- This article is an itinerary.
Known as the Qinghai-Tibet train, Qinghai-Tibet railway, Tibet railway or Qingzang railway, this route is 1,956 km long and stretches from Xining in the province of Qinghai via to Lhasa in Tibet. The highest railway in the world, rising up to more than 5,000 meters (16,000 ft) above sea level, the railway is a masterpiece of engineering. During its construction it was both welcomed and opposed; and according to critics it is was built for political and military rather than an economical reasons.
As early as 1949 when the People's Republic of China was declared and when Tibet was "peacefully liberated" in the 1950s, plans were made up for a railway to Tibet. The first 814 km (506 mi) section from Xining past Golmud to Nanshankou was finished in 1984, but the construction of the rest of the railway across the high plateau posed several challenges, wherefore construction was halted until 2001:
Almost 90% of the second section of the railway goes through terrain more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft) above the sea level. With lower air pressure and therefore less oxygen, working at this altitude was heavy for both construction workers and machinery. As diesel locomotives need oxygen to function, and there's less of it available than at sea level, trains using the line are hauled by three locomotives.
For about 550 km the tracks cross permanently frozen ground (permafrost), and if the ground would melt from heat from the train, the tracks would be displaced. In order to keep the ground frozen, thousands of heat exchangers were jammed into the ground where the tracks were laid.
The highland is inhabited by yaks and antilopes that wander across the tracks every year in large hordes. Therefore several wilderness crossings had to be built, and for long stretches the railway goes on viaducts, which as a bonus prevents heating up the ground by trains.
The final major problem was the moving sand dunes on the highland. To protect the tracks from drowning in sand, big rocks were set up as barries next to the tracks.
Construction was restarted in 2001, the railway was finished in 2005 and one year later regular traffic started. Since that, travel along this railway takes passengers to the highest point of any railway (Tanggula pass, 5,072 m), the highest railway station (Tanggula station, 5,068 m) and the highest railway tunnel (Fenghuo-Shan tunnel, 4,905 m) in the world.
Trains and tickets
Trains on the railway usually comprise 16 cars, one of which is a dining car. This is not a luxury service, not even the soft sleeper class, for instance even there there is only one or two toilets per car, which often is quite dirty. The floor near hot water fountains is usually thoroughly soaked, and the fountains are not always working. In addition to this there is barely enough room for luggage. Passengers often have to sleep with their suitcases on their beds if they are too large to fit under the beds or in the over-corridor area linked to each compartment. Finally, as elsewhere in China, expect loud discussions in nighttime, smoking on board even if it's prohibited and other potentially jarring behavior. Nevertheless, you should probably just take it as a cultural experience.
Line speeds average around 100 to 120 km/h, certainly from Golmud to Lhasa, making the journey interesting but also laborious.
There are three classes on the train: hard seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper; see China#Classes for a description of these. Here are some sample prices for tickets as of 2017:
|Route||Travel time||Hard Seat||Hard Sleeper||Soft Sleeper|
Tickets for the lower beds are slightly more expensive than upper beds; for example going from Lanzhou to Lhasa, a ticket for a lower bed costs ¥854 when the price is ¥823 for the upper bed.
You can probably buy tickets yourself just like for any route in China. But given that independent travel (not part of a tour) in Tibet is not allowed for foreigners, and you will need one (or more) permit(s) to travel there, you might as well let the tour company take care of the tickets as well.
These things you will need to bring for the trip:
- Enough toilet paper — as usual in China, none is available at the toilets.
- Food — the food in the dining car isn't particularly good. It's better to do like most locals and bring some instant soup or noodles and heat up them with water from the hot water fountain. Moreover, in a high-altitude environment it's important to drink a lot of water.
- Any medication you need, including medication against altitude sickness.
- Bedclothes are available only in the soft sleeper class, in other classes you need to bring your own.
Almost all foreigners need a visa to visit China and to travel to Tibet by train (or other mode of transportation), you need a Tibet travel permit on top of that. Also, due to the high altitude of the train route and Lhasa itself, you should stay at some intermediate destination for a few days to let your body acclimatize — for instance at Xining, which is about 1,500 m or almost a mile above the sea level.
There are trains from several places in China to Lhasa, and as the Qinghai-Tibet railway is the only one into Tibet, you will travel along it from Xining to Lhasa, no matter if you start in Beijing, Xining, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu or somewhere along the way. See details in these city articles for getting in. You could also reach Golmud via routes described in Silk Road and Along the Yellow river. Some trains go daily, others every second day — on average there are five passenger trains a day in each direction on this railway.
If you plan to travel in the other direction, see Lhasa#Get in for getting to Lhasa and starting the train journey from there. Most likely you will fly into Lhasa.
At the end of each car there is a display showing the current time, the speed, the altitude and the next station. There are also posters about the route and the station (and how long the train stops there). At the stations it's allowed to go out on the platforms, but as per the schedule, other than in Golmud the train only stops for a couple of minutes. Formerly the trains also stopped at dedicated viewpoint stations on the high plateau, but this practice has ended as people frequently passed out due to the lack of oxygen.
Stations and things you can see from the train include:
- 1 Xining — [1520m above sea level, 0 km]
- 1 Qinghai Lake
- 2 Delingha — [2980m, 521 km/4h from Xining]
- 3 Golmud — [2828m, 830 km/7h from Xining]
- 2 Kunlun Pass, the east part of Kunlun Mountains (Hoh Xil Mountains to Bayan Har Mountains), Yuzhu Peak and its glacier
- 3 Fenghuoshan Tunnel
- 4 Kekexili Grassland
- 5 Tuotuo River Bridge
- 6 Tanggula railway station, Tanggula Mountains. Located in the Tanggula Pass.
- 4 Amdo — [4800m, 1524 km/15.5h from Xining] - apparently only trains starting and terminating in Xining stop here
- 7 Amdo Grassland
- 8 Tsonag Lake
- 5 Nagchu — [4513m, 1650 km/17h from Xining]
- 9 Nagchu Grassland
- 10 Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains
- 11 Damxung Grassland
- 12 Lhasa River Bridge
- 6 Lhasa — [3641m, 1972 km/21h from Xining]
- See also: Altitude sickness
While this is a normal passenger route, travel along this railway can be considered more of an aventure and the journey cannot be recommended to everyone. You will experience conditions that otherwise only mountaineers will experience — there are likely no higher place in the world that you can reach by scheduled land transport, the train will go higher than any summit in Western Europe or the lower 48 states and unlike airplane cabins the train cars are not pressurized.
The journey should not be taken by persons who have any heart-, lung-, blood circulation-, or kidney-related health issues. The trip can also not be recommended to children and people who are afraid of wide spaces or heights or easily get panic attacks.
There will be medical staff onboard between Golmud and Lhasa and supplemental oxygen will be pumped into the cars when you travel 3,000 m above sea level or higher. If that is not enough, you can plug a nasal catheter into an outlet for a more concentrated dose. Few passengers require these, but they are available if you do.
During the journey (and in Lhasa), drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration, but no alcohol or coffee. Sunburn can probably also be a risk, though you will likely not spend that much time outside the train.
Tibet is still a "sensitive" region and under military control. Being caught possessing politically hostile literature or weapons or photographing military or police will get you into trouble.
When arriving at Lhasa railway station, be prepared to be greeted by armed soldiers and police officers, ushering people off the train and the platform. If you're obviously a foreigner, they will take you aside to a separate building check your Tibet Travel Permit before you're allowed to leave the station.
Also watch out for the taxi drivers who insist on charging a fixed rate per vehicle (despite number of occupants) of ¥100 for the journey into Lhasa center. They can also become quite irate if you do not use their car! Its best to try and get 4 people together to split the cost (¥25 each) - but its still a rip off as standard fares in Lhasa start at ¥5 and then ¥1.8 per km. The journey to a central Lhasa hotel should cost no more than ¥20.