Nick here. I’m on the road — the Qingai-Tibet Iron Road — riding the train to Lhasa. Yup, two days ago I got up from my desk, clicked “save” on my unfinished thesis, and set off for Tibet.
(I’m without my usual sidekicks, including my lovely editor, so for those readers just hoping for cute Owen pictures, or any decent writing, then my 7 days in Tibet will not interest you in the slightest.)
But for anyone still reading: first, some background. Ever since moving to China, I’ve hoped to be able to go to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, that forever-indivisible part of the Chinese nation that was formally incorporated in 1951. No need to justify this desire to all the westerners reading this blog, of course. Something about prayer flags and Shangri-La, I think. My goal of reaching Tibet was just like my goal to see any other Chinese province — except Hainan, of course, and now Liaoning, which I did get to, but would now “un-goal” if I could. But although not particularly important to me, reaching Tibet was still something I wanted to do. Getting there, however, would be mostly a matter of luck.
Due to a “sensitive situation” that began around the time I got to China, the Tibetan Autonomous Region has been largely “unsafe” for foreigners, who are thus wisely forbidden, largely, from going. While officially still “open” (most of the time), the Tibet Tourism Bureau and Public Security Bureau have been working extra hard to keep foreign travellers extra safe — by denying their permit requests the day before their scheduled tours are hoped to begin (organized tours are required in the Tibetan Autonomous Region). But, if only to keep up appearances with the official “open” policy, some tours do get the pass.
So I gave it another shot. This time, it would be winter, outside the
pilgrimage tour bus season, and following on the heels of the “victorious” conclusion of the 18th Party Congress (their words). I’d meet the group requirements by getting eight more Americans from Beijing. And I would expect to be denied, and instead psyc myself up for an even awesomer trip through Qinghai. I wouldn’t even want to go to Tibet. Really, it would be the worse of the two possibilities. A major disappointment.
So sure enough, the day before our scheduled tour, I got the notice: approved. Well damn.
And so here we are, riding across the vast, high expanse of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This route wasn’t even possible in winter 50 years ago, when the Chinese government was extending its control over the vitally strategic Tibetan massif and fighting both a rebellion within Tibet and a challenge to the southern border by India. Now, it’s barely a 24-hour ride — on the world’s highest railroad (click the link at the top!), with plenty of hot cups of noodles and tea (and pressurized oxygen) to make everyone coming from the Chinese parts of China comfy and warm and chatty, as we ride this train/spaceship to a now-thoroughly colonized other planet.
And from our spaceship window, it looks pretty cold out there.