The Road to Tibet – Day 1

Well, here we are on Train T164 to Lhasa, Car 5, Compartment 8, Berths 29, 30, 31 and 32. Yes, we bought all four berths so that we would not have to share them with anyone. We don’t know what this makes us – other than a couple who don’t want to spend a couple of days and night with strange foods and smells.  We actually looked up a few words to see if we were prejudiced, bigoted or racist. (Ed. note: Apparently, none of the above, just wise)

There were, however, a couple of times today we weren’t sure we were going to make it at all. Even though we had lots of time and said nothing to the taxi driver about missing the train, he drove like we were in a big hurry – passing on a double yellow line into oncoming traffic, running a couple of red lights, and zipping in and out of lanes with centimeters to spare. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but even I was a little twitchy!

We are actually in the last evening before the National holiday so today we saw only a hint of what the train stations, subways and sidewalks will look like when the largest migration of humans on earth begins tomorrow.  We headed to Jiaxing Nan early, not knowing how crowded and slow it might be, but it was fine.   We easily boarded our train to Shanghai Hongqiao, then took the subway downtown to the Shanghai Train Station.  People were streaming into the building, organized into neat rows in which they more or less stayed.  What a building: HUGE, multi-leveled and fantastically organized into waiting rooms that separated the masses into manageable groups.  We were in Room 1, up an escalator and down a staircase and had the pick of seats when we arrived at 5:30 but by 6:45, the place was jammed.  Standees only.

Hey - I'm sleepin' here!

Hey – I’m sleepin’ here!

Even the sleepy Tibetan, who was stretched out on 4 seats, got squeezed.  People nudged his feet to one side so they could rest their poor dogs for awhile.  As the only whites in the place we were conspicuous— how was it the guard knew to come and check our papers for a visa.? Then it was simply ‘elbows up’ and flow with the crowd to our car.

And here we are, coming in to our first stop at Wuxi.  We’ve just passed a complex of at least 20 huge and vacant apartment towers.  How and why do they keep building these?  I fervently hope there are none in Lhasa!

Shanghai to Lhasa: 48 hours 41 minutes, 2693 miles, 10 stops totalling 2 hours 10 minutes. Click on map to enlarge it.

Shanghai to Lhasa: 47 hours 40 minutes, 2693 miles, 10 scheduled stops totalling 2 hours 10 minutes innumerable unscheduled stops totalling who knows how long. Click on map to enlarge it.

(Ed. Note: Ahh The romance of train travel. The screeching brakes as you enter a station, the tv screens coming on and no way to know how to turn them off, the conductor unlocking the door three or four times, just to check we are still here, I guess, the “soft” sleeper – even with two sleeping pads still not quite “soft” , the conductor coming around yet again to try and get two more people into our empty but paid for berths. Yes, and this was just night one! The next time Geoff suggests train travel, someone, ANYONE slap him upside the head. PLEASE!! On the other hand, a train trip across China only costs $216 for a lower berth or $200 for an upper berth).

Xi'an - population 9 million in 2005.

Xi’an – population 9 million in 2005.

We have just left Xi’an. This compilation of photos is of apartment buildings under construction or finished but empty. These five photos are all of different complexes – but taken within one minute of each other as the train whistled down the track. Xi’an is the home of the terra cotta warriors. It is a walled city where all of the inhabitants are being moved out of the main old city to the suburbs – likely the aforementioned apartments, in order that the old part may be rebuilt.

We have been awake for 4 and a half hours and have travelled about 300 miles in that time. We have finally finished with cities, fields and small towns – constant evidence of civilization. Okay, I am a liar. Just as I write this, a small village/farming community appears. I wonder if we will ever leave it behind for more than a few minutes at a time?

For about three hours we traveled through a series of perhaps 30 -50 tunnels –taking anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 or 4 minutes to get through. Alongside us is a highway with tunnels as well – and one going in each direction. I can’t imagine what it would have cost to build this railroad/highway. (Ed. Note: Terry tells me the railway has cost $4.1 billion and growing as it is extended to Shiagatse) China, we are discovering, runs on trains. There are a phenomenal number of passenger and freight trains on the tracks. Rarely do you go more than 10 or 15 minutes without one passing going the other way (well, you couldn’t pass one going the same way, could you.) You frequently cross other tracks and some stations have 10 or more tracks running through them.  We have passed container lifts, which we are more used to seeing along a river or inlet to load product onto boats, but in this area, the loads are on to trains.

I am kicking my self for leaving our Lonely Planet China guide book at home.  It is so heavy that I just copied the pages for Lhasa and the other places we are going in Tibet.  Now I wish I had it so I could look up the river that we are travelling along.  We are surrounded by naturally terraced hillsides made of sandstone, by the look of them, and evidence of constant erosion is everywhere.  The river looks like liquid mud and it is dotted with the remains of several washed out bridges.  Where we can see the highway, there are many spots where the hillside above has dropped away in great sheets.  There is lots of activity along the water way and we are guessing they are harvesting both rock and mud from the river in order to make brick and other building supplies. Terms from high school geography come to mind as I am certain we are in the basin of a huge meandering river, which has coated the lowlands with fine alluvial soil.  It is crazy mad farm land.   Earlier we passed acres and acres of orchards—apples for sure and a few other types.  Now we are well into an area devoted to truck farming:  corn, greens, winter vegetables, grapes.  They do not farm like we do on the prairies; all of it is on relatively small plots, but it has gone on for several hours.  The farther away we move from the mountains the wider the fields.

We saw lots of dredging going on - the rivers were all quite shallow.

We saw lots of dredging going on – the rivers were all quite shallow.

The rivers were also all very dirty. Perhaps due to the shallowness, but I don't really know.

The rivers were also all very dirty. Perhaps due to the shallowness, but I don’t really know.

Although there were lots of terraced hillsides, they all seem to have fallen into disrepair. All the farming was being done in strips at lower elevations.

Although there were lots of terraced hillsides, they all seem to have fallen into disrepair. All the farming was being done in strips at lower elevations.

The sun was beginning to go down - quite lovely.

The sun was beginning to go down – quite lovely.

Apparently, the government’s plans are to change the ratio of people living in the country to the city.  Right now it is 2/3s to 1/3.  If that is reversed, who will grow all this food?  It does explain the need for the millions of new apartments, however.

As hoped, the weather is clear and the farther we have gone from the coast the bluer the sky has become.   Our compartment is air-conditioned and too cold for me but it is probably a good thing because we can look outside and see that people are dressed for warm weather.  Geoff would have gone up in flames by now.

Our cozy little home for two days and nights. There is no observation car, lounge car etc. This is it.

Our cozy little home for two days and nights. There is no observation car, lounge car etc. This is it.

Even the tour company suggests you bring your own food. We will take a shot though, with this stuff and some fruit to fall back on if necessary.

Even the tour company suggests you bring your own food. We will take a shot though, with this stuff and some fruit to fall back on if necessary.

8 thoughts on “The Road to Tibet – Day 1

  1. David

    What a great adventure! not quite the romance of the Orient express, mind you Geoff is there and he has romance for all. Enjoy your travel on National Holiday!

    Reply
  2. kenrhaycock

    One of the many things that impressed me about China last year was the investment in infrastructure when times are good. The new train stations built at the edge of cities, e.g. as a positive spin, they seem not keep social spending on an even level (no wild swings in school spending, e.g., like here) and invest in the future (apartment shells, train stations, airports, etc.).

    Reply
  3. pkintzinger

    Now those look like healthy wholesome snacks! What a great adventure. I do love a train trip! Looking forward to more.

    Reply
  4. lois marsden

    We saw a very interesting documentary either on 60 Minutes or Fifth Estate on China’s massive building especially on the multitude of EMPTY apartments etc as you noted. The reason they are empty is two fold: few can afford them and those that do are investing in the real estate…the nouveau riche…and watching the prices escalate as the bidding increases but few are living in them and are surrounded by massive roads with few vehicles. Obviously this depends on where you are in China…but very interesting to watch the people bid on the apartments with no intention of living there. Do I sense a bubble in production?

    Reply
    1. tdwatt23 Post author

      Interesting stuff. The government has passed a law that no longer allows people to buy a second apartment for “speculation” purposes, only to live in. Also, only one person, our guide when we went to Guilin, has said anything about a bubble. He thinks one is there and going to burst sooner rather than later. No one else says anything – even if they might think it.

      Reply

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