“So where can I get Panda to eat?”
After the initial shock leaves his face, Tony manages to stammer,
“You..you…you cant eat Panda…it’s illegal.”
He looks to the middle aged chinese couple for support and the man, James, nods sternly. Which is odd, really, because he doesn’t speak a word of English. Tony translates for him and now James nods even more sternly, then smiles and says something. Tony translates for me,
“Uncle says when he was in Australia, he asked if you can eat Koala. The guide told him that it was illegal…but maybe if one fell out of a tree and was already dead, you could probably eat it. So uncle says if you wait in the forest for long enough, you could probably have some Panda.”
As he finishes translating Tony looks confused again.
“Why do you want to eat Panda?”
“Well, I heard the Chinese people will eat anything and I thought a Panda would be interesting meat. Especially a baby one, they’d have to be sooooo tender.”
Tony doesn’t know what to make of that, but I finish with a huge smile and an evil giggle.
“I don’t think you really want to eat Panda”, Tony says quietly to himself.
So Tony is a Chengdu boy and a middle aged couple from Fujian province are my other companions in this four berth train cabin. James is not really Tony’s uncle, it’s just how chinese people refer to any unrelated older man. So the four of us are taking a little holiday trip into Tibet and have been travelling north from Chengdu for over twenty hours and we’re just turning west to go through Xining and into Tibet. There’s more than twenty hours to go before we arrive in Lhasa, so we spend our time chatting and watching the scenery change. Tony is studying international business, so talking to me is great experience for him in hearing a native English speaker. It’s also awesome for me, since just about nobody on the train speaks any English.
The middle aged couple are like a curious postcard of a clean cut model chinese relationship. She believes fervently whatever her husband says and concentrates on looking nice for him twenty-four hours a day. Which isn’t hard, because she is rather beautiful. He likes to sit and drink fermented green tea twenty four hours a day, inbetween pronouncing his wisdom in short bursts. What’s really interesting about him is that his normal job is to lead a team of chinese narcotic police. Organising raids, tracking organized crime groups, all the fun stuff. He’s clearly used to being in control and has the forceful personality and presence you’d expect. Which may also explain why lunch and dinner for all of us arrives courtesy of the head of the train’s security staff. Nice job perk I suppose. Tony tells me everyone in the wagon knows what James’ job is, which is why they’re all well behaved and deferential when they pass the door.
As we arrive at Xining I race out onto the platform and grab some cold beer from a small shop. There’s no cold beer on the train at all. They have no fridges on board. The dining car picks up fresh food along the way, so they don’t need them. Sitting back in the cabin with my haul I ask Tony how big Xining is. He consults ‘uncle’ James who advises it’s just a small town. No more than six million people in it. Right, so it’s the same size as Sydney and its just a small town. I suppose getting 1.3 Billion people into one country does require a lot of ‘small towns’ like this one.
After the forests and mountain passes of northern Sichuan, the ground is starting to flatten out and the plateau extends into the distance. It ends only with the mountain range to our south that forms the natural border of Tibet. At the height of its power, the country of Tibet included the provinces I’m now rolling through, but now the tide has turned the other way and now all of this is western China. The road runs parallel to the train tracks and I’m amazed to see vast convoys of what look like army trucks making their way into Tibet. James tells me they’re just normal trucks bringing supplies. It’s not that I’d dare to disbelief ‘uncle’, but I’ve seen freight trucks all over China now and they look nothing like these ones. Lake Qinghai appears to the south and we pass by it for a very long time. It is the largest lake in China after all.
It’s only after we pass through Golmud that we really start gaining altitude. We climbed over a kilometre between Chengdu and Xining, but only climbed a few hundred metres since then. There’s another two kilometers to be climbed before we get to the Danggula pass; At 5,027 metres above sea level, it is the highest railway pass in the world. Which is why I feel obliged to leap out of the train at the station and do some star jumps on the platform. This first has the attention of my cabin friends, but soon fifty chinese tourists sitting in their cabins are taking pictures of this huge westerner flouting the laws of altitude sickness.
My cabin mates turned on all the oxygen valves in our cabin that night while I was asleep. There is one above each bed and as soon as I realize what the noise is, I turn mine off. At six o’clock the next morning we began our ascent into Tibet itself. I try to explain to Tony that using the oxygen will not let your body adjust to the thin air. The more you use it, the less happy you will be in Tibet. Of course, this didn’t matter because ‘uncle’ James disagreed with me. So I could have produced scientific reports or even had a professional climber with me to explain until the cows came home. It would make no difference because uncle is always right. This does push me to go and do star jumps at Danggula; just to demonstrate how easy it is. As it was, I was left fairly breathless quite quickly, but a short walk along the platform calmed me enough to happily get back on the train. They immediately offer me the oxygen tube attached to the wall above my bed. I refuse it, unplug it and put it away in my baggage as a souvenir. I’m determined to handle Tibet on even terms and the thought of being attached to an oxygen cylinder the whole time is unattractive.
As we arrive in Lhasa train station we bid our fond farewells, wishing each other good luck for our journeys. I wander around for a while until I see a tall chinese man holding a card with my name on it. I introduce myself and he places a white silk scarf, a Khata, around my neck and bids me welcome to Tibet. I stand for a moment, looking to the blue sky and the mountains around me, feeling a light, cool breeze wash across my body. But the only thing I can think is that only a Tibetan can welcome you to their country. He bundles me into a taxi and we head for the hotel, where he tells me that Nicola, the English girl who will be a part of the Tibetan tour for the next week or so, has already arrived and I can meet her straight away.
I stash my bags in my room and the only thing I can think of is having a beer on the roof of the hotel. I stop off to meet Nicola; a happy, young English girl out to discover the world. I tell her I’m going to the roof to have a beer and check out the view and she thinks I’m crazy to think about having a beer. All the guidebooks advise abstinence from alcohol and cigarettes when at high altitude. Apparently they lessen the body’s ability to handle the stresses of low pressure oxygen supply and altitude sickness can lead to serious complications. Dizziness, nausea, coughing, headaches, confusion, bladder dysfunction and death are all a part of the fun. If you remain at altitude when the symptoms begin to get serious, the chances are that you will die. I have no intention of leaving Tibet one second before it becomes a legal necessity, so I’m determined to push through whatever the experience will bring me.
So I’m sitting on the roof of the hotel, watching an astonishingly stunning sunset as I sip my beer and savour my cigarette. Between beers I wander around the rooftop, taking pictures in every direction and chatting to Nicola along the way. I feel like I’m seeing something truly special, there is a curious feeling about this city and I keep staring at Potala Palace – the old home of the Dalai Lama. As the sky changes colours again and again, I feel a love for Tibet pouring into me from all sides. The sky slowly darkens on the roof of the world and I begin to feel incredibly happy.
I turn to Nicola and say,
“You know, before I got here, I was really worried about spending so much money on this trip. Now I’m here, just seeing this, just experiencing this…..I…..I….just cant care about money anymore.”
She looks thoughtful for a while, slowly scanning her eyes along the mountains that surround us on all sides.
“I think I know what you mean. If I had to leave now, I don’t think I’d be that upset.”
“Yup, that’s it. You’d be content. But the fact we’re about to spend the next week or so travelling around this country is making me feel incredibly happy with my life.”
I feel like taking the whole world in my arms and giving it a huge bear hug to share the feeling, but I settle for another beer and a smoke as night settles on Lhasa.