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A Train Ride through 4 Provinces


The deep blue sky glimmers. Snow kisses the mountain heights. The passengers settle into their various compartments as the train promptly departs. For me, this departure signifies my sixth from the Tibetan capital aboard a train. For my wife Andi, this is her second trip. Our final destination is Chengdu; a forty-five hour journey, covering 2087 miles, awaits.

The first five hours prove the most scenic. We, along with many of our fellow passengers, fix our eyes on the Tibetan plateau outside the window. Mountains towering over 20,000 feet stay fixed in the view despite the train’s speed. Countless yaks fill the broad, otherwise barren, valleys. The only other signs of life are the occasional nomad or village.

The train gradually, but steadily, climbs higher. By hour four, the train pulls into its first stop, having gained roughly 3000 feet of elevation. I step out into the thin, frigid air while Andi remains in the warmth of the train. A handful of passengers disembark. Throwing their bags over their shoulders, they set off into the rugged landscape. The train lingers for only minutes at this remote outpost. The hardest portion of the journey lies ahead.

Andi and I now turn our attention inside. Our sleeper car holds twenty compartments, each containing four beds.

A lone Chinese woman joins us in our berth, but she has shown little interest in chatting since we first greeted her. A fourth passenger never claims the remaining bed. Long before boarding, Andi and I had talked about how wonderful it would be if people who speak the language we have been studying would share our compartment. Although that didn't happen, there are several who speak that dialect residing in other berths of our car. At various points throughout the journey, Andi and I are able to interact with them all.

For now, we just relax and further settle in. I turn my attention to a book; Andi to a coloring project. Many passengers nap. The landscape flattens out, masking the fact that the elevation continues to climb. The tranquility within the train insulates the us and our fellow passengers from the harsh environment outside. Subzero temperatures, breathtaking altitudes, and bitter winds make this stretch uninhabitable.

As the sun sets, Andi and I focus on dinner. Although we could eat a meal sold from a cart wheeled through the train or in the dining car, we opt for a cheaper alternative—various snacks and instant noodles, made possible by convenient boiled water dispensers, standard in every train car. Some conversation, several rounds of a card game, and a nightly hygiene regimen later, Andi and I, along with most other passengers, settle into bed. During the night, the train makes it way through the 16,640 foot high Tanggula pass, the highest point on the journey, home to the highest train station in the world. From that point, the train chugs downhill. Unfortunately, due to high altitude and the train’s motion, the night stresses Andi’s stomach.

We sleep through the 8:02 am stop at Xining, the first major population center since Lhasa. The shimmering blue sky has disappeared, replaced, instead, with a dull gray, the combination of air-pollution and overcast skies. Slowly, we rouse themselves, the journey halfway complete. Andi nurses her stomach back to health while I make coffee. Soon I’m chatting with several of our fellow Tibetan-speaking travelers. The conversation lasts around an hour—exhausting my limited vocabulary.

The train arrives in Gansu province, a major crossroad of the historic Silk Road, an ancient land, characterized by dust and sand, where the Great Wall’s relentless push westward from China’s coast terminates. Generations of farming communities have cultivated every arable inch of this seemingly unproductive land, evidenced by the endless terraced mountains that pass by outside the train’s window.

The dusty landscape stays unchanged for the next eight hours. With only two stops following Xining, one at 11:40 am and the other at 7:50 pm, the passengers find numerous ways to pass the time. Some catch up on sleep while others engage in rowdy rounds of cards with fellow passengers. Some turn their attention to movies on their smart phones while others stare out the window for hours, lost in thought. Andi and I fill the day with a mixture of reading, language study, conversation, napping, eating, and games as the train chugs onward into Shaanxi province.

After the 7:50 pm stop, the train’s northeastward push ends. It finally turns south for Sichuan province. Andi and I settle into our second night of sleep. Blessedly, we sleep through the night undisturbed.

At 7:30 am, a staff member awakens the passengers to return the tickets she collected almost two days earlier. The sun rises on a flat but green landscape. Just north of Chengdu, in the heart of Sichuan province, we barely have enough time to rub the sleep from our eyes and gather up our things before the train pulls into Chengdu’s central station.

Header image credit: Tanggula Railway Station by Bernt Rostad via Flickr.
Text image credit: 100_5286 by J via Flickr. 

Jason Odell

When Jason Odell first arrived in China five years ago, his discovery of the country's ethnic diversity shocked him.  His piqued interest led him to teach English in a unique region of China for three years.  He, along with his wife, currently live in Southwest China and have started to... View Full Bio