A dizzying 3,750km train ride divides Beijing from Lhasa – but beyond the checkpoints of the Tibetan capital’s Old City, you might as well be in another world
The young monk’s robes were the colour of faded roses. In shaky candlelight, the lady in front of me passed the bundle she was carrying into his arms. He turned, his face expressionless, and moved with it towards a darkened altar, a shrine massed with votive fruits and fierce-eyed Buddhist statues. Incense clouded the chapel with the earthy smoke of mountain herbs. When the monk handed back the bundle, having blessed it by some ancient rite, only then did I realise what it contained: a swaddled baby, no more than a week old.
It was winter, and we were deep inside the Potala Palace, the transcendent hilltop stronghold that has stood over the Tibetan capital of Lhasa for almost 400 years. Until the current Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India in 1959, the palace had served as his chief residence. It had also been home to nine of his predecessors – or, to be accurate in Buddhist terms, nine of his previous incarnations. For believers, the building is among the holiest of holies, and this newborn baby had been brought here to accrue early spiritual merit.
Back down at street level, hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims – ruddy-faced, prayer-bead-thumbing, sheepskin-clad – were making mile-long clockwise circuits around the base of the palace complex, enclosing it in veneration. The mountain air is thin in Lhasa, but their pace was unflagging. This act of mass circumambulation is seen here every day, performed by each walker with the aim of elevating their earthly karma.
The Potala Palace (Tom Rhys)
Next to the pilgrims stretched Beijing Lu, the wide road that leads into town from the direction of the distant city of the same name. I had come here from Beijing too, on a 41-hour, 3,750km rail journey across the high tundra, and the contrast between my embarkation and disembarkation points was stark.
Back at the start
“Why only watch? You must dance!” laughed the man in Temple of Heaven Park, tugging at my arm. It was six days earlier, on a bright, bitingly cold Sunday morning in the Chinese capital. My cheery interloper was part of a group of some 20 locals lindy-hopping to swing music under cypress trees. The 2.7 sq km park around us was spread with grand altars, ceremonial walkways and prayer halls, all of which were historically the reserve of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors, who’d come here twice a year to entreat the gods for good harvests.
Today, the park’s occupants were far more egalitarian in scope. Beijing’s spirited weekenders were out in force. As well as the dancers (who I civilly declined to join, if only to avoid dragging the quality down dramatically), the park was full of power-walkers, scarved bands of singers and whole flocks of improbably athletic geriatrics chin-upping and leg-stretching. Three men were using long brushes to practice calligraphy on the pathway, writing in water before the cool air dried it clear. It all gave the sense of a city kicking back, a metropolis stood at ease.
But when I hopped back onto the metro, an in-carriage TV was showing months-old news footage of a very different Beijing. On screen, its avenues were lined with thick ranks of saluting soldiers, looking on while tanks and giant missile-launchers were paraded during the National Day celebrations. The camera lingered on the president, who was standing in an open-topped car and surveying the whole scene with a look of quiet proprietorship.
Beijing doesn’t lend itself to generalisations. For every yin, the city has a yang; for every hard-faced display of power a flash of warmth. Unsettled by economic troubles and sporadically bedevilled by thick smog, it’s also still modernising at speed. Today, the moat around the Forbidden City was frozen solid and the old men playing Chinese chess on the street were bundled up in thick anoraks, while a short walk away the lights from the Prada and Apple stores were blazing golden over the shopping street of Wangfujing. Lindy-hopping in Temple of Heaven Park (Tom Rhys)
I saw nothing of the city’s infamous smog for the three days I was in Beijing, just chilly blue skies above the rooftops. “When the smog comes, some people like to say it’s like being in paradise – in heaven!” said Du, the guide who joined me one afternoon, employing more than a hint of irony. We wandered hutong back-alleys to seek out microbreweries and ate piles of outrageously good pork dumplings. The following day I zigzagged across town on a pot-luck cycle ride and found book-lined cafés and barnstorming guitar bands.
The last time I’d been in Beijing the temperature had been in the forties. The city had frazzled me. Now, in the freeze, I was falling for it. But I had a train to catch – and it was one that was taking me up, up and away.
Hitting the heights
The 20.10 to Lhasa rolled out of Beijing West Station on time, its bunks crammed with noodle-slurping passengers and its PA playing a pan-pipe version of ‘Unchained Melody’. There had been a dozen guards in peaked caps and black greatcoats on the platform, and they all came with us. I was sharing a tight sleeping cabin with three other passengers. We were in luxury compared to those spending two days sitting wedged between bags further up the train. All aboard the Lhasa Express – the highest train line in the world.
When I awoke the next morning and pulled back the curtain, we were in Silk Road country. A silent, treeless landscape of dry brown hills stretched interminably to the horizon. It had been a restless night: people coming and going at sudden station stops, ticket checks at half midnight, fragmented shouts from the corridor. Now we were rolling through Gansu province, once a bitterly contested borderland between the Chinese and the Mongols. In the dawn, a lone motorcyclist was bobbling along a dirt track.
Borderlands define this rail line. When its final stretch, the 1,956km section between Qinghai and Lhasa, was completed a decade ago, it marked both a triumph of engineering and a controversial political development. Much of the line was built on permafrost, using an ingenious cooling-pipe system to ensure the track remained stable even when the ground thawed. Gazing at the Gansu province from a train window (Tom Rhys)
On a symbolic level, however, the line also permanently stapled Tibet – which has been either “occupied” or “liberated” since 1950, depending on your view – to China’s eastern, northern and southern provinces. It has bolstered Tibet’s economy but changed its ethnic make-up, providing a corridor for large numbers of Han Chinese settlers.
At its highest point, on the icy Tanggula Pass, the train reaches an astonishing 5,072m above sea level, more than justifying its nickname as ‘the rail line to the roof of the world’. All its carriages and cabins are fitted with valves that pipe out oxygen once the train reaches high altitudes. The signs on board are in three languages, so passengers are instructed not to spit in Mandarin, Tibetan and English. Its dining car serves congee [rice porridge] and rice dishes; its washbasin areas seem to be tolerated by guards as smoking zones.
We bustled along through fudge-coloured hills. Dusty nowhere towns of square, flat buildings passed by. The earth looked harsh. At the Chinese city of Lanzhou, once visited by Marco Polo, we crossed the broad greenish waters of the Yellow River, and the hitherto silent Chinese lady on the opposite bunk smiled and proffered me some almond biscuits. An hour later, a member of the train crew walked past selling books of Tibetan flora and fauna. “Tibet piaoliang,” he said, grinning behind his spectacles. “Beaut-ee-ful.”
As we got higher, the peaks became taller and more snowcrusted. Dozens of yak appeared on the broad plains, all dark, shaggy and tremendously horned. In the afternoon we passed the sun-struck waters of Qinghai Lake, and as evening fell there were moments of expansive beauty, with silvery rivers flowing past terraced hillsides and white mares grazing in the orange light. Decorated yaks (Tom Rhys)
During the night we crossed over the pass and into Tibet, oxygen now hissing into the cabin. By morning, the plastic water bottle under my bunk had been pressurised to the point where it looked ready to explode. Outside, grey-green mountains stood under a wide blue heaven, and on the valley floor the land was periodically studded with whitewashed villages, their rooftops rainbow-veined with prayer flags.
A show of devotion
Lhasa hides itself well. Arriving by train, you see new bridges, corporate hotels, construction cranes, Chinese flags and a large billboard of a jolly Mao Zedong. It’s only when you reach the mazy Old Town, having passed through one of the compulsory Chinese police checkpoints and find yourself drawn inexorably to the hive of ritualistic activity around Jokhang Temple, that you feel you’ve reached Lhasa.
“I did 300 prostrations once,” said Yonten, my young Tibetan guide. “I had to spend two days at home recovering.” We were watching the tide of humanity rotating around the outside of Lhasa’s most sacred building, Jokhang Temple, which was founded almost 1,400 years ago by King Songtsen Gampo, who is widely held to have brought Buddhism to Tibet. As with the Potala Palace, it sees constant hordes of devotees performing a clockwise kora – or pilgrimage circuit – around its 800m perimeter.
It was a scene of astonishing devotion. Huge stone kilns were being stoked with bushels and barley seeds, barrelling out clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Crowds of walkers were filing past, and their diversity was extraordinary: waddling old ladies with waist-long braids, youngsters talking into mobile phones, hearty men in fur-lined bell hats spinning hand-held prayer wheels, wild-haired villagers mumbling mantras. In their midst, several dust-caked pilgrims were prostrating themselves around the entire kora, sliding onto their stomachs, progressing body length by body length.
“It’s part prayer, part meditation, part a show of faith,” explained Yonten. “Some people come and spend hours each day just circling Jokhang. Every time you go around, your spiritual merit increases.” Flags decorate road in Lhasa (Tom Rhys)
Outside the front of the temple, at least 100 believers were outstretched in prayer on thin mats. The day was cold but the high-altitude sunlight was brutal. Inside, however, among the slow-moving mass of pilgrims, the main light source was the thousands of yak-butter candles. Their rich, cloying smell was everywhere, filling the main space and the hundred-plus side chapels. Even the stone floor was slippery with dripped wax.
People were queueing past draped pillars and dark frescoes to leave offerings to an impenetrable pantheon of different deities: thousand-armed Buddhas, bliss-faced yogis and fire-wreathed half-beasts. In one dim chapel, an elderly monk was periodically banging a huge drum and clashing cymbals, murmuring invocations to higher powers. The whole temple was a heady, disorienting haze of activity.
Despite myself, I couldn’t stop whispering tactless questions to Yonten. Every time I blundered into another – about the Dalai Lama, about why so many pilgrims were here on a weekday, about the actions of Mao’s Red Guards – he smiled, placed a hand on my shoulder, lowered his voice and said: “It’s a little sensitive.”
Navigating a mound of curry and buttery naan bread that evening, I looked out at the dry mountains that ring the city on all sides. It wasn’t so long ago that the Potala Palace and the Old Town were essentially all there was to Lhasa. Now it was fast-growing and fast-changing, but retained a core of something pure and enchanted. What the future might hold was far harder to fathom.
My final morning was spent at the Potala Palace. Its exterior beauty – that wonderful broad geometry of white, red and gold – was mirrored inside by endless chapels, silks and stupas. “I was brought here as a baby too,” Yonten told me, as we watched the newborn being carried through the complex. In the next hall, a shaven-headed nun was gazing at an empty throne, her cheeks wet with tears. Forty-one hours by train separate Tibet’s capital from Beijing, but up here on the plateau, some would say the distance will always be far greater than that.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838 000). There is the option of a 13-day Classic Tibet trip via Kathmandu or a ten-day tour via China, which includes flights to and from Beijing with British Airways, a tour of the Forbidden City, a cookery course, a berth on the Lhasa Express, guided excursions, a Lhasa-Beijing flight and accommodation. Main Image: The Forbidden Palace Beijing, China (Tom Rhys)