As soon as we were settled in our tiny non-reclining seats facing three Chinese in the row across from us, the reality of the next 24 hours set in. While sleep was essentially out of the question, the experience did end up being masochistically enjoyable. Besides some incredible scenery of the Tibetan Plateau, especially as we were crossing the high passes in the early morning light, we particularly enjoyed the camaraderie that developed in our little seating unit. Everyone shared food, dried yak meat, citrus fruits, and we even got a lesson on the quintessential Chinese time-passing snack of cracking sunflower seeds with our front teeth as the shells piled up on the little tray table between us. We made small talk with the couple across from us. The woman serves in the police force and is not allowed to travel internationally because of it. Her husband was surprised to hear that, as foreigners, we are not allowed to travel in the Tibet "Autonomous" Region (the official misnomer for what is commonly called Tibet) without special permits, a predetermined itinerary, and a guide. Then he surprisingly emphasized, especially given his wife's profession, "I hate the government!" In contrast to us, they were headed to the TAR like so many other Chinese without an itinerary, free to do as they please.
Since the completion of the high-speed rail line to Lhasa in 2006, Tibet has become a trendy national vacation destination for middle and upper class Han. The situation is comparable to Americans traveling to Hawaii for the beautiful scenery and exposure to an exotic culture, one where the cultural fabric is certainly faded and tattered but not totally torn apart from being forcibly brought under the rule of a superpower. Likewise, it seems the vast majority of Chinese tourists arrive to Tibet with about the same level of awareness of historical context and concern as vacationing Americans have for the perspective of native Hawaiians, which is to say: not much. Tragically, the Chinese stranglehold on Tibet gives it about the same odds as Hawaii has in obtaining native sovereignty. This reality is not lost on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has, in fact, advocated for a Buddhist-inspired "middle path" solution since 1989, whereby Tibet would accept certain aspects of governance from China such as foreign and military affairs in exchange for autonomy in matters of spirituality, education, and the environment. Chinese politicians simply denounce his plan of compromise as an example of perpetuating "splittism," defined as pursuance of factional interests in opposition to official Communist Party policy.
The train itself attracts travelers who wish to experience a ride on the highest rail line in the world. Eighty six percent of the line is above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) and if that is not impressive enough, it also crosses a 5,000-meter (16,400-foot) pass. Supplemental oxygen is piped in to each rail car to ease the risk of altitude sickness. The train is lauded as an engineering marvel, requiring great ingenuity to successfully cross huge stretches of permafrost that make of half of the route. Frequent cooling pipes driven deep into the ground alongside the track stick out like tall fence posts minus a fence between them, effectively keeping the permafrost frozen year round. According to Lonely Planet, this achievement came at the absurd cost of $4.1 billion dollars, which is a greater sum than China has spent on hospitals and schools in Tibet over the last fifty years!
Then why was it so important to force a high-tech train across the inhospitable Tibetan plateau? As always, it is about politics. In an intriguing book we read called China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet, the point was driven home that in addition to allowing increased military presence near the disputed borders with India, a rail line inextricably links Lhasa to Beijing. The train encourages not just Chinese tourists, but the settlement of Chinese in Tibet, especially when coupled with favorable tax breaks and salary incentives for them. The officials claim that this facilitates necessary economic development of the region, but the result is a Chinafied Tibet were the wealth largely recirculates within the Chinese community and Tibetans are intentionally excluded from opportunities.
So then why were we supporting this phenomenon by arriving on the train? We might have ridden our bikes to Lhasa, but of course, that's not allowed...unless you are Chinese. Even if non-Chinese tourists have to arrive by train or plane (or risk the consequences of sneaking in overland), His Holiness the Dalai Lama encourages foreigners to travel to the region as a means of building awareness and inspiring action. In the preface of the latest Lonely Planet Tibet guidebook, he writes, "At a time when many people are not clear about what is actually happening in Tibet, I am very keen to encourage whoever has the interest to go there and see for themselves. Their presence will not only instill a sense of reassurance in the Tibetan people, but will also exercise a restraining influence on the Chinese authorities. What's more, I am confident that once they return home they will be able to report openly on what they have seen and heard...[As] more people visit Tibet, the numbers of those who support the justice of a peaceful solution will grow." With the blessing of the Dalai Lama, we felt that our presence in Tibet was justified, despite arriving on the controversial train.
At each stop approaching Lhasa, the ratio of tourists to real live Tibetans began to balance out and the train got even more "cozy." A Tibetan man took an interest in our binoculars and offered to buy them. Although we declined his proposal, our banter managed to attract the attention of half the rail car who surrounded us as we then progressed to comparing IPhones (his was newer), sharing photos, and practicing some Tibetan pronunciation. Meanwhile, he completely ignored his poor wife as a very drunk Tibetan man passed out on her! Once Matt and a few others dragged him back over to his own space, we were offered some treats she had made, clumpy noodles added to yogurt that were quite tasty, and multiple rounds of dried yak cheese, which was about like chewing on a fossilized dirty sock.
As the train pulled into the Lhasa station, we said goodbye to our travel companions, all of us going our separate ways. The Tibetan couple was coming to the big city to sell yarchagumba, nicknamed Himalayan Viagra, a bizarre organism coveted for its aphrodisiac properties as well as its ability to cure ailments ranging from asthma to hepatitis to hair loss. Although I could never afford to test its efficacy myself, since it fetches around $10,000 per pound, I have developed a slight fascination with it. A brief summary to pique your curiosity as well: The ghost moth larvae burrows into moist soil at high altitudes where a specific fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) infects it and essentially mummified it. The fungus then pushes a single grass-like blade to the surface where a hard-searching soul spies it and feels the exhilaration of striking gold.
Although we did not know it at the time, sadly our conversations with the outgoing Tibetan couple on the train would be our most in-depth and genuine interaction with people of a traditional lifestyle on the entire trip. The Chinese couple kindly helped us unload our panniers and bicycles in a rush to get off the train, then we followed our bad-ass solo cyclist mentor to pay a fee of approximately 25 dollars imposed at the last minute for excess baggage. Apparently, we three were simply unlucky with our timing. Usually the charge is not enforced by train staff, but a supervisor spied our wheels and decided to assert his authority. A fitting welcome to Tibet in keeping with the theme of obsessive control!