17 February 2007

Come On Ride That Train, That Choo-choo Train

12:53PM, Day One – We’ve moved out of lush green and into rolling brown hills. It looks a lot like eastern California and southern Nevada. Off to lunch.

4:56PM, Day One – After a surprisingly delicious (and incredibly overpriced) lunch in the dining car, we decided to escape with a movie. Our first choice, A Night At The Museum, only lasted 30 minutes and might have been the worst movie I have ever seen (after Wild Wild West, of course). Our second, Trust The Man, was fantastic. The scenery outside is still baron desert, and Robin is wondering where everyone buys their groceries. The western toilet has been locked (and broken) since this morning. The train ran out of paper towels last night, about an hour after we left. I haven’t seen our bunkmates in six hours. They’re still playing music, only now it’s terrible orchestra music. No cabin fever yet. Still enjoying the downtime, as well as the rhythmic sounds of the train car.

6:39PM, Day One – I awoke from a late evening doze just in time to watch the sun set over the hills in the distance. With it goes our first of two full days on the Beijing-Lhasa express train. From what we can tell there are a total of seven foreigners aboard the train – Robin, myself, and the five French people (one of whom is sleeping in our cabin. I’m doing my best to get into this Peter Hessler book but struggling to feel captivated. Wondering why someone doesn’t want to turn this blog into a tell-all tale of China struggle to escape its past with the hope of conquering its future. Maybe the problem is that they have yet to fully embrace their past, both feudal and Communist. The nature that surrounds us is still brown, dark and depressing. It makes me think of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Robin has said more than once that it reminds her of her trip to the USSR in the early 70s.

7:53PM, Day One – Just got back from dinner in the dining car. Robin is peeing again, for the seventh time today. Apparently our altitude medication – Diamox – is supposed to induce the urge quite frequently. I’ve only peed once today. What’s wrong with me? Eggs and Tomatoes for dinner. Delicious! Robin opted for a peanut butter sandwich. Also scrumptious! The French people have been in the dining car all day. Literally since 9am. They’ve passed most of the time playing Tile Rummy, a favorite of my British grandmother. They’ve also been drinking wine non-stop since noon. They’re currently on their sixth bottle amongst five people. About a dozen beer cans are also littering their two tables. I wonder if anyone has explained the increased effects of alcohol when traveling to high altitudes. Maybe they’re Parisian, in which case nothing phases them. I also realized that I’ve walked approximately 200 yards today in total. Because the train is separated into very distinct sections (soft sleeper, hard sleeper and soft seat) we can only traverse a three-car distance.

8:43PM, Day One - We are now rather adjusted to train life, and routines are already emerging. Every two hours or so the French guy comes in, says “hello,” rustles around in his bag, holds some papers in the air, gives us a half smile (which we return) then leaves again. Our Chinese counterpart is far more interesting. His visits are more infrequent and when he leaves, he disappears. We literally cannot find him. When he pops in he waves and shakes and smiles and nods with a certain intensity that I can’t quite explain. Then he hoists himself into his top bunk without using the foot steps and takes a twenty-minute nap. Afterward he climbs (or rather falls) back down, waves and shakes and smiles and nods, then disappears once more. The music in the hallway continues to blast throughout the train. It seems to be about a six-hour loop, which means I’ve heard Jewel’s “Foolish Games” three times now.

10:03PM, Day One – Train official opens our room door and counts us then disappears without saying a word.

11:23PM, Day One – Robin returns from the bathroom, letting me know that once again the western toilet was locked and had to be opened by special request. This has been the case all day. The women then locks the western toilet after Robin leaves. Confusion.

11:58PM, Day One – A different train official opens our room door and counts us once more, then disappears again without saying a word. Apparently it’s really important to keep track of us.

12:07AM, Day Two – Going to bed. Robin & the French guy have been out for a good half hour. The Tibetan above me is still reading his newspaper.

9:06AM, Day Two – Robin woke me up at 8:45AM, just in time to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains. Overnight our landscape changed dramatically. No more brown desert. All I can see now is endless, soft white hills stretching all the way to the horizon. No breaks. No life. This place is completely baron. I can’t even make out any roads. Just snow. I’m having a little shortness of breath, which makes me think we’re elevating. Off for the usual train sink face washing song and dance number.

12:11PM, Day Two – I’ve just spent the past two hours trying to fix my computer. After a solid hour and a half of writing, nothing would save to the hard drive. Then it told me there wasn’t enough memory and completely froze, forcing me to restart, only to lose all the work I had done since last night. Once again, I hate Apple. I have a lemon and there isn’t a chance in hell that I will accept anything less than a complete replacement once I get back to the US. The scenery transitions back and forth between snow and dirt, with a panoramic hillside acting as a permanent frame off in the distance. Our roommates are nowhere to be seen, which has left us with a nearly private compartment for most of the journey. The train attendant also finally opened the western toilet and left it open. We remain confused as to why they keep locking it! It’s nearly 12:30PM now, which means movie time. Oh how quickly routines form!

3:01PM, Day Two – Just woke up from my post-nap movie. I think we’re starting to travel up. My ears keep popping. Also had our first look at Yak. They’re big and hairy. Delicious! I do plan on eating a Yak burger. The halls are empty. Absolutely no people. For whatever reason it seems that most everyone has resigned themselves to sleeping the day away. Music still blasting in the halls though! Time for some cards.

5:20PM, Day Two – We’re up to our noses in Yaks. Yaks, yaks, everywhere! I’m starting to feel some side effects from the Diamox. My fingers and toes are tingling, which feels rather strange. We just passed 15,000 feet and will make a 3,000 foot descent into Lhasa. For the most part, Robin and I are feeling fine, though Robin said her heart is racing a little bit. The toilets and trash cans have officially been abandoned by the train’s staff. The western toilet has been locked for ten hours and apparently the concept of flushing is just too much for most people, which has left the squatter in complete disarray. Water and bodily fluids slushing everywhere. No toilet paper. Our trashcan is chocker-block full. Haven’t seen the French guy in hours either. My bunkmate has been sitting in the hall ALL DAY, minus his brief afternoon nap. Oh, we also made a stop at this rather large train station located IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. All the foreigners got off to take pictures. It was our first time outside in more than a day and a half. A few people actually disembarked here. We’re now moving into hour 44 and all is well. I would be totally fine with another six days of this. No cell phones ringing, no email to check, no people speaking English…heaven on earth for someone like me, though I guess Tibet is often referred to as the closest thing to heaven…on earth.

5:30PM, Day Two – I just realized I have been wearing the same clothes for 44 hours. This includes my socks and underwear. Little motivation to change my clothes. The French guy has also been wearing the same thing but he’s French, so it is to be expected. Oh my god, am I becoming French? I also haven’t shaved. I don’t even have the slightest desire to change my clothes…or shave. This is definitely not my finest moment.

7:15PM, Day Two – We’re now less than two hours away. Despite the late hour, it’s still light outside. This is due in large part to the fact that the entire country is on the same time (Beijing time obviously, since Beijing is at the center of the universe) which means it gets dark on the east coast at 5:15PM while the western half of the country can stay light as late at 9PM. You can sense the anticipation onboard. The Frenchies have been packing for the past six hours in between drinking bottles of French wine that they actually brought with them. This in spite of the multiple warnings against drinking alcohol at our elevation. Neither Robin nor myself have felt the need to pump in extra oxygen, which is lucky, because no one came around with the equipment. My butt hurts. These beds are great for sleeping but terrible for sitting. Looking forward to a hot shower.

7:27PM – My Tibetan bunkmate just told me my sweatshirt is too small, and he’s sorry about that. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

7:48PM – I just ate my fifth PB&J sandwich in two days. OH MY GOD.

8:02PM – I’m getting antsy, which has left me writing more frequently. We keep passing these train stations in the middle of nowhere. Literally, NOTHING around us and then there’s this big glitzy station. Who’s stopping here?

8:39PM – We just left Lhasa West station, which was absolutely full of chaos. As we pulled in everyone started scrambling. I was wondering if we were supposed to be getting off, but I had been told seven times that we would arrive at 9PM! All of a sudden the train attendant swooped into our room, emptied the trash (about fourteen hours too late), and insisted that we close the curtains because, as he told me in Chinese, “We are in a city. Curtains go closed.” Sense? None! We’re all packed, shoes on. Just waiting to get to the ACTUAL Lhasa central train station. This marks the end of our train journey and oh what a journey it was! More soon…

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