China to Tibet: On the fast track to heaven

Scott MacMillan takes the world's highest railway on a journey from China's Sichuan province to Lhasa, Tibet, for a tour of its most significant and holy sites. What he discovers along the way confounds his expectations.

A cairn sits against the backdrop of the north face of Mt Everest. Photographs by Scott Macmillan for The National
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It's the first morning of a 44-hour rail journey to Tibet from China's Sichuan province, and I wake up to the sound of shouting. I pull out my earplugs and try to sit up, wondering what the commotion is all about, but I can't: the ceiling gets in the way. Movement is restricted in the upper berths of hard sleeper class, a fitting start to a journey that requires a permit and a government-approved guide every step of the way.

The noise, it turns out, is nothing more than a group of Chinese holidaymakers in the corridor, toasting their first morning on the train with beer, shots of baijiu (grain whiskey), and a whole lot of hollering. "The shouting of the Chinese is still something that confuses me," my friend Ray, an Australian expat in China, later tells me by e-mail. "Apparently noise equals fun."

In fairness, they do have something to celebrate. The world's highest railway, the Qinghai-Tibet line, ranks alongside the Three Gorges Dam as one of modern China's engineering marvels. Opened with much fanfare in 2006, it provides comfortable overland access, for the first time, to a land both venerated as a sacred abode and fraught with political tension. It also plays a vital role in the development of the country's impoverished western regions.

The revellers eventually quieten down. The one who speaks English befriends me, and together we stare out the window of our sealed capsule as the wastelands of Qinghai province shoot past. "This place is very poor," he tells me. Rather than hovels or signs of poverty, however, I see mainly construction in Qinghai: cranes, bulldozers, earthworks, stacked cinder blocks and half-built bridges over rivers and gorges.

We'd set off the previous night from Chengdu, my five-person tour group assembled on the fly at Sim's Cozy, a popular hostel and travellers' meeting point in the Sichuan capital. Tibet is open again following the Beijing government's ban on tourism after anti-Chinese riots in 2008, but independent travel is forbidden, so to save on costs, I'd posted a notice asking for travelling companions. Within hours, our group had come together: two Britons, a Canadian, an Israeli and myself, an American. Together with our government-approved guide, over seven days in Tibet we'll tour the major sites in Lhasa, the capital, before driving west down the Friendship Highway to the Nepal border, stopping at an Everest base camp along the way.

I make my way to the dining car, passing through seating class, which is occupied mainly by Tibetans piled on top of one another or sleeping upright. Tibet, though numbering only a few million inhabitants (the precise population figure is, like everything else, disputed), punches far above its weight in the global imagination, largely because of the international stature of the 14th Dalai Lama, its leader in exile since 1959. For Hindus, Tibet's Mt Kailash is the abode of Shiva and Parvati, while for Mahayana Buddhists, Tibet is where the sacred teachings, the dharma, were preserved when Buddhism went into decline in India. Westerners like me, meanwhile, tend to indulge in an idealised vision of a peaceful Shangri-La disturbed by outside forces, when in truth, Tibet had a rough and bloody history long before the Chinese invasion in 1950.

I share tea in the dining car with two Sichuanese nursing students looking forward to their first visit to this font of fables. They introduce themselves with their English names, Shine (as in sunshine) and Melinda. "Tibet is very mysterious for us," says Shine. "This train, we call it tien lu: the road to heaven." We pass shaggy yaks munching on what little scrub the hills provide. Like so many others, the girls have ascribed mythical qualities to this rugged land. Perhaps I'd become used to seeing the Chinese as the villains, having heard stories about the depredations visited on Tibet by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, but somehow the thought was new to me: they romanticise Tibet just as we do.

That there's trouble in paradise is hardly a secret. Armed troops still patrol the streets of Lhasa, and the first thing our guide tells us on arrival is not to photograph the police, military personnel or - here's an interesting one, given Beijing's claims that Tibet is inextricably part of China - the Chinese flag.

Lhasa presents the image of a modern city of about 400,000 residents, although critics (mainly exiled Tibetans abroad) say development has come at a great cost, with the government razing many of the old Tibetan buildings in the 1990s. But once you get used to the riot police in the Barkhor, the historic district surrounding the seventh-century Jokhang Temple, you can still feel the old town's hallowed character. It is May, and pilgrims are circling the temple in a kora, or ritual circumambulation, to celebrate Saga Dawa, the festival marking the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and final nirvana. Some spin prayer wheels, others crawl the paving tiles with full-body prostrations. The older generation wears traditional Tibetan garb, but the young seem no less devout, even in casual dress ("Punk is not dead," one T-shirt declares).

At Lhasa's most famous site, the Potala Palace, the former seat of the Tibetan government, I was ready to be disappointed. Thirteen storeys high and built over centuries, the architectural wonder stands on a hill overlooking the city like a sentinel. Unlike the Jokhang, it was stripped by the Chinese of all spiritual functions, and since its reopening in 1980 it serves mainly as a museum of the Tibet that once was. Yet the Potala's endless labyrinth of half-lit hallways and rickety wooden steps still inspires awe, as do countless shrines, intricately wrought solid mandalas and tombs of previous Dalai Lamas, sheeted in solid gold and encrusted with thousands of precious stones: diamonds, turquoises, agates, pearls and corals. In front of these we find tourists - Chinese tourists - bowing and making offerings, often of yuan notes.

Previously banned, religious practice in China, often a melange of Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship, has surged since the 1980s, when the government began allowing limited freedom of worship. A 2007 survey found that more than 30 per cent of people in China consider themselves religious, a number three times the government's previous official estimate. Under the watchful gaze of the state, domestic tourists now flock to the shrines of the Potala not because they love bling, although they surely do, but to pay their respects to saints and deities once considered subversive.

Set within sumptuous gardens, Norbulingka Palace, the summer residence of previous Dalai Lamas, likewise showcases the old regime's trappings of wealth, including a hall filled with horse-drawn carriages and palanquins. But I sensed dissonance here, like a poorly tuned piano string. The highlight is the private apartment of Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, preserved exactly as he left it in 1959 when, fearing arrest, he slung a rifle on his back, disguised himself as a soldier and escaped across the mountains to India, never to return. It's a space frozen in time, as though the young monk, 23 at the time, might pop back into the room at any moment.

Here, too, yuan notes are strewn about, including in the bathroom - the offerings to a supposed enemy of China, left in the sink, in the bath and even on and around the toilet. I try to piece together the official Party narrative here and fail. Are these props for tourists such as myself? Have they been left by the Tibetan faithful, or possibly even, like the yuan notes in the Potala shrines, by pious Chinese visitors? I don't press the issue with the guide for it's not his job to discuss politics. But the absence of answers is felt almost as strongly as the palace's missing resident.

The two-day drive from Lhasa to Everest brings us in touch with Tibet's overpowering landscape, the road running into deep valleys alongside lakes that shimmer in blue and green, looping up to touch 5,000-metre-high glaciers, the wind of the Tibetan plateau pounding our minibus without mercy. Textured by the shadows of the clouds, the mountains reach out to snowcapped peaks filling the horizon, and as the clouds clear, one protrudes above the rest like a shark's tooth. It's our first glimpse of Mt Everest.

The Tibetans must know something that we don't, for while Everest's local name, Qomolangma, means "mother saint" or "third goddess", it seems neither maternal nor feminine as we move up the valley to the north face. Up close, it's just very, very large, almost in an unearthly way, like a gemstone lodged in the planet by some galactic god. As is its wont, the government recently paved a road to base camp - they'd probably install an escalator to the summit if they could - in spite of criticism that tourism has already overburdened the area. Horror stories circulate about "the world's highest garbage dump" here and at the southern base camp in Nepal, but I find minimal trash and little at all to detract from the mountain's shocking majesty. We spend the night at a breathless 5,200 metres in a tent heated by a yak-dung stove, making the final 90-minute ascent to base camp by foot.

As we descend the plateau towards the green foothills of Nepal, the stifling mood of the police state gives way to the noisy disorder of the Indian subcontinent. Crossing the border, I breathe the pungent but refreshing air of south Asia, with its raucous rhythms, Technicolor riot of multi-limbed Hindu deities and pervasive smell of incense and cow dung. I sensed something was missing in Tibet, and maybe this was it: a measure of chaos. A little shouting isn't always such a bad thing.

Truth be told, one can experience Tibetan culture with considerably less hassle, lower costs and more freedom outside Tibet: in Nepal, Ladakh or at exile outposts like Dharamsala, for instance. Yet the Chinese interaction with Tibetan culture proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of the journey. I had feared that Tibetan culture under Chinese rule would have as much vitality as a corpse on display; to the contrary, it seemed genuine, alive and enduring. But the awful accident of history has pulled something asunder here, and the land and its people now straddle borders of nationhood and politics. We wait, perhaps in vain, for the scattered pieces of Tibet - abode of the gods, refuge of the dharma, or perhaps a mere place of astounding beauty and silent pain - to become whole again.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on China Southern Airlines ( from Dubai to Chengdu via Guangzhou cost from US$813 (Dh2,984), including taxes.

The train

Tickets in hard sleeper class on the the Qinghai-Tibet train from Chengdu to Lhasa cost $119 (Dh437).

The tour

Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel (; 00 86 28 8335 5322; double rooms from 180 yuan [Dh102] per night) in Chengdu books train tickets and arranges tailor-made group tours to Tibet. A seven-day journey costs $408 (Dh1,498) per person, exclusive of accommodation, train fare and admission fees.