By 6am yesterday morning both of the squat toilets in my hard sleeper carriage could be best described as pungent and primitive. I don't have any descriptive for "at worst". Let's just say people seem oblivious to the fact you are supposed to FLUSH after you have been. I wasn't even 12 hours into the journey! Imagine, if you will or rather dare to, what they were like by 6am today. They were actually worse the further down the train you went. Hold your nose and turn up the PSI. The quicker you're done, the quicker you're out!
If you are expecting the romance of train travel, with silver cutlery, your own toilet and shower in your cabin, privacy, and Poirot.... this is not it. This ain't no Orient Express. You travel with locals - Domestic tourists from China and people who actually live in Tibet that are heading home. There are also smokers. This is China. If it gets overwhelming, ask politely if the person smoking can smoke down the carriage (there are smoking sections in every carriage) and mime a health issue. The prepare to be amazed at the effect that has on humans who don't have psychic powers.
As it's an average 44 hour trip, I suggest you pay for the hard (6 bunks in 1 cabin) or soft (4 bunks in 1 cabin). The only other options are the seat carriages otherwise. It was very cramped in those and I question my insanity had I been in one of those for 44 hours. In the soft or hard sleeper, each bed has linen, pillow and a quilt. It was pretty clean although I slept in my sleeping bag liner. Having ridden several overnight trains in Vietnam, Thailand and Egypt, this was not actually that bad. I managed to get some pretty good sleep for someone who is 15hrs ahead of their normal time zone, usually only waking because my bum was a bit numb or for the bathroom (God help me). Cocooned in my sleeping bag liner with the sleeve of my jacket over my eyes to block the light in the corridor (there's no door on your cabin although lights go off in your cabin at 10pm, on again at 8am) served me well. My luxury item however was a pair of ear plugs!
We had two stops on the first day. At 1pm we rolled into Lanzhou then at 350pm we made another stop, both where we could briefly stretch our legs. At the 2nd stop I got a very tasty corn on the cob and some Yak yoghurt(!), which was surprisingly easy on the ol' gastrointestinal tract. On day 2 we stopped around midday. At all these stops you were able to get off the rain and stretch your legs. It was heavenly. All of these towns are undergoing major development presumably as the Chinese government tries to persuade people to move out there.
The railway itself is a piece of engineering in its own right with many technical difficulties for it to overcome. According to Wiki:
"About half of the second section was built on "barely permanent permafrost" (odd that it would be therefore called permafrost in my humble opinion). In the summer, the uppermost layer thaws, and the ground becomes muddy. The heat from the trains passing above is able to melt the permafrost even with a small change in temperature. The main engineering challenge, aside from oxygen shortages, is this weakness of the permafrost. For areas of permafrost that are not very fragile, an embankment of large rocks is sufficient. Meanwhile in the most fragile areas, the rail bed must be elevated like a bridge. The engineers dealt with this problem in the areas of weakest permafrost by building elevated tracks with pile-driven foundations sunk deep into the ground. Similar to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, portions of the track are also passively cooled with ammonia-based heat exchangers. The integrity and strength of the railroad is not fully secure. Due to Climate change, temperatures in the Tibetan Plateau will increase by an estimated two to three degrees Celsius. This change is sufficient to melt the permafrost and thereby affect the integrity of the entire system. The effects of climate change have yet to be seen."
The railway passes the Kunlun Mountains, an earthquake zone. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in 2001. Dozens of earthquake monitors have been installed along the railway. I'm kind if glad I read all this AFTER the journey. The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 16,640 ft above sea level, is the world's highest railway. More than 960 km (600 mi), over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa section, is at an elevation of more than 13,123 ft. There are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88 km (99.34 mi), and about 550 km (340 mi) is laid on permafrost.
It is without question an incredibly long trip but so worthwhile. Bring your own food and prepare to be blown away by the geography, wildlife and people you will see as you gradually climb to your destination. The air in Tibet is much thinner, with the oxygen partial pressure being 35% to 40% below that at sea level. You can breathe the oxygen pumped through nozzles in the rooms and hallways to prevent altitude sickness. I popped the Diamox to the max and subsequently had numbness and tingling in my heels. But I otherwise felt pretty good. Admittedly, having read "Into Thin Air" over a couple of hours on day 1 probably had something to do with me upping my dosage to the maximum 4.
When not reading, entertainment came in the form of "who can hack the loudest" (vocal version only!!!), "What would James Bond's German name be?" (Tomasz Müller won although I still liked my offering of Johan Bund), chin ups to the Village People's Macho Man, "let's play elevator music at random moments" (admittedly you had to be there to appreciate the comedic value although I did actually do this in an elevator in Beijing!), sing-a-long to ABBA and "Pose like the person on your noodle packaging". Perhaps a sense of delirium had overtaken us all?!? Sharing a cabin with a mountaineer has also been kind of awesome. 60 year old John, an orthodontist from Perth, has an impressive resume including advanced base camp of K2 with a group that included Peter Hillary, Edmund's son. Several of the mountaineers on that climb were blown to their death by the jet stream after reaching the summit, Hillary himself lucky to make it back alive. Combined with reading "Into Thin Air" that firmly cements my non-desire to climb Everest. Why on earth would I want to go somewhere called "The Death Zone"? But I digress.
Of course having now ridden and more importantly survived the journey, I can say it afforded me some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Eventually you hit the more barren and remote parts which includes an altitude of over 16000ft. Aside from the occasional nomadic settlements, all you see are snow covered mountains, icy rivers, wildlife (birds of prey, deer, marmot-like creatures) and Yaks. I kept expecting to see Genghis Khan race over on the back of a horse. It really is rather wonderful. This is after you managed to somewhat block from your mind the sounds and occasional sight of people on the train clearing their throats with such gusto that you're pretty sure they've just coughed up a lung. Hopefully, unlike me, you won't bear witness to someone depositing it on the floor, despite the no spitting signs. Like the "please flush" sign it would appear that the "please don't spit" sign is largely ignored.
Coles notes for the train ride:
* There's a hot water dispenser near the sinks, so you can make that umpteenth bowl of noodles.
* Bring your own food - noodles in a bowl, noodles in a packet and more noodles. I also brought fruit (fresh & dried), protein bars and two big containers of water.
* Bring your own music, movies, cards or make your own entertainment like we did!
* Bring wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
* I concur with The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - a small towel indispensable in all travels.
* Bring your own toilet paper (ladies, bring panty liners).
* Wear comfy warm clothes - it will get colder as you get higher in altitude.
* Have PJs for bed - no one wants to sit around in the same clothes for 44+hrs.
* Toiletries (pretty self explanatory really).
* The food sold on the train looked ok although I was dubious about the vegetarian offerings. They come round to carriages with a trolley and you buy straight from that. I ate in the restaurant car once and got some spicy tofu. It wasn't spectacular but it wasn't terrible. It was, however, nice to have a change in the surroundings. Bringing your own food is definitely the way to go.
* There are power plug for chargers are located in the corridors. Everyone was gracious enough to "take turns" with charging devices.
* There are a number of stops where you can grab some quick food from trolley stalls on the platform - fruit, boiled eggs, corn on the cob, Yak yoghurt etc. The train will stop for about 10-20 mins and it's great opportunity to stretch your legs.
So the moral of the story is..... Bring a cast iron stomach, a bottle of hand sanitizer, wet wipes and a good sense of humour when you ride the Trans Tibetan railway from Beijing to Lhasa and prepare yourself for the journey of a lifetime! And if all else fails, you can never go wrong with friendly chin up competitions to the music of the Village People.