From not-really-in-Xi’an South to Chongqing, most of the ride was spent sleeping, since we left at 9pm and arrived at 7:30am. I figured that I would wake up at 6:45 to eat something and get my stuff ready; the cabin employee woke everyone up at 6 to tell us to fold up our sheets, pack, etc. That was completely unnecessary, but OK. Also, I had the very top bed of the 3, and I smacked my head a few times, so that was fun.
On arrival in Chongqing, my priorities were to pick up my ticket to Lhasa, check my bag at the storage room, then walk around the city for a bit while also stocking up on food for the train ride. I had MAJOR issues with trying to pick up my ticket to Lhasa. There was a stamp missing from my Tibet travel document, and the employees at the ticket office were mind-boggling in their refusal to try to help me with a solution. They wouldn’t call my travel agency or anything. Luckily, there was wifi, and I was able to email the travel agency, have them call the station (call #5 before someone answered) and then get someone from the government Tibet travel authority to get on the phone and tell them that my paperwork was in order, sorry that my copy wasn’t correct, please give me the ticket. 2 hours later, I finally had the ticket, but my 8 hours in the city were cut by 25%.
I checked my bag, bought 2 subway tickets, and took a ride into the center of the city. I found a coffee shop in a hotel, so I went there to use the wifi and get some coffee; that was the most expensive crappy coffee I’ve ever had. $5 US for instant coffee. However, I got everything squared away while using the wifi, including exchanging some emails with my tour agency for Tibet, and they sent me an email in Chinese explaining what happened/the solution, in case I had any issues on the train or on arrival in Tibet.
Next, I tried going to this vegetarian supermarket to stock up on goodies for the train, but they’re closed on weekends, so I started walking in the general direction of the subway, thinking I’d find some lunch and a supermarket somewhere along the way. I stopped at a street vendor to get some rolls for the train and snack on what I will call Chinese pizza—flat bread wiped with oil and spices on top. It was super delicious! Money spent: less than $1.
Next, I stopped at a noodle shop and used my key phrase “sumian”—vegetarian noodles. They asked if I wanted it spicy, and I said yes, like always. I forgot where I was, because the south is known for spicy food. This was EXTRA spicy. It was possibly one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in China, but I was pouring sweat and had a runny nose by the end. I drank a bottle of water and a bottle of Coke to get through it. The grandmas running the restaurant loved me, though.
I managed to do a little bit of sightseeing while heading in the general direction of the subway. I wanted to stand and look out over the famous, impressive, massive Yangtze River.
Going back to the station with my 2nd subway ticket wasn’t so easy, because the girl at the first place hadn’t activated it, so I had to pay again. There was a supermarket in the train station, so I stocked up on cup-of-noodles and some nuts for the train. The boarding process for the train was like herding cats; I don’t know what they were up to, but they changed the gate several times and had us walk a non-direct route to the train platform. Once I got on, I realized that I had forgotten to get bottled water, so I got off and bought some from a vendor on the train platform. I was no more than 6 steps from the train, but the attendant wanted to check all of my documents/ticket/passport again to let me back on. Come on, you remember me. I’m the only white dude with tons of tattoos. Another attendant watched and laughed, because he clearly remembered me and thought this was pointless. I got a good laugh, because it was just that silly. I also picked up this soda (I love trying the local brands). If this is the future of cola, count me out.
I spent the first day mostly bored and isolated as the only non-Chinese person on the train; I listened to music and tried to read some more of “Dr. Zhivago” (which I got at a book exchange from a previous hostel, and it’s not good at all), ate dinner, then went to sleep. It was at this point that I started feeling nauseated, like something was wrong in my stomach…
During the night, we broke down for over 4 hours, which I slept through but found out about the next day. I was surprised when our cabin attendant came through speaking really good English to help me fill out some government documents for Tibet visitors. However, she reverted to not speaking to me in English at all after that. Odd. I guess she only used it when critically necessary but doesn’t want to anymore.
The odd feeling in my stomach caught up to me at this point, and I’m pretty sure it was food poisoning from the “Chinese pizza” or noodle shop in Chongqing. Exploding from both ends while on a train is bad enough, but 40+ hours on a train that has a squat toilet was a new low in my life. Between being sick, I tried to still enjoy the train ride.
The afternoon of day 2, a teenager in the cabin next to mine started talking to me. His English is pretty good, and he just returned from a study abroad/foreign exchange for a year in the US in North Carolina, so I now had someone to talk to. He was a bit clingy at points, but it was nice to have a friend on the train.
We stopped for an hour in the middle of nowhere, so that made 5 hours behind schedule for some reason. Because we were so far behind, I’d now be on the train for another meal past what I had packed for, so I thought I’d check out the dining car for dinner and save my last food for breakfast the next morning. Despite using my translator app on my phone, the waiter in the dining car told me that I could not get a vegetarian meal at all. What? Seriously? He refused to put in an order for just rice & vegetables, even when I offered to still pay the price of the plate with meat-rice-vegetables. Nope. That was a bust, so I ate the last of my food. Figure something else out, like hopefully a vendor at one of the stops?
During the night, employees came through hooking up the oxygen tanks in the train cars, to compensate for the reduced oxygen in the mountains. I was really excited that people would no longer be allowed to smoke on the train after this, because smoking at the end of the car drifts into the cabins, and it’s super disgusting that people smoke in enclosed spaces.
Believe it or not, I yelled at some guy for smoking the next day, even leaning against the oxygen tanks while smoking! He was clearly trying to blow us all up or was a complete moron. It could be a combination of the 2.
Both mornings, the train attendants came through opening the blinds and turning on music at 6am. I don’t understand why at all. Why do you think everyone needs to wake up at 6? With my earplugs and sleeping mask, I was able to make it to 7:15-ish both days, but I wasn’t happy about this process.
The scenery on day 3 was amazing. Snow-capped mountains, people herding yaks and goats, prayer flags…looking out the window was amazing. I tried taking pictures, but they don’t do it justice. Taking pictures through a dirty window is tough. Just trust me that the scenery was amazing.
I was out of food and also feeling the worst of my sickness at this point, but I thought that maybe the dining car would either have a different employee or different options at breakfast. It was still the same, unfriendly guy, but I was able to get a vegetarian breakfast of rice, some pickled vegetables, some kind of bun, and a hardboiled egg that I didn’t want. 2 Tibetan girls at the table next to me were really excited to practice speaking English with me, and they used their limited vocabulary to tell me that my tattoos were “cool,” that my eyes are “interesting,” and that I am “handsome.” They also kept using the phrase, “I like…” Kobe Bryant. Pepsi. Rap music. LeBron James. However, don’t try to go any further, because “who’s your favorite rapper?” was met with a blank stare. “I like Beyonce.” Cool. Me too. It was really funny when they wrote me these notes, and it made me forget about being sick for a while.
Not for long.
At least my young friend’s mom offered me some stomach medicine and an apple; that was really nice of her.
Views from the train arriving into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet:
When we finally arrived in Lhasa, 5 hours late, I went through the “foreigners” checkpoint and then realized I had no idea how to link up with anyone from the tour agency. I walked out the front door of the station and hoped for the best. She saw me before I saw her. I was the only white guy, and a lady with a sign bearing my name came over to say hello and that she had been waiting at the station for 5 hours/where had I been? I guess they don’t check train schedules.
There was some immediate confusion, because the tour agency told her that I had booked my own hotel, but I was told that it was included in the tour, so she didn’t know where to take me and just went to the usual spot. I forked out cash for 2 nights, figuring that was enough to get situated and sort this out with the lady I’d booked through, and then plopped down in my room to nap and try to feel better before the real tourism started the next morning.
Once I hooked up to the wifi, I had a bunch of emails basically saying, “Where are you? Someone is looking for you at the train station.” I replied stating the train issue and asked about the hotel issue; things weren’t off to a great start, but I had arrived in Tibet, and I was absolutely excited about it.
I’m really not a fan of group tours, where you book it and have someone else set everything up/decide what you see, but that’s the only way to come to Tibet, and I had finally arrived at the top of the world!
Next post: Lhasa, capital of Tibet.
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