Breathless

You don’t notice it at first, but after climbing a flight of stairs or walking a couple of blocks down the street, you feel it. Your chest, heaving from the effort and your heart pounding from such simple motions. You drink more water, you take a rest, but the thin air reminds you about your body’s relentless need for a breath.

In the Lhasa hotel, there was a free health checkup for altitude sickness. In convenience stores, air is sold by the aerosol bottles. Pre-packaged potato chip bags expand, straining against the wrapper. But still, the nights are never silent, for the sound of beating, hungry hearts.

On the whole, my body did quite well with the altitude. (Much thanks to my family’s excellent genes). Any slight headache could quickly go away with more water and rest. I was even able to go to Mount Everest Base Camp without needing to snort air from the bottle. But I cannot deny that I panted more than usual, or that my body would gasp after some physical exertion, reminding me that I had to breathe more slowly, more deeply. “In the shape of a Hershey kiss,” as my mom would say. It took effort to reach the top, to find my way to the Base Camp. I thought about my breath on an hourly basis.

And as our car climbed higher into the mountains and as I stepped out to get a better view or climb a flight of stairs, and when I saw the Hallelujah that is the Himalayas, my breath was taken away at the sight. My heart rapped against my chest, my breath gasped, and breathless I stood, admiring the world’s tallest, most brutal mountains.

And this seems to be the story of visiting Tibet, that it takes mammoth breaths to get there, and that it takes them away with a single sweep of its sights.

Riding the High Iron Line

This week, I just did a very non-backpacker thing to do: I enlisted the help of a travel agency to secure a “hard sleeper” train ticket from Xining, Qinghai to Lhasa, Tibet. (To learn more about different train types and tickets, check out one of my older posts about transportation.) With all of my travel experience in China, I’ll admit to feeling pretty ashamed about needing help, but you see, this is no ordinary train ticket. This is a ticket for the world’s highest train: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway!

If you don’t know, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is high up in the world, not because of architectural feats, but simply because of altitude. This train will go across the Tibetan Plateau and will wend its way into the Himalayas. It will depart from Xining, Qinghai, which is already at a staggering altitude of 7,464 feet above sea level (2,275 meters, for those of you who use the metric system), and will end in Lhasa, which is at an altitude of 11,995 feet above sea level (3,656 meters). There’s a reason that Lhasa is sometimes called “The Rooftop of the World.” And once in Tibet, there are a lot of “World’s highest’s” to be had. (Including the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel, which I intend to ride).

It’s honestly mind-boggling for me to think about such heights (which you can see on this topographical map here). Reading through this article warning train passengers from Beijing not to get too cocky about altitude adjustment, I’m stunned to learn about some special features for this mountain-fording train. Essentially, since the train will be going through areas higher than Lhasa (by about 2,000 meters!) the train is especially equipped with controlled air supply, to at least mimic altitude no higher than Lhasa. That, plus other oxygen tanks, will probably make this one of the more unique train experiences in my life.

(And for those of you *coughmomcough* worrying about my safety, realize that there are 5-6 trains that do this trip EVERY DAY and that it’s the same technique used in airplanes).

So, why is this route so popular? Well, for starters, the scenery. I haven’t looked up many pictures of Tibet just yet, because I want to be surprised by what I see out of my window. Suffice it to say, however, that the mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rolling plateau make this a feast for the eyes.

The other reason is actually a lot more straightforward: altitude adjustment. While Lhasa definitely has an airport, most travel agencies don’t recommend flying in, simply because it’s more of a shock to the system, and it’s better to let your body adjust to altitude changes slowly. So, most people planning on going to Tibet usually fly into Xining, spend a day or two there, and then train it to Lhasa.

My trip is a little different, because I’ll actually BE in Qinghai to travel for about 10 days. I’ll have more than enough time to adjust to the altitude, and will also get to see Tibetan places with lower traffic. But, in the end, I’m still fighting for the same train ticket as those just milling about Xining for a couple of days.

Hence why I needed help getting the ticket.

I tried to use my own smarts to get the ticket, really. I wanted a hard sleeper because 1) one of the side effects of altitude sickness is sleeplessness, so if you start off a trip with little sleep, that can’t be good, and 2) I’ve gotten a bit pickier about comfort these past few years of travel, and whereas I used to get a hard seat “just for the story” I now fight for a bed because, sleep.

The tickets were available to buy at 3 pm last week. I was ready, finger on the button.

3 pm. All sold out. Immediately.

In my panic, I still booked a hard seat, for fear that nothing would be left at all, but then I remembered that I was buddying up with a travel agency in Tibet, and that they probably had *ways* of getting the coveted sleeper tickets.

I contacted the agency, and they hooked me up with a friend. I asked her how she would be able to get a ticket for a train that was totally sold out. (I believe my words in cobbled Chinese were “Are you Harry Potter or something? Wave of the wand and tickets appear?”)

The person said “We have ways, and I can 95% guarantee you a ticket.”

“Why 95%?” I said.

“Well, that’s just a bit stupid to say 100%, plus we did fail once.” (This “once” was when a group of people all wanted sleeper tickets, all wanted to be in the same compartment, and all wanted it within a week).

I returned my hard seat and left it to the agency (while grumbling about my “failure” to get it by myself, because no one is judgier about methods and tricks of the trail as travelers are). Then I went about my days noodling around our new apartment.

About a week later: “Good news! We got the train you wanted. AND it’s a bottom bed.” (A much-coveted spot where the bed both doubles as a seat and a bed, with your own little bedside table).

 

So there! I guess I don’t need to worry about that anymore, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness (hear that, brain?) While there’s a lot of amazing stuff in Tibet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this train ride was one of the biggest draws for me. I’ve done all classes of trains, I’ve been just about everywhere in China via train, and I’ve even kicked back with some train conductors. It’s only fitting that this be the way I enter Tibet: not on a crooked road, not on a plane, and not on foot. I’ll arrive on the iron line that has led me to so many new places — the iron line that stitches China together.