Thursday, March 13, 2008

Travel: Train T 27 To Lhasa

Sometimes the farther we go, the lesser we travel.... 

The roll and rattle of the train feeds my insomnia. Outside, shapes roll by, barely discernible in the frost-covered, inky blackness.

It is a chilly November night. The train, hurtling in the darkness somewhere outside Beijing, is headed for Lhasa, Tibet- 4,064 kilometers and 48 hours away.

R sleeps on the berth opposite me. I feel A huddled next to me, sleeping soundlessly, his mouth slightly open. The extra bunk in our cabin is unoccupied.


I make my way to the toilet. Barely six hours into the journey and they are dirty already. Back on my seat,  a temple with eaves jutting out in the darkness floats outside the icy window. Ghostly doors lit by red paper lanterns flash in the darkness--their crimson iridescence spatters on the glass fogged by my breath. Some kind of factory awash in green lights appears and melts into the night. Its chimneys and conveyors shrouded in a bilious mist.

Two very long days stretch ahead. The thought fills me with sudden and inexplicable anxiety.


Early next morning, mountains appear in the far distance. We are speeding along muddy ravines somewhere in Shaanxi province. Laborers in crumpled blue overalls gape at the passing train.


The cabin attendant brings in our coffee. I go looking for sugar in the adjoining dining car. A burly man in a soiled apron hears me out punctiliously. An uneasy moment later he chortles baring rows of stained teeth. `` No soogal only chilese tea’’ he says handing me a stained pot of sugar.


A group of French tourists sit down to breakfast. We have already eaten in the cabin, our vegetarianism at odds with most travels in China. Just as well, the menu in the dining car has very little for us.


The air in the dining car is thick with cigarette smoke clinging to the roof in a dense blanket. A thickset man in a blue uniform breaks out into a throaty song. Oblivious to him flies buzz around half eaten bowls of congee. Four Japanese travelers busily examine their cameras over a rising pile of orange peel.


Back in the cabin, A is hyperactive. He jumps from one bunk to the other feverishly. The train’s public announcement system announces the arrival of Xian.

On the station, uniformed soldiers emerge from nowhere and stand guard at the train doors. Men in white skullcaps clamber on board. Elsewhere on the station a vendor lethargically pushes a cart of plump cherry tomatoes and peanuts.


The toilets are a soggy mess. I gingerly lead A down the narrow passage leading to the washing area. He drags his feet toothbrush in hand, distracted by sparrows pecking on the tracks. I tug at him impatiently - a little nervous about his hands getting grubby. A man smoking next to the door eyes us expressionlessly. Above his head a sign printed on chrome surface reads, `no not lean and press against the door.’ A stares at the smoke rings issuing form his lips. ~~``Look mama steam coming out'' he exclaims excitedly, as we hurriedly make our way back to the cabin. The man’s face creases into a grin. Later I clean A’s hands with alcohol wipes.

I feel a headache coming on as the train lurches out of Xian. R has dozed off to sleep by now. The book he has been reading slips from his hands and falls to the floor with a thud


Outside the scenery does not vary much apart from clusters of black brick houses and stocky churches, their crosses festooned with bright yellow corn drying in the sun.

A starts to whine for an unwashed tomato, I pull it away from him. He cries himself to sleep in my lap.


The terrain alters as the train leaves Shaanxi and enters Gansu province. Low lying peaks fold into tea colored lakes. We emerge out of tunnels and hurtle on bridges built over swiftly flowing rivers. I look out the window lost for a while. Soon the hills turn into slender coned peaks carrying soft white puffs of cloud at their crests. Yellowing ginkgo trees spatter their brown flanks.


The dining car is noisy with chatter rising above the click-click of chopsticks. A river follows us doggedly only to disappear moments later under a highway gleaming with freshly fallen rain.


Dirt and soot dominate a bare landscape as we approach Lanzhou. ``Macabre’’, a Spanish tourist exclaims at the grimy and withdrawn scenery. 

Outside the dusty industrial town a wide muddy river moves sluggishly, crisscrossed by suspension bridges every now and then. The city is depressingly filled with squalid scrap yards and smoke.


Strains of unfamiliar music echo from a radio somewhere. Soft murmurs of the smokers in the gallery and bursts of chatter from elsewhere filter into the vacuum. Wide awake now, A sits on my lap drawing elaborate squiggles in his sketchbook. R is sprawled on his bunk.


The train pulls into Xinning close to dinnertime. I get off the train to buy water. People all over the platform make a scramble for the train. A Tibetan woman runs down the platform.  A Television crew follows the mad rush of people trying to board.


Back on the train R is awake and gone back to his Book. He has not stepped out of the cabin and spoken very little since morning. Later restless and tired, we get into a mindless argument over dinner. It is exhausting.


I spread out a fresh white sheet on the bunk and take refuge in the descending darkness.

Am woken up in the middle of the night,  A has wet the sheet. I help him change his clothes; a pang of remorse tugs at me for being impatient with him in the day. Heavy and incoherent, he promptly goes back to sleep.


R is up before me early next morning. He nods at me politely. We try not to look at each other too much.

It is still dark outside; the train is laboriously negotiating bends and curves on a steep mountainside. Gradually the scene begins to lighten. Brilliant white snow garnishes the dark chocolate colored earth in jagged shapes--stripes, meshes and zigzags. As the sun rises, snow covered mountains reflect its crimson blush in places. Soon we enter a valley flanked by deep snow on both sides.

We must have crossed Golmud in the wee hours of the morning. A stunning spectacle unfolds outside. The compartment is filled with piercing white light as the endless snow glistens in the morning sun. The train continues its slow ascent into the Kunlun Mountain range.

People huddle next to windows outside their cabins throughout the passage. Some murmur excitedly snapping their camera shutters away.


 Snow covered mountain ranges on either side recede farther and farther away as flat grassland expands. Garish brown tread marks ploughed in the snow by a nonexistent truck follow us for a while before disappearing into the horizon. In a flash, the earth has changed color from a dark brown to mossy green. Hoards of donkeys and shaggy yaks graze here and there.

The night’s frost begins to thaw in opal and grey-green pools. The plateau here is flat, immense and desolate. A highway running parallel to the train track is devoid of traffic.


A sits at the window, studying patches of snow in the barren mountainside. He points out familiar shapes trying to lure me into his game. Snow snake playing with snow dog with snow bone in his mouth.

Tired very soon, he starts to complain of a pain in his sides. Yesterday’s headache begins in a dull thud in my temples again. Must be the thinning air.

I go looking for an oxygen mask. The train assistant is nowhere in sight. The waitress gets me a few masks. She has a sullen expression on her face. In the dining car the cook sits enervated. Later I find the assistant slumped on a stool next to the vomit-streaked toilet. It is getting hot as the midday sun heats up the carriages submerging the carriage in torpid silence.


If it weren’t for the public announcement system Tangula Pass, the highest point of the journey would have come and gone without us noticing. We have gained an altitude of sixteen thousand six hundred and forty feet by now. An endless lake swings into sight, its turquoise blue waters lapping at a grassy shore.


The emptiness has begun to chafe at me. I have spent a good part of the day sitting in the dining car. Isolated by language from my fellow passengers and disconnected with the dramatic change in landscape by the insulated carriage. I write when I am not looking out the window.


We pass clusters of grimy flat roofed houses and cloth tents every now and then.

It is close to three in the afternoon. A bevy of storm clouds gather on the horizon. Soon the snowstorm unfolds on a distant mountain and spreads across the landscape.


Later at Nagqu station snow falls in soft wisps. I get off the train and step on the station for a brief moment before rushing back into the warmth of the compartment.

Outside Nagqu the landscape is haunting and barren. Precipitous mountains overlooking the plateau are dusted with powdery snow. More animals graze on the swamp-overlooking box like houses with startling prayer flags fluttering on their roofs. A river runs through the snow gleaming red in the late afternoon sun. More snowstorms appear and scatter in the horizon revealing houses at the bottom of the mountains through their stormy haze.


The waitresses and cook are ready to shut shop in the dining car. Outside women in pink headscarves herd their animals home as night falls. Shadows of gigantic mountains engulf little villages nestling at their foot. Bright colors of houses- red, maroons, ochre blend into a deep brown as evening claims the landscape.


The whole day has gone without having to speak or do much. A has slept through most of the afternoon. He is impatient to get off the train now.

R and I busy ourselves with collecting our scattered luggage. We go through the end of journey rituals mechanically, shut, zip, slap, duck under the seats, shake and tug at sheets.


Our chores done we sit wordlessly facing each other in the dull glow of the overhead light. Somewhere in between contemplating the deepening shadows outside and trying to seek each other’s expressions from the corner of our eyes, our extended hands meet midway. We wordlessly hold each other in a long enduring embrace. The clatter and din of arrival unfolds outside as the train gathers speed with Lhasa in sight.


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