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Oxygen for Ideas

Lhasa: today's office

We’ve not been issued with oxygen masks, and despite signing a high-altitude waiver form there is no real pending sense of threat. In fact the journey is smooth enough to type up field notes – somewhat surprising given that we’re currently a smidgen higher than 4200 meters, gaining altitude and traveling at a steady 93km per hour. The only audio annoyance is the very occasional Chinese pop song played over the tannoy, something that is easily blocked out by shutting the compartment door. Glancing out the window reveals a vista of the Tibetan plateau that is both stunning and monotonous – we’re approximately half way through a 36 hour train journey that will eventually terminate in Lhasa.

Every field study needs time for reflection, beyond the daily debriefs and meal time chats – so after 12 days intensive data gathering in Shanghai and Xi’an a bit of space was called for, tickets and travel permits obtained. Not that it’s been plain sailing: going through touts for the tickets aligned well with our study into [redacted] but it also meant we couldn’t be sure if we would make the journey standing, would have to blag space in the conductor’s sleeper carriage, or would have a compartment of our own until we boarded. It is, thankfully, the latter – although admittedly everybody in the crew was up for the former.

We did have an option to use the journey to gather more data: ~800 people in an enclosed space for 36 hours creates a lot of interview openings, but at this point we don’t need more stimulus material -the past days have taken us on early morning jaunts with 100’s of manual labourers jostling to be part of the Chinese economic miracle; afternoons spent in the company of cosmopolitan young professionals; and late, late nights coaxing stories out of are-you-really-old-enough-to-work-here KTV hostesses. Business as usual then. Or not – may we live in interesting times.

So how good is a long distance train ride for the team to discuss the research? Better than good actually: a comfortable compartment with 4 bunks puts the team in close-enough (but not too close) proximity with each other and the data; limited distractions from on-demand internet access; the aforementioned vista for middle distance thinking; and our two secret weapons: a power extension cable and 8 cup cafétiere with a kilo of freshly ground coffee – this being China we have an unlimited supply of hot water.

Had we wanted to hustle for money we could have made a killing from the double whammy of caffeine and internet deprived tourists by opening (one of the worlds highest moving non-airborne etc?) internet cafés – four Macs connected to China Mobile data services via an N97 running JoikuSpot. Having an unlimited [cough] work [cough, cough] data plan doesn’t hurt.

New dawn rising, a carriage stirs, it’s time to take my typing to the dining car.