We've left Beijing on the overnight train to Lhasa and this time we're bunking in six berth cabins, two abreast and three high, making the top bed around 3m in the air. Our ever-diligent, if haphazardly organised, guide - Drujal - has seen to it that our group only inhabits the bottom two bunks on each side, so I get a pang of guilt when a Chinese lady of considerable heritage has to be literally man-handled into her berth by her two sons. I did offer her my bunk, but her sons were adamant that she stick to her reserved space; I think secretly they just wanted to see dear old mum try and clamber into bed. We're sharing with Allan and Judy, a very pleasant Australian couple who are retracing the travels Al did in his youth. I do get the impression that Judy isn't a 'seasoned traveller', at least in the backpacking sense of the phrase, as her expectations regarding hygiene and sleeping quarters seem pretty high considering where we're heading.
Compared to the last tour, the evening on the train seems a lot more cagey, with most of the group silently going about their business, preparing noodles, reading or even writing on their own. Perhaps it's the age differences, or perhaps the fact that there are more couples on this trip, but the ice has been a little more difficult to break this time around. In fact, ours is the only cabin with anything other than quiet conversation happening in it - I spent considerable time and effort reminding Allan of Australia's recent Ashes performance, thus continuing the great tradition of Anglo-Aussie relations - so we actually attracted in a few members of the group who wandered past our door. Consider the ice a little more broken.
We drifted off to sleep, despite Allan's best efforts at nocturnal nasal orchestra, to awake the next morning to another episode of Tectonic Changing Rooms. The greening fields of cereals that surround Beijing had erupted into snow-dusted hinterlands, hemmed with distant mountains and a baby blue sky. Whilst there were stills signs of habitation, they became much less frequent, lending the whole vista a decidedly desolate appearance. As others woke, and went about making noodles for breakfast, I decided to explore the train a little more. This train, despite the denser sleeping arrangements, is actually much nicer than the trains we've been on thus far. The beds are comfy, and the cabins are clean and well looked after. Even the dining car actually feels like a restaurant on this train, compared to the 'man with a grill' on board the soviet trains. The only slightly unusual thing is the music that is piped through the carriage up until 'lights out' - it includes instrumental covers of, amongst other hits, Elton John's 'Sacrifice', Sinead O'Conner's 'Nothing Compares' and, most bizarrely, 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas'. There's nothing quite like waking up to Christmas songs on a Chinese train to Tibet to make you second guess your sanity.
The day goes by quickly, as we play card games and chat, and a few more of the group let their guards down. Sander, a young Dutch Graduate, Jane and Anique all stay in our cabin for the majority of the afternoon, leading to us having a few cans of quirky American beer in limited edition cans - ones that are emblazoned with 'Remembering American Troops in WWII' and dressed in a fetching camouflage pattern - and staying up later than we should have. Still, by bedtime, it feels like we're starting to gel much more than we did thirty-six hours ago which bodes well for our stay in Lhasa.
More to follow.