the drainage basins of the Yellow and the Yangtze, China’s two longest rivers. Its no surprise then that the Tibetan Plateau, despite being an arid one, is extremely well irrigated.The lofty Tanggula Mountains are over to our south, their main ridge averaging over 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) in elevation, with the highest peak topping out at 21,722 feet. Expectedly, they’re snow capped throughout the year, account for several glaciers, and somewhere in their midst, lies the very source of the Yangtze River.Less than a mile in length, the Fenghuoshan Tunnel is not particularly long, but located at an altitude of 4,905 meters (16,093 feet), it is, undisputedly, the highest railway tunnel in the world. And we probably thought nothing of it while passing though, since our eyes were peeled for Tanggula, which, you guessed it, is the highest railway station in the world. It should be noted at this point – 5068 meters (16,627 feet) above sea level, to be precise – that we’re almost a thousand feet higher than Mont Blanc!With an average elevation of more than 4,500 meters (14,800 feet), its not for nothing that the Tibetan Plateau has been referred to as “the roof of the world”. And as one would expect high up on such a plateau, conditions can change fairly quickly. So finding ourselves enveloped by a thin layer of precipitation should come as no surprise. And as KD informs me, this isn’t the first instance of it. There was a lot more snow on the ground at daybreak, which, needless to say, I slept through.Further along, prayer flags flutter in unison atop a little hill, and all around them, mist rises slowly from the ground, as the sun puts in a meek appearance. Yaks graze on the grassland below, and I look back at another incredibly long viaduct that we just traversed. Its one of a staggering 675 bridges on the Golmud – Lhasa section, a 1,142 km (710 mile) long engineering marvel, with almost half of it built over permafrost.There’s plenty more where this came from, VM assures me, referring to her supply of Diamox. So I pop one in and put on my bravest front for lunch in the dining car. Thankfully, my appetite has not left my side while I battle with the altitude, and as it turns out, the fatty pork with peppers, scallions and bamboo shoots is just what the doctor ordered. Hands down my best meal on all the trains we’ve ridden so far.Outside, the view is nothing short of arresting. We’re riding parallel to Dongaii Cona or Tsonag Lake, its emerald blue waters shimmering in the late afternoon light. Approximately 300 square kilometers in size, Cona doesn’t even make a dent on the surface area of Qinghai Lake, the country’s largest. But given that we passed by that at night, this beauty will more than make do for now.After lunch, I decide to venture beyond our world of soft sleepers, into the not-so-luxe universe of hard seats. At a quarter of the soft sleeper fare, and thrice as many passengers, the “hard seat” carriage closest to the restaurant car is certainly packed to the rafters. Among them, a boisterous lot of Tibetan students headed home for the summer break, all very friendly and eager to practice their English with me.Of the 30-odd stations between Golmud and Lhasa, a majority of them are unstaffed, and only one is a bonafide passenger halt – Nagqu. We’re here a little early too, and another train has just pulled in from Lhasa on the adjacent platform, so there’s plenty of activity at the station itself, but for some reason, our carriage attendant forbids KD and me from detraining. SK and SS, as it turns out, have no such problem. So we stand at the door and take in the cool mountain air. Almost two thousand feet lower than Tanggula, Nagqu or Nagchu has little to boast of at the moment. But when its airport is finally ready, it would be the world’s highest, surpassing the record China already holds.Paul Theroux, a travel writer I respect deeply, famously wrote, “The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa. That is probably a good thing. I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more.” Eighteen years after Riding the Iron Rooster was published, the Chinese proved him wrong. And while the Kunlun Mountains may have been tamed into submission somewhat, their grandeur has hardly waned. As storm clouds gather on the horizon and the light begins to change, our attention shifts to the north, transfixed all at once, by the magic of that very mountain range.A cup of tea on a rainy afternoon is a concept peculiar to the Indian Subcontinent, and it probably occupies an even more special place in the heart of its diaspora. So the last of our communal teas on a train – for a while, anyway – couldn’t be more timely. And JB doesn’t disappoint.Then, the heavens open up. A true spectacle of light and shadow. The drama all the more apparent, as it ominously inches closer towards us.Past the station of Yangbajing, we make a sweeping turn towards the southeast, tracing the course of the Pengbo River, a tributary of the Lhasa River, then diving right into a tunnel that takes almost three-minutes to cross. At 3,345 meters – just over two miles in length – the Yanbajing Tunnel is the longest on the Qinghai – Tibet Railway, and before we have time to register that, we’re swallowed by another. We emerge into the open once more to find highway G109, the unsung road to Tibet, being aggressively expanded to a four-lane affair. Incredible to think that it took the opening of the railway, over six decades after the road was laid, for that to happen.Getting closer to our destination, the late evening sun lights up the river valley ahead, and blue skies return to the fore. On the outskirts of Lhasa, we cross its namesake river, a northern tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which in turn is the upper section of the mighty Brahmaputra. After having spent almost two full days on Train Z164 from Shanghai, we pull into Lhasa Railway Station about five minutes late. Not too shabby for a journey of 4,373 km or 2,717 miles. Another one checked off the bucket list, and certainly, some new heights scaled.