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We travel to the remote region of Tibet and stray even further off the path, discovering that its true treasures lie far away from the popular tourist haunts. WORDS: AARON DAVIES

We settle into our seats and watch Beijing start to slip by the window of our train. Almost immediately, the Chinese guy with whom we’re sharing our compartment rolls over in his bunk and farts – as if to say, “Welcome to China!” We’re heading to Tibet on the Beijing to Lhasa express, one of the world’s great train journeys, traversing the highest track in the world at 5000m above sea level.

Once a power to rival Imperial China, after centuries of decline Tibet is now a tightly controlled and restive Chinese province that few people get to visit. My trip, organised by Insight Himalaya, a Ghurka-run firm from Nepal, will be taking my travel buddy and 
I to South-East Tibet, an area quite unlike the rest of the country. It’s a set of incongruously lush alpine river-valleys set amidst the barren and 
stony Himalayan border between India and China. 
It’s remote, dramatic and contains some of the deepest gorges in the world.

You can’t travel to Tibet without an officially sanctioned guide and a Tibet Travel Permit, available only through vetted travel agents like Insight. However, if you’re already in China you can join a “tour” to Lhasa in many hostels. Your travel, permit and hotel will be sorted out for you, but you’ll not see a guide until arrival in Lhasa.

Back in our now-fragrant cabin, we start the long crawl across thousands of kilometres of desert, dry hills and high-altitude plateau. On the way, we’ll cross nearly 700 bridges, heading through an earthquake zone (the last quake in 2001 measured 8.1 on the Richter scale), and gaining 5000m in altitude. We’ll be travelling through the world’s highest tunnel and stopping at the world’s highest station.

After 24 hours of the arid plains and dusty towns of northern China, I doze off to the realisation we’ve barely covered half the width of this immense country. I wake the following morning to silence and a dull altitude headache. There’s a hissing as oxygen is pumped into our compartment to mitigate the effects of climbing 5000m in just over a day.

I twitch the curtain and look out on to 
a monochrome world where gusts of heavy snow periodically obscure the surrounding peaks. We’re stopped at Tangula. A lonely concrete building sitting at 5068m, it’s the highest railway station in the world. It’s so cold, the single toilet (for a carriage of 50) is frozen and I have to wait for an attendant to unfreeze it before going for a pee.

The rest of the day is spent slurping Tsing Tao beers in the restaurant car and watching the bleak and beautiful Tibetan plateau unroll in front of us. No one really talks to us; English isn’t widely spoken here.

When we reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the military presence is immediate, in your face and stifling. There are more armed guards than passengers. You’re not allowed to linger in the vast concrete station. Instead we’re rushed outside where we’re met by Chun Kee, our Lhasa guide. As we follow her, I struggle for breath and have to pause every few steps like an asthmatic pensioner, gulping mouthfuls of thin air. And I still have that dull ache behind my eyes. It lasts for two days.

We spend those days acclimatising and exploring Lhasa. Until the Fifties it was a small but thriving capital city. Then the “liberation” happened and for 40 years it stagnated in poverty under the heavy hand of the Chinese. With the Nineties came trade, a huge influx of Han Chinese, and a bustling new town that sprang up around the old Tibetan settlement. The city has grown from a population of 40,000 to 400,000 since then. Shopping malls have sprung up like toadstools in manure, but the old territory still sits at the centre of everything, defiantly Tibetan.

It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a party town. There aren’t any bars outside the tourist hotels that we’re allowed in to. At any rate, the ubiquitous army presence dampens any party atmosphere. I feel on edge and absurdly guilty under their gaze.

The highlight is the 1500-year-old Jokhang Monastery. It squats like a grizzled old monk in the dead centre of old Lhasa. Inside, a mass of chanting devotees worship serene golden Buddhas, leering black demons decked with skulls, and monarchs crowned with tiny gods. As I shuffle around, the close atmosphere, crowds and incense make it hard to breathe. Flames from yak butter lamps make the demonic eyes dance and a constant pulsing drum beat makes me feel increasingly peculiar. It’s my first brush with the intensity of religion here.

The only thing missing is monks. Monasteries should be heaving with them, but most have only a skeleton crew. I ask Chun Kee about this. “They’re in their rooms,” she says evasively. This seems unlikely, and I know monasteries have been at the centre of recent unrest, but I don’t press her. I could get deported for asking the wrong questions, but she could lose her livelihood and end up in jail.

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Travelling through Tibet: the Beijing to Lhasa express
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