Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Train T24 to Chengdu

Saturday 29 May: From Lhasa's sympathetically designed Tibetan-style station the unimaginatively named train T24 (52nd mode of transport) departs promptly at 1:10pm for the 43-hour journey to Chengdu in Sichuan province. I take my place in a comfortable four-berth soft sleeper cabin. As oxygen is pumped in to the slightly pressurised carriage I settle down to enjoy the Tibetan Plateau. Higher than 13,000ft for most of its length and topping 16,640ft at the Tibet-Sichuan border this is the world's highest railway.
I'm joined by Dan and Nicola from Manchester and we relax, mesmerised by the spectacular scenery and vast emptiness flowing past. High mountains with bright sharp snow capped peaks, vast turquoise lakes, isolated huts and tented farmsteads, remote villages - a few with petrol stations, the occasional truck. Yaks, Sheep and Goats feed on the sparse pasture. Smiling Yak herders wave and the occasional Gazelle runs for nonexistent cover. A giant hawk swoops overhead briefly filling the train window. We are two days, at least, away from the sprawling high-rise blocks of Chinese cities - I have never seen such isolation.
Only half-a-dozen train guards are using the restaurant car for lunch, one of whom speaks a little English, so I order pork with rice. What arrives is finely sliced pork fat with rind and a handfull of green beans sitting in a bed of hot orange coloured grease plus a small bowl of steamed rice - I'm hungry and eat it all - 33 yuans worth (about £3.30).
The train has a futuristic feel - plush spacious berths each with a TV monitor that doesn't work. It's mid-afternoon and most of the passengers are sleeping, eating snacks or smoking in the toilets.
For dinner I ask for something small, vegetable fried rice is suggested. I say "okay" and a set meal appears - clear soup, a big upturned basin of rice speckled with unnamed meat plus side dishes of pickles and Chinese leaf. All for just 28 yuan (about £2.80). A can of warm watery Snow beer with Dan and it's bedtime.
Sunday 30: The mountains have utterly vanished, in their place is light brown desert. It's a set breakfast of tasteless rice porridge, fried egg, fried peanuts, a steamed white bun and some sinister looking pickles.
More industrial now, towns and small patchworks of rice fields flash by. It's a dull, grey and drizzly day. On this, like most train journeys, you see the best of the countryside and the worst of the urban areas. I lay in bed and finish the last section of Paul Theroux's 1988 travelogue Riding the Iron Rooster - The Train to Tibet chapter - his journey sounds dreadful. The comfortable T24 glides effortlessly along the highest railway track in the world and gently rocks me to sleep - it opened in 2006.
Pictures of train T24 and the Tibetan Plateau.

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