The 17,000 foot train ride

Travel Destinations — By on November 9, 2006 at 7:05 am

What’s it like to ride the world’s highest railway?  John Flinn of the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on his experience aboard the Lhasa Express to Tibet.  He returned with some interesting stories.

Strange things are starting to happen as the Lhasa Express chuffs across the rooftop of the world. Outside the double-glazed, UV-blocking windows, I can see black-robed Tibetan nomads tending their enormous, shaggy yaks — a scene little changed from Marco Polo’s day.

But that seems perfectly normal compared to what’s happening inside the train. As the altimeter approaches 17,000 feet, a package of potato chips balloons outward until it ruptures a seam. Sunscreen and hand sanitizer erupt unbidden from bottles. In soft sleeper class, Chinese businessmen sprawl listlessly on their bunks, sucking oxygen from plastic hoses. The bathrooms smell of vomit.

Maybe trains were not meant to go this high.

That’s what Swiss engineers concluded when they were brought in to consult more than a decade ago, and the Chinese are taking conspicuous delight in proving them wrong. Building a railroad into Tibet has been the obsession of every Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, and this past July they finally succeeded.

It is, by any reckoning, one of the great engineering feats of our age. Over the last five years, hundreds of thousands of workers laid 700 miles of track over the Kunlun Mountains and across the Tibetan plateau, through some of the highest, coldest and most forbidding real estate on the planet.

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