As most of our friends and Martin headed to different places for Christmas, the Crozier girls stayed in Suzhou as we were going on an adventure that I was now apprehensive about.
This blog will be over several parts.
First and foremost, we did have a good time but it was a different holiday. It was certainly not relaxing, and we did not go as a family. Would I go again – yes. But to do different areas if possible, including the Tibetan side of Everest as we had originally planned to do. The scenery is superb, the old parts of the cities colourful and vibrant, but I have mixed emotions about Tibet. It was a surprising place to go. I am glad we did it. But it could have been better in more ways than one.
A family issue in the UK saw Martin unexpectedly returning to Stoke-On-Trent as soon as term ended. Eleanor and I continued with our plans, which included a birthday Champagne Christmas brunch at the Westin Hotel in Shanghai, 2 days at Disneyland Shanghai in celebration of turning 9 years old and 8 days in Tibet Autonomous Region. The Champagne brunch which should have been expensive wasn’t! I only paid for Eleanor (308RMB) as on a previous visit, Martin had won a free brunch. 5 days after Disney, on 24th December, Christmas Eve, Eleanor and I left on train Z164 from Shanghai all the way to Lhasa.
47 hours 7 minutes
4373 kms/2717 miles
Leaving at 20:10 on the 24th and arriving on the 26th at 19.17.
Leaving Shanghai which is 16 metres above sea level we would reach 4500m at Nagchu before arriving in Lhasa at a mere 3650m.
The train you will see from the route does indeed stop at Suzhou but we couldn’t get a ticket from there, and there is a certain amount of pride in saying that we have done the train journey in full.
Our “soft” sleeper which means in reality a lockable door and only 2 more companions rather than 4 more. Both of us were on the top bunks, the man below me travelled from Shanghai to Zhengzhou, and our other roomie got on at Suzhou and like us was going to Lhasa. She spoke good enough English and combined with Eleanor’s Chinese we were fine.
Santa delivered pick up sticks (Mikado) for Christmas Day and together with turkey sandwiches (thanks to my lovely colleague Veronica who had cooked a turkey earlier in the week) Christmas Day passed without complaint. Thank goodness for an ipad and a hard drive full of films suitable for 9 year old viewing. We had a lovely video call with our friends Joanna and Jonathan and their two children and we also spoke with Martin and his parents and also my parents. The woman from Suzhou also happened to be an art teacher and she sketched Eleanor which also passed the time.
My train journey was spent reading Alec Le Sueur’s “The Hotel on the Roof of the World”. A humorous autobiographical account of his five years attempting to manage/market the Holiday Inn Lhasa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Holiday Inn was one of the first hotels in Lhasa opening in 1986, though it didn’t last and has been rebranded and taken over in the mid 90s. As I was reading it, I was hoping the anecdotes about winter occupancy and warmth of the hotel in the 1990s was not going to be replicated in the winter of 2017 at a different hotel…
Still on the train – On the second day (Christmas Day – if I keep saying it it might have felt like we actually had a Christmas) around 20:30 the train guard came in and we ascertained that at Xining we would have to change trains. We got everything ready – suitcase, rucksack and 2 daysacs (one full of food and one with camera, games, books), (yes eventually I was the one carrying it all). At Xining it was “All Change” so we got out and walked across the platfom onto the awaiting train. The reason for the change was because this one had oxygen that was pumped into the cabin. However, having got to Xining our passports, tickets and travel permit were checked before the guard allowed us to continue. The train was colder, and while the duvets provided were a lot thicker, Eleanor slept in a sleeping bag we were going to use at Everest Base Camp. The next morning, the cabin had warmed up.
The reason why we took the train into Tibet is because it is recommended to reduce altitude sickness. We also had the time given it was the holidays and it was far cheaper than flying in and out. However, as we were to find out, it didn’t reduce the risk of developing altitude sickness for Eleanor.
On our third day, I was reduced to taking an ibuprofen as I had a dull headache and during the night I had found it difficult to breathe, Eleanor was also having difficulty and I tracked down the train guard who was able to give me a tube that would go directly from the oxygen supply up her nose. The advice is also for people not to be too dependent on oxygen, and while Eleanor needed it, it wasn’t on all the time. We drank litres of water as well so as not to get dehydrated.
That day (26th) sunrise was not until 08.50, even though we were travelling a huge distance, China is one timezone, Nepal for instance is 2 hours 15 behind China. The views from first light were stunning. While we were cozy on the train, my phone weather app told me it was -17°C, and when I ventured to the toilet (western at one end of the carriage, squats at the other), the doors of the train had ice that had formed on the inside!!!
At 19.17 on the 3rd day, our train pulled into Lhasa or Lasa (Mandarin Pinyin), we got off and very quickly with all the bags I realised I had lost fitness, but obviously I hadn’t – I just couldn’t walk fast nor catch my breath. The joys of being at altitude. Walking towards the exit we had to present our tickets, passport and permit to the police, those documents were then taken away from us and we had to follow another official to a small office to the right of the plaza. Once our documents had been checked we were allowed to go and meet our guide… but there was a problem – he was nowhere to be found.
I had no idea where we were going, I did have the name of the hotel in Mandarin but had been told the guide would meet us. I had his phone number, and so phoned it – but no answer. I wechatted (like Whats App/text messaged) my travel agent at Budget Tibet Tours, and he reassured me that the guide would be there. They even telephoned his wife to try to track him down! In the meantime we were like magnets attracting all the taxi touts, one guy said he was our guide, but thankfully as he was saying that, my travel agent texted me a picture of what Sonam should have looked like. They were not the same! Eleanor and I ventured back towards the station again, just incase we had missed him. But almost immediately we were stopped by the police who would not let us go back. Explaining that the taxi drivers were hassling us, we were given a police escort and we sat under a tree. It was not that cold, but clearly the policeman felt the cold as we were then invited into one of the two waiting police vans.
After 30 or so minutes we were united with our guide and off we went to the hotel. Sonam was really apologetic, he had collected one person off the train but hadn’t realised about us.
We had our first glimpse of the Potala Palace at night in the car on the way to the hotel, which was only 20 or so minutes from the station. Upon arrival at the hotel we checked in, were given 2 cans of oxygen for Eleanor and were left to our own devices. At nearly 21:00 I filled our hot water bottles, decided that our room was really cold, so in one single bed and under two duvets we huddled together. I was up pretty much every hour until 1am administering oxygen to Eleanor before we both fell into a deep sleep. It would not be the first time of the holiday that I missed not having Martin around to help.