We’d been contemplating whether, or how, we should go to Tibet. I was not keen on paying the PRC for expensive permits to visit Tibet, it seemed absurd them proclaiming Tibet part of China’s motherland but then also charging for entry permits, which directly fuels the regime.
Jackie got a message from a friend who had just got the train from Goldmud, without a permit. So we decided to give it a go ourselves. We got the night bus from Dunhuang to Goldmud arriving at around 5am. We got a taxi to the nearby train station and got a ticket over the counter, using our guidebook and ordering in pigeon mandarin for the 5.30am to Lhasa.
It’s a beautiful 15 hour journey from Goldmud to Lhasa, on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR). The train line is the highest in the world, going to heights over 5000 metres and has oxygen on tap. It has caused much controversy, provoking H.H. the 14th Dali Lama to warn of ‘cultural genocide’ as Tibet’s famously isolated homeland of 2.8 million is linked with China seething 1.3 billion, a point echoed by many in my film Team Tibet.
As it was early, 5.30, and we’d be travelling through the day, we’d bought the cheap (170 RMB) hard seat ticket. The carriage was packed mostly with Tibetans, but also Hui and Han Chinese. Some had an insane amount of luggage and could have been migrating. Others looked like they were Pilgrims. We took our seat and soon our friendly neighbours were sleeping on our shoulders and sharing their bag of boiled eggs.
There’s only so many boiled eggs you can eat and we hadn’t come as prepared as others in our car. We tried the ever popular instant noodles but they don’t fill you up so we headed to the Canteen car. In the Canteen car we met people from all over Europe, USA, China… Including ‘Geeza Haniker III’ and ‘Alicia Skipper’, two members of 'European Train Enthusiasts'. We had some good food, which wasn’t too expensive. It was great place to sit, eat, read and watch the stunning scenery go by.
The road runs close to the rail track at times and we passed scores of Tibetan pilgrims, prostrating their way to Lhasa. The plains were full of Yaks and a lone shepherd. We saw huge birds of prey flying in the unbelievably blue sky high above the snow capped mountains.
At one station there was a lot of construction, we were told it was going to be a hub for the ‘development’ of Tibet. The train bringing raw materials and migrant workers.
As we approached Lhasa, there was much excitement amongst the pilgrims in our carriage.