Wanderlust sets out to experience the bleak beauty of the Tanggula Pass in Tibet by hitching a ride on the world's highest railway line
For the thousands of tourists whose initial experience of Tibet now comes as they lounge on first-class bunks or gasp on oxygen piped in through the backs of their seats, it is easy to forget that the images sliding past the train’s heated compartments belong to a land that is truly a place of extremes.
Outside, the barren landscapes of the Changtang, Tibet’s northern plateau, offer a reality that is – by far – harsher, colder, higher and wilder than the world they have just left. As bleak as it is beautiful, the Changtang offers one of Asia’s most hostile environments this side of the Arctic Circle. And, as I found, getting an up-close view of the Changtang from a perspective that does not involve peering through a double-glazed window is an exercise fraught with difficulty and a little danger.
We set out from Lhasa, in the weeks just after the opening of the new line in July, to make our way by any means we could to one of its wildest, least accessible parts: the Tanggula Pass. At more than 5,000m, the Tanggula is not only the new railway’s highest physical point – the highest point of all the world’s railways – it also lies in one of the coldest parts of Tibet, where winter temperatures commonly plunge to -35C and stay there for months at a time. Even in summer, blizzards here are not uncommon, and the high, rolling terrain is constantly exposed to a biting wind that sweeps in from the north.
But the road to the Tanggula is difficult not just because it is so remote, and not even because of the bureaucratic morass of travel permits, guides and hired land cruisers that independent travel in Tibet involves. In this case, a healthy dose of communist paranoia, combined with a not-implausible fear that the line might be blown up by disaffected Tibetans, has led authorities to ban foreign travellers along most parts of the railway. With strategic points also attended by less-than-friendly police and army guards, getting to the top of the world promised to be a tricky endeavour.
Tricky, but not impossible.
Because the Lhasa railway is geared for local as well as long-distance travel, some 15 small stations are scattered along the track between Lhasa and Golmud, the starting point of the new line. Getting off at Nagchu, a dusty cowboy town about 300km north of Lhasa, we hit the road, hitch-hiking with a couple of Chinese railway engineers who had been working the line for the past five years.
Their job now mostly done, they were day-tripping to the mountains in their battered official van on a quest for the snow lotus, a rare high-altitude wildflower prized in China for its medicinal qualities. Collecting the flowers is illegal, but this means nothing out here. “We can make a killing if we find any,” our driver told us, “the locals don’t know how much they’re worth.”
Supply, it turned out, was not a problem. As the road wound upwards to the top of the pass (in this case the ‘other’ Tanggula, the one used by the Tibet-Qinghai Highway) the landscape fell away to reveal a high, broad valley, studded with turquoise lakes and ringed with glaciated peaks.
Perched along the roadside, Tibetan nomads hawked burlap sacks filled with unidentifiable bits of animals or plants. One, a leather-skinned, gap-toothed old man approached us, in his hand a felt pouch filled with antler horns clipped from the carcasses of the endangered Tibetan antelope. Starting price for this precious piece of fauna: Y130 – or just under £10. We declined and moved on.
With our driver happily piling sacks of newly purchased snow lotus into the back of his van, we struck out across the plateau. To our erstwhile Chinese companions (and to others we spoke with before and after) this pointless quest to reach the high point of the line betrayed a peculiarly Western mindset, and was an inexplicable act of folly.
Brought up in the lowlands of Han China, to them the wilderness was a savage place, too dangerous a venture and of no great interest to begin with. They predicted we would be eaten by wild animals, attacked by bandits or poisoned by bad water from the brackish pools that litter the tundra.
A more likely risk, always at the back of our minds, was being arrested by the army.
In any event, by then it was too late for second thoughts. We were too close to our goal, now just 35km to the west, across a moonscape of open grassland pocked with carpets of wildflowers and festooned with low, cotton-wool clouds.
As apparently deserted as it seems, however, the Tanggula is actually far from sterile. In fact, the very absence of humanity across an area ranging many hundreds of thousands of square kilometres has turned the northern plateau and its mountain ranges into something of an oasis for some of Asia’s rarest wildlife.
Snow leopards, blue sheep, Tibetan wolves, Asiatic brown bears (feared and loathed in equal measure by locals), even the elusive wild yak can be found in these mountains, though populations are razor thin. In addition, the Tanggula acts as a gateway to perhaps the most important animal reserve in all of Tibet – the Hoh Xil, calving ground for the endangered Tibetan antelope, long-prized by poachers for its shatoosh (extra-fine wool).
For now, though, as we trekked around the police checkpoint and up into the hills that bracket the long, winding pass, the area was almost eerily empty. A few yaks dotted the slopes on the other side of the valley, and the occasional raven hung in the wind, searching for scraps. But the only animals we saw up close, punctuating our progress across the top of the pass, were dead. One, a young yak, lay half-mummified in the cold, dry air. Another, a sand fox, its thick fur still shining, couldn’t have been dead long. Life up here, it seemed, was elusive.
But not all the time. As we crossed a final ridgeline, decked out in layers of Gore-Tex and fleece to ward off a screaming wind, the long silver thread of the Tibetan railway honed finally into sight, elevated from the ground by a series of embankments and bridges that protect it, supposedly, from the frozen, constantly shifting earth.
Almost on cue, and heralded by a blaring horn that rose even above the clamouring wind, a Lhasa-bound train beetled upwards along the valley floor. Up here on the adjacent hillside, separated by almost a week of travel and trekking from the same place the carriages would reach before the day was out, the train seemed an utterly alien intruder, a rolling tube of humanity, its human cargo stuffed inside like toothpaste.
As it hurtled past we saw it through the other side of the looking glass – full of T-shirted passengers lounging on bunks, chatting on mobile phones and sipping mugs of steaming tea while they gazed out through the double-glazed windows.