Travel blog – Tibet with a nine-year-old

dsc_0119.jpg4 April 2012

At Beijing Xi station… waiting for the Beijing-Lhasa train…We gave ourselves too much time to get through the airport-style security and now have hours to kill. A quick-witted woman at a rickety old desk offered us a “private lounge”. Seemed like a good idea as the station is mobbed, so handed over 30Y. Turned out to be a not-so-good idea. Essentially, it was a filthy booth. On the bright side, it gave us time to reorganize our backpacks for the 100th time and to drink a glass of sweet strong coffee.  We’re now in the departure hall… waiting, waiting, waiting … with about a million other people and what looks like their household contents. It’s incredible to think we’re heading to Tibet. The last time I tried was 1989, but the Democracy Movement was growing so the border was closed and when Tiananmen Square happened on 4 June I left China.

5 April 2012

Eventually boarded the Lhasa train late last night. Reminded me of that scene in the “Hunger Games” where the doomed contestants run for their lives to the cornucopia.

Bertie, Kit and I are in hard sleeper, which means sharing a fairly intimate space with three strangers for the next two nights.  Two of our bunks are at the bottom, which is good as it gives us more headroom. They give you bedding nowadays and the conductor is amenable. It wasn’t like that in 1989. In fact, it was almost romantic back then – in true Communist spirit there were officious carriage guards who barked orders at everyone. I remember on one four-day journey that my carriage was blessed with “Most Tidy” status.

Woke up at 2am when two blokes got on board and needed to get to their top bunks. Everyone (except me) snores. Everyone (also except me) was up at 7.30am cleaning their teeth and queuing for the WC… By the time I got there an hour later, the “facilities” were pretty grim. Don’t remember them being quite so grim when I was in my 20s.

Despite having the usual attention span of a nine-year-old, Kit is far from bored, buzzing up and down to his bunk, playing cards and getting boiling water from a (designated) tap next to the loos for our tea and noodles. We’ve been eating the noodles out of tin mugs with chopsticks.  Conversation with our cabin mates is a tad limited as we only seem to be able to say “thank you” in each other’s languages, but we’re sharing biscuits and snacks – and refusing something that smells stronger than whisky. The scenery is arid and we’re starting to climb into the mountains.

7 April 2012

They warn you about altitude sickness, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. Yesterday on the train was dire. When we hit 5,000 metres above sea level I thought I was about to die.  My head felt as if it was being skewered with pokers, eyes pierced with needles, nausea made me throw up and exhaustion meant I couldn’t move. Missed all the amazing scenery …clouds, lakes, snow-capped mountains, rolling plains, yaks … Fortunately, Kit took the photos, so I can re-live it later.

Kit was fine. Just as well, because it was every man for himself as far as I was concerned. Apparently, he spent most of the night sitting in the corridor reading and high-fiving with the locals. He reckons you can avoid altitude sickness by not lying down…wish he’d shared that gem of wisdom with me…

This is one of the most gruelling journeys I’ve been on – and I’ve had my fair share. We’re all fairly dehydrated after two nights of sickness and on my only trip to the WC today I found a glamorous female attendant in a dapper uniform and full makeup prodding away with what looked like giant chopsticks to clear the “blockages”. Apparently, another altitude sickness sufferer fainted in the same loo…she actually hit the oh-so sticky ground…words cannot convey how glad I am that didn’t happen to me.

After nearly three days of almost constant pain, salvation came in the shape of us arriving in Lhasa four hours earlier than I’d expected.

8 April 2012

Nearly kissed the ground when we disembarked at Lhasa. Soooo relieved to be off the train and slightly nearer sea level – we are down to 3,600 metres and although they are less severe my altitude sickness symptoms persist.

It was a confusing arrival. We had to walk through a vast rather beautiful station, totally empty except for a uniformed woman standing in the middle wearing a red sash. The entire trainload of passengers had to filter through a few narrow doors where black-clad guards took away our passports. Milled around, hoping we would get them back – which eventually we did.

To get here, the Chinese authorities insist you buy Tibetan Travel Permits, which are quite convoluted to get. One of the conditions is that you have to have a guide, so we chose a Tibetan company based in Xinjiang at The guides for the five or six foreign tourists were all waiting on the street. Ours is a quietly spoken Tibetan from the Everest region.

9 April 2012

First impressions of Lhasa are that it’s an occupied city. The Tibetan quarter is surrounded by checkpoints and there are fully armed squads of Chinese soldiers patrolling Barkhor Square and standing back-to-back in combat style on every street corner. It’s a shock. It’s too heavy handed.

If you could see Barkhor Square you’d agree. The place is gently swirling with impoverished pilgrims in Tibetan robes, twirling their prayer wheels and chanting. They’re doing the

dsc_0124.jpgkora around the sacred Jokhang Temple, a beautiful place hazy with incense and lit inside by yak butter candles. Why the Chinese need to employ such bullying tactics to intimidate a people whose most violent resistance to being culturally and physically overrun is self-immolation is beyond me. I feel angry.

“Aren’t you angry?” I ask our Tibetan guide.

He looks tense. “What good would that do?” is his sobering Buddhist reply.

Altitude sickness continues. Sleeping badly. Bones ache. Wake up every two hours. Head like a pulped tomato and eyes barely open. About to pop a few more slow-release Ibuprofen and some Chinese herbal medicine from a corner shop – Radix Rhodiolae. Looks brown and thick. Tastes horrible. Seems to be working a bit.

Kit, meanwhile, is tired but happy. Taking it all in. Drinking copious amounts of banana lassi and enjoying the strangeness of it all. Being a Western child he’s getting lots of attention. I was worried about him getting separated or lost as the side streets around Barkhor Square are a warren, but it’s me that has the terrible sense of direction rather than him – as he reminded me from our time in Vietnam. So, I’m sticking with him.

About Rosalind Mullen

I'm a writer and freelance journalist with a passion for independent travel. In latter years, my young son joined me on my backpacking adventures ...
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