6 mins

Heaven and hell on the Z21 to Lhasa

As conditions on his train deteriorate, unexpected kindness reminds Matthew Woodward that the best experiences often come from the bad.

Trouble on the Z21 to Lhasa (Matthew Woodward)

Conditions on the Z21 to Lhasa have taken a turn for the worse. The toilet are backed up and my compartment smells like stale urine. The air is very dry and I sleep in fits, waking up with a dry mouth and eyes. A small boy in the compartment next door kicks and screams through the night. For the first time on my journey I wish I was somewhere else. 

An old boss used to say to me that the darkest moment of the night is just before dawn and I must admit I felt considerably better when we reached Zhongwei. Just as the sun rose. I pulled myself together and listened to te train’s dawn chorus: the man next door singing at the top of his voice, the lady with the trolley passing by shouting ‘Breakfast!’ in Chinese, the endless chirruping of phone and text ringtones. It's all about the experience, I reminded myself.

Having said that, there are some very good things about this train. The air conditioning is set to a sensible temperature – about 21C. The ride is very, very smooth. At some points in the night I could not even feel movement. And lastly, it feels an authentic, long-distance Chinese "Z" train. I am on the edge of my comfort zone, but that is where I get a lot of personal satisfaction.

Food for sale in Zhongwei (Matthew Woodward)

Jenny leaves the train at Lanzhou, but the couple down below are travelling with me all the way to Lhasa. They are very nice and insist that they share their food with me, including a regular shot of ‘health medicine’, sucked up through a straw. I hope no endangered species has been involved in producing it, but have no way of telling.

On the platform at Lanzhou there is quite a bit for sale. One woman is selling what looks like flatbread stuffed with fried chicken, but I dare not risk it. A stomach upset at altitude would be seriously debilitating. Instead I score some nectarines and hang out with the locals, who are very friendly. They all insist on having their photo taken with me, and I oblige with a genuine desire to set a good impression as the only foreigner travelling on the train travelling through their remote province.

The landscape outside the train is getting wilder and more dramatic. I sit for a few hours in the restaurant car drinking green tea, looking out across the steep bare mountains and huge flood plains. Everything starts to feel good again. Like any adventure, the negatives are quickly forgotten and it is the positives that become lasting memories.

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Matthew Woodward has completed several amazing long distance rail adventures using the Trans-Siberian railway and onward across Asia. From from his home in Edinburgh he has reached Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and is now headed for Tibet. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures.

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