Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lhasa Express

After 3 nights in Lhasa it was time to board the train and take the 48 hour ride back to Beijing. We were sorry that we had spent all of our time in the city of Lhasa and hadn’t had the chance to go out into the countryside. The white-water rafting is supposed to be incredible. But you can’t do everything.

We did have some very unique experiences though, and I would go back in a minute. The food was very good – lots of Indian influence with curries and nan bread. The Tibetans love their yak, and we found it everywhere. In restaurants, on every menu (mmmmm yak butter tea, yak curry, and yak milkshakes – yes the kids each had one). In the temples they burn yak butter in big vats with lots of wicks like an enormous candle, as an offering to Buddha. Worshippers bring yak butter to add to the vat, or sacks of it to leave as offerings as well.

Also at this altitude there are only a few crops that will grow well. Barley is one of them, and you find it in everything, from the beer, to the restaurant menu, to the Buddhist alters. Right next to the vat of burning yak butter and strewn around the floor, were little grains of barley.

But now to the train….48 hours, 5 people, in one sleeper car (5.6 ft by 6.5 ft) with 4 bunks. The restaurant car was right next to our berth and was foggy with smoke and echoing with snorting, horking smokers. Forget the idea that the train is just another way for China to colonize and occupy Tibet, I am a firm believer that the train is evil for it’s assault on the olfactory senses.

There were 2 toilets for every 6 berths – bring your own toilet paper. One was a squatter and one was a normal toilet. Trust me; the squatter was the better option. Yes, even on a jerking, lurching train with slippery floors. You never want to put your most delicate of delicates in contact with a surface like the one presented by the normal toilet. I’m still having nightmares.

This train, the highest in the world, reached an altitude of 16,500 ft. (I know this because I am married to “gadget boy” who spent a good amount of time illegally hanging his hand and a GPS out the window.) They passed out oxygen masks, which we used more because they were cool looking than because we felt sick. All of our ipods quit working at around 16,000 feet - though thankfully, worked again once we got below 10,000 ft.

We met some very cool people on this trip, and saw the most stunning scenery. And that made the trip worth doing…..once.

There were lots of young, free-spirit backpacker types, and older couples, usually teachers, traveling around for several weeks or months. It was fascinating to hear all of their stories. There was Simone a geography teacher from South Africa and Jessica from the US living and teaching English in a Coastal town in Southern China.

There was a young man we didn’t meet but whose story we heard as we saw him walk by in the dining car. He had been camping in the Himalayas and got separated from the rest of his group. He wandered around lost for 6 days before he was rescued. He looked a bit dazed, and still had black marks around his mouth where he’s suffered sun and wind burn, and probably frostbite.

We made a connection with Peter, a young man from Texas, newly engaged (at the ripe old age of 21) and studying in China for the next two years. He lives in Beijing and we spent our last night in China hanging out with him. He helped Mike buy a guitar, took us to lunch at a great restaurant, and showed us the bar district in Beijing where we had a deep fried – inside-out fish. It was delicious.

Uncomfortable, yes. Smelly, more than a bit. But an intensely unique experience – one I will wear as a badge of honor.

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