June 10, 2012
When we initially built our Trekking the Planet itinerary, we had a little problem connecting the dots. We wanted to visit Tibet and had found a great trek in the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan. So we could find a direct way to travel between these two places, right? Not so fast. The journey between Tibet and Kyrgyzstan ended up being the most complex of the trip to date.
From Lhasa, the administrative capital of Tibet, to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is about 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers). Sure, we could fly the whole way. But to keep with our goal of traveling on the ground where possible, we decided to take the train from Lhasa as far as we could into central China. After researching train and flight schedules, it made the most sense to us to take the train to the city of Lanzhou (population 3.2 million) and then fly from there.
Even with this plan, we would still need to take two short flights to get to Bishkek. First would be a 2 1/2 hour flight from Lanzhou to Urumqi. Located in northwestern China, Urumqi has a reputation for unrest, due to ethnic population concerns. So we decided in advance to limit our time there. From Urumqi, the second flight would be less than two hours to Bishkek. The only problem with this alternative is that there would be an eight hour, overnight layover in Urumqi, as the first flight was scheduled to arrive at 11:00pm and the second was scheduled to depart at 8:00am the next morning. Since there were not many choices, we went ahead and booked these flights knowing that this was going to be a painful process.
When we left Tibet, our Tibetan guide picked us up at 10am from our Lhasa hotel and took us to the train station. Amid tight security we made our way past various checkpoints to the waiting area for our train, which was going all the way to Shanghai. We had booked a ‘soft sleeper’, which is a compartment with four beds (two upper, two lower). Soon after we settled in, we were joined in our compartment by a young Chinese woman and her five-year old daughter. They were going eight hours further than we were to Xian. The woman spoke about five words of English and we know about the same number of words in Mandarin but we got along famously and had fun playing with her daughter during the 25 hours we were on the train.
The train line from Lhasa is an engineering marvel. It contains the world’s highest track at the Tanggula Pass (16,640 feet / 5,072 meters), as well as the highest rail tunnel in the world (the Fenghuoshan Tunnel at 16,093 feet / 4,905 meters). About 600 miles (960 kilometers) of the train runs at an elevation of 13,120 feet / 4,000 meters or higher. Oxygen is actually pumped into the cars during the highest portions of the journey!
Looking out the window we saw endless vistas of mountains and plateaus, as well as the holy Tibetan Namtso Lake and large Qinghai Lake. Every so often we would see a small village or nomads living in tents next to their flocks. About 340 miles / 550 kilometers of the railway is laid on permafrost. When we reached it, late in the day, the train line at times ran on platforms above the land. It even snowed for a short time, making the scenery seem even more otherworldly.
The train only made three stops before arriving in Lanzhou five minutes ahead of schedule at 1pm the next day. Once we left the train in Lanzhou, the real logistics began. Our flight left at 8:20pm so the plan was to walk from the train station to the airport bus (2 miles / 4 kilometers) and have lunch at a place on the way. We bought a Lonely Planet guide to the city that listed several restaurants on our route. However, we could not find any of them and anything else that resembled a restaurant was either signed in Mandarin or staffed with non-English speakers. It was hot and we were pulling our 40 pound rolling duffels, so we needed another plan. At this point, Sandy whipped out her web-enabled phone and searched on KFC. As it turned out, there were several KFCs in the city and one located not far away. We made a beeline for this KFC and were amazed to find that it was totally packed. We could not even find a place to sit. Eventually, we enjoyed a nice lunch and some time to relax.
Walking back to the bus stop, we left at 4:20pm for the 42 mile (70 kilometer) one-hour drive to the airport. Our flight ended up leaving an hour late so we did not arrive in Urumqi until midnight. We knew that there were several large airport hotels and we ended up staying at the five-star location because they were the only ones with a shuttle bus right outside as we left baggage claim. There was little English spoken among the staff but we let them know that we would be leaving early and, even though their shuttle bus back to the airport didn’t start running until 6:30am, they indicated that we could take a taxi. It was a little after 1am when we finally got to sleep.
Up again at 4:45am, we went downstairs to check out and were told that they could not call a taxi and we would have to walk. Again, communication was difficult but we were able to get them to draw us a map from the hotel to the International Terminal. Darren used his phone and local SIM card to also plot a course. The predawn route took us through totally deserted walkways and pitch-black pedestrian tunnels. Luckily, we had a small flash light in Sandy’s purse or we would not have been able to navigate our bags down the long ramps that we encountered. It was only a ten minute walk and we were there just a few minutes before the line opened up to check in. It was fortunate that we were early because the airline had not been able to enter any of the non-Chinese passenger passport details correctly into their system, so we were diverted to another line to have this fixed before we could check in.
The flight left on time and we were almost immediately treated to beautiful views of the snow covered Tian Shan Mountains outside of our window. Soon we arrived at the Bishkek airport and the final order of business was to obtain our visas. It was great to see our guide with his sign when we left baggage claim. We were driven 18 miles (30 kilometers) along roads with cool green fields on either side to our guesthouse.
It was 49 hours door to door from Lhasa to Bishkek and, even though it was not easy, we are happy with what we saw and experienced during our transportation odyssey. We have the rest of today and tomorrow to catch up on some sleep, check email and prepare our next newsletter before we begin our Tian Shan trek.