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Elevated Emus

As the train raced higher and higher across the Tibetan plateau I felt like a child on Christmas Eve. I knew before long I would be stepping off into one of the most magical places in the world. It had certainly been a labour of love orchestrating our trip, but we knew it would be worth it. Our journey from Chengdu was to take over 40 hours in total as we had to travel north to Xining in Qinghai province, and then south-west into Tibet. Every foreign tourist has to be part of a prearranged tour group in order to enter the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, and one is also dependent on the chosen company to book train tickets, as Chinese touts buy them all as soon as they go on sale and they are then sold on to tour companies at an inflated price. Myself, Hazell and Erik, our Dutch travel companion, had set off with only the tickets for the first leg of our trip from Chengdu to Xining. On arrival in Xining we were to ring our contact Kate who would tell us where and from whom we would collect our onward tickets to Lhasa; our other group member Joe was travelling from Beijing and would meet us in Lhasa.

We were in Xining by midday and Hazell and I were still laughing at the sign in the train toilets. One squatted and held on to the handrail, only to be confronted with a sign which read, ‘No Flushing While Meeting Emu’, a cryptic message which ensured we returned to the toilet with unusual regularity. On the journey we also conversed with a Chinese boy and his mother who wanted to be our tour guides in Xining, but unfortunately we wouldn’t be staying long enough to accept the offer. I did however discover that the young boy had not yet been given an English name, a common practice in China often undertaken by teachers. I asked him if he would like one and he offered an affirmative gesture; I thought long and hard and proclaimed ‘I hereby name you Peter.’ In hindsight I could have given a little more consideration to the ceremony. Poor boy.

We were duly informed that our onward train was not until 7.30pm, and our tickets would be delivered in person at 6pm. We spent the day in the local Muslim tea houses, slurping cups of green tea piled high with dried fruits and consuming endless dumplings. Xining seemed to have an intriguing mix of Han Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims, and we all vowed to spend more time here if we return to China. 6pm arrived and there was no sign of the tickets, so we called the tour company and were told the train had been delayed on it’s journey from Shanghai until 10.30pm, so our man was coming later. It was beginning to feel like an extremely shady drug deal. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful evening and the air was crisp and refreshing at this higher altitude; a welcome change from the oppressive, grey smog of Chengdu. I made use of the time by crossing the tracks and strolling around the small community on the opposite side. People were huddled around games of chess, while a multitude of outdoor pool tables lined the dirt road, the green baize standing out prominently within the muted colours of the evening sun.

I arrived back at the station forecourt and ‘our man’ soon appeared; at least we thought he was ‘our man’. He didn’t speak a word of English and showed us a photocopy of train tickets from Shanghai to Lhasa. We were slightly concerned at this point, but after speaking to Kate again we deciphered what was going on. The train did indeed originate from Shanghai; our role was to jump onboard and replace three other people when they left the train at Xining. We would therefore not physically have our tickets until we arrived in Lhasa, as the Chinese operate a system where the passenger swaps their ticket for a card on embarkation and it is returned on arrival. This is presumably to stop people like us from duping the system via an elaborate scheme of swapping cards with previous passengers. The whole process is an accepted part of the service to Lhasa, and everyone from the front desk to the ticket inspector seemed to be in on it.

Our tout excelled in looking shady; his favourite position involved facing the wall in shadowed corners while manipulating two mobile phones. As the train pulled in he leapt into action and pushed his way to the front of every queue possible. We duly ran down the platform after him, were given the relevant boarding card, and jumped aboard, hopping over a Chinese woman who had fallen flat on her face in a pile of wet garbage in the process. It was quite a relief to relax in our (previously occupied) beds, safe in the knowledge we were finally on our way to Lhasa. Above my head an oxygen outlet protruded from the wall, a pertinent reminder that the altitudes we would be reaching were no joke.

It was magical to wake in the morning and view the Tibetan Plateau out of the window. The surroundings were becoming increasingly arid and large, jagged peaks began to rise towards a lucid, blue sky. We rose higher and higher, culminating in a pass at 5,600m above sea level. The Majestic Namtso lake then came into view; the TAR’s largest, which seems to stretch forever towards the horizon. The crystal clear surface acts as a mirror to the sky, highlighting the fluffy clouds which manifest in incredible definition at this altitude. As we rumbled onwards, a contrived commentary blared from the tannoy in both Chinese and English, and all the passengers were becoming increasingly excited. 2500 Han Chinese reportedly enter Tibet on the train every day, many on a one way journey. The line has become an artery pumping increasing numbers into the heart of Lhasa, but in the eyes of the Chinese, Tibet is merely another province of China, unrestricted to the inhabitants of the People’s Republic.

The train pulled in at the station, South West of the main city and we received our redundant tickets from the guard. We were greeted by our Tibetan tour guide Tenzin, who placed white scarfs around our neck as a welcoming gesture. We were then greeted by a Chinese officer who needed to check our permits. All was well and we jumped in our car and headed for central Lhasa. The sun was dipping behind the mountains and to the west we caught our first view of the majestic Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lamas. It sits perched on the hillside, a monument to a Tibetan past that echoes across the city of Lhasa and welcomes the privileged few.

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