By: Airis Lin

China’s vaunted high-speed train covers almost 4500 km from Shanghai to Lhasa in just 48 hours, one of the fastest long-distance train journeys in the world, hauling 863 passengers across the roof of the world.

But there is another train to the Tibetan capital, a 4980 km journey from Guangzhou that passes through 10 cities and terrain that stretches from the rice paddies of the Pearl River Delta to the high plains of the Tibetan Plateau. It is that train that seemed more interesting, an almost 53 hour journey that takes its passengers through some of the most varied scenery on earth, from sea level to 4,000 meters before descending to 3,700 meters at Lhasa, a strong recipe for possible altitude sickness.

Buying tickets is problematical. They are available online from a website, 12306.com, but they are often sold out, so it’s advisable to buy as long as two to three weeks beforehand to ensure they are available.

The train’s cars are divided into three classes, first class featuring soft sleeper berths. The second has hard sleeper berths and third class requires you to sit up. No berths. Prices for single trip tickets go from RMB1500 per person in first class, RMB900 in second class and RM450 for a seat.

Enduring nearly 5,000 km in a third-class seat is difficult enough. But it can turn into real torture. Third-class cars allow passengers to stand so some passengers bring their own stools or sit on their luggage — or just stand.

“The trains are always crowded, it is not easy to walk around or take a fresh breath,” said a Chinese passenger, Hui-yao. Making matters worse, the lights are never off, making sleep difficult, even sitting down. “People on the train used to strew rubbish but they seem to have learned. It is a rare case now,” she added.

Almost every student has been exposed to a satirical story by the Chinese novelist Lao She about trains in China, exaggerating – but not too much – the loathsome behavior of a Chinese passenger who picks his nose, spits on the floor, snores and shouts loudly. The story vividly reflects the color of train life in China at that time. They have grown somewhat better in the decades since Lao She wrote the story.

Despite the Spartan life in third class, there are still advantages. It is easier to make friends on a long and otherwise boring trip – even the spectacular scenery palls on a trip that takes two and a half days. Morever, the difficulty gives passengers a chance to develop camaraderie, the opportunity for people to cooperate by giving a helping hand.

As the train travels across half of China from the east to the west there are dramatic temperature differences between day and night.

“Many times, strangers put on their coats on me whenever I didn’t wear enough,” said Qiu Ming-Li. Not for me. I went first-class.

Some 2,600 km into the journey, passengers change to the Qingai-Tibet railway at the Xining railway station in the second night. At that point, passengers are hauled breathlessly into the sky, averaging an altitude of about 4,000 meters in a truly attractive train, a classic carriage dark green outside with horizontal thick yellow stripes, inside with dim yellow lamplight and Iranian-style carpets on the floor.

The sleeper rooms feature clean blankets, a water bowl and even a flower vase on the little table near the window. Outside the room, the rinsing area is separated from the toilet and there is a tiny dining room that features traditional Chinese dishes which passengers can choose to take away or enjoy in the dining room.

Attendants’ voices are ubiquitous, selling drinks, toys, newspapers, magazine and fruit – whose prices decrease from time to time. 

Once, bored, I went into the dining room which was empty except for the attendants and the conductors, who allowed me to sit for a while as they chatted when suddenly one of the female attendants said she would refuse to do favors for the others but that she would not harm anyone – which is a typical Chinese attitude. It is suggestive of a story spreading across China about a man who helped to an elderly woman to her feet, only to have her tell others he had pushed her to the ground and demanded compensation. It is a story that reflects a widespread attitude on the part of man Chinese that even if they want to help, they fear trouble. 

Eventually, the train climbed onto the great green plateau, giving passengers a view of yaks and lambs munching away at the grass. I eventually tired of that, waiting for my long journey to end, eventually rolling into Lhasa, where incongruously enough one of my first sights was of a Ferris wheel. It is a city redolent of the smell of pine and cypress, which the residents burn with butter and hull-less barley. It is called “wei sang,” sang a word meaning to clean, clarify and dispel. Tibetans believe they must cleanse before worshipping the Buddha. That scent of “wei sang” is everywhere near the famous monasteries.

Airis Lin is an Asia Sentinel summer intern.