August 11, 2015

The Railway to Heaven

I have been doing quite a bit of reading this week about my planned journey from Beijing via Golmud up to Lhasa. I’m really trying to get my head around the enormity of what has been built and there is a serious danger that I might accidentally slip into trainspotter speak. Not only the highest railway in the world, but the highest tunnel, the longest mountain tunnel and specially built on supports in the permafrost (with passive heat exchangers, what ever they might be). There are 675 bridges and the trains have an enriched oxygen atmosphere onboard. You can read all about this engineering marvel here at Wikipedia.

Connecting the last part of China to be without a modern railway, it also has the potential in the future to be a bridge into Central Asia, with an extension planned to Nepal (2020), and possibly even India at some point.

“The Sky Train” Source:

This has got me thinking about the practical implications of this part of the trip. The journey up from Beijing takes three days, and the altitude profile is quite steep over the last 24 hours, topping out at the Tanggula Pass (5072m) before a slight descent into Lhasa. The Tanggula Pass is the undisputed highest point of any railway on the planet.

Tanggula Station (5068m). Source: Wikipedia

I remember taking a train across South America a few years ago and really feeling the altitude. It is not like climbing, where you often have acclimatisation periods and sleep lower than you climb each day. I’m no mountaineer, but in 2002 I summited on Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kinabalu in the same year. On the top of Kili (5895m) I remember how the colours I saw looked saturated, my thinking was slowed and the strange sensation of looking down on myself. An out of body experience.. or more likely my brain slowly shutting down with the low pressure and lack of oxygen in the thin air.

So I have been researching what to do to prepare for this. Other than get super fit and train at high altitude (little hope), there are some medical options, so I have turned to a couple of trusty books in my travel library – “Travellers Health” by Dr Richard Dawood (1992) and “Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival” by Frances Ashcroft (2001). Both full of useful advice and both scare me slightly with the stark danger of fast accents to high altitude.

I understand that officially only one person has died of AMS on the Lhasa train to date. I’m not sure if that is a comforting statistic or not, and wonder how many might have needed treatment on arrival. On the plus side, the train is supposed to add extra oxygen to the carriage atmosphere, which should be supported to some extent as it passes above Golmud. Apparently this gets the altitude equivalent to about that of Lhasa inside the carriage (3490m).

There is also supplemental oxygen available at each seat, so I guess if I felt bad I could go onto breathing this and then catch the next train down to a lower altitude. The only snag being to go down you would have to go back over the higher Tanggula Pass first. No wonder they make you sign a health disclaimer before you can get on the train.

Using the personal oxygen supply. Source

Practically the vital steps are to stay well hydrated (passing urine is important), avoiding alcohol and using ibuprofen to treat any headaches. I have gone a stage further than this and will be bringing a supply of Diamox (Acetazolamide) to use preventively twice a day. Hopefully it will help me to sleep, breathe normally and and generally acclimatise. There is plenty of medical debate about this approach, but I did use it on Kili and it seems to work for me. Apparently there are also a range of Tibetan herbs that can be used, but I don’t think I’m going to find them in time. Some travellers have even used dexamthazone, but I shall leave this for a doctor to give me if there is an emergency, as from what I understand it is a pretty serious steroid with quite serious and sometimes permanent side effects. I led to believe that there is a doctor on every train.

Of all the websites I read to learn about the train, this had better information and pictures of the train. Let me know if you find something better. I also read this article, which illustrates the acclimatisation issues. The subsequent comments are reassuring. One bit of advice from a mountain doctor was to start taking diamox 48 hours before getting to any serious altitude and eat mainly carbs which produce more energy with lower amounts of oxygen. I shall plan to live on a diet of water (mixed with rehydration salts) and noodles.

In other news, I now have my Russian visa. That is a record for me as it is 5 months before I set off. Some good advice from Real Russia and I discovered that as long as you have the correct letter of invitation the consulates have the discretion to issue visa up to six months in advance. I’m a great fan of having all my paperwork in order, and it was strangely comforting to see others with less well completed applications. Nothing makes me happier than getting a smile from a Russian official, and I managed it on my return to collect my passport. It’s a schoolboy thing I think, like wanting a gold star for my homework!

Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure

Did you by any chance see the Joanna Lumley series that aired recently on British television? It was a three parter, and whilst to begin with I wasn’t quite sure what it was trying to do, I warmed to it as it progressed. The trains were nicely filmed and it was interesting to see that the filming mainly took place in second class “Kupe” carriages. I recognised several of the trains, and even one of the officials in Moscow. I hope I won’t spoil it for you by commenting that there was no way it could have been filmed as a continuous journey though – we saw Mongolia in the late summer and Siberia in mid winter.. I think it might give people who have not done the trip a good feeling of the trains and life generally on board, but these sequences were really just connecting her meetings with people in various stops along the way. Anyway, hat’s off to all involved – great to raise the profile of life on the rails and the Trans-Mong.
I think that’s all for now. I’m busy working on the book at the moment, but will try and post again later in the month.

One Comment on “The Railway to Heaven

September 14, 2015 at 2:10 pm

you are correct in your assertion that using Diamox as a preventive measure for hape (high altitude pulmonary edema )and hace (high altitude cereral edema)however Diamox is a diuretic and will make you pee more. therefore hydration is extremely important dexamethazone is a potent steroid and is frequently used as a treatment for both hape and hace. it should be used sparingly and as an emergency measure.


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