Train to Lhasa: Never Miss the Tibet Train Experience
Of all the ways one can get to the Tibetan plateau, the Tibet train is the most exciting and adventurous, traveling thousands of miles overland, through some of the most stunning countryside in both mainland China and Tibet. A journey that can cover from 2,000 kilometers to more than 4,000 kilometers, traveling to Tibet by train is an unmissable experience that will leave you with incomparable memories that will last a lifetime.
Before the trains, there was just the road, and it was a hard drive to get to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Flights ran from several cities across China to the Lhasa Gonggar International Airport, but the expense was out of reach for many tourists who desired to take a Tibet tour to see the unique people and culture of the plateau region.
Since it was opened in 2006, the train to Tibet has carried many millions of passengers to and from Tibet, and within the first year of service, far exceeded the 4,000 expected tourists per month traveling on the train, with around 1.8 million passengers heading to Tibet before the end of the first year. This number has grown exponentially over the years, with around six million in 2010, and more than 10.58 million passengers in 2012.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway has increased tourism in Tibet to a point where the region is seeing a huge growth in the building of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and other tourist centered businesses, opening up opportunities for the Tibetan people to benefit from the massive increase in tourism in the region.
The Feature of Qinghai-Tibet Railway
It was once claimed that building a railway to the high-altitude Tibetan plateau was an impossible task, due to the immense barrier of the Kunlun Mountains, according to the American traveler Paul Theroux. However, just ten years after he said that in a media interview, the Qinghai Tibet Railway opened for passenger traffic, and began the new era of tourism in Tibet. Known as the “Heaven Road” and the “Sky Road”, the railway has brought affordable tourism to Tibet, and enabled people who would not have had the opportunity to visit the beautiful region to realize their dreams.
The world’s longest and highest plateau railway, the Qinghai Tibet Railway runs for 1,956 kilometers from Xining in Qinghai Province to Lhasa, the Capital of Tibet. Complete with 89 stations along its entire length, most of which are unmanned, it carries passengers from all across China to the heady heights of the Tibetan plateau.
Riding Tibet train to Lhasa through snow mountains
The Tibet train runs through some of Tibet’s most spectacular countryside, across high mountain ranges, and beside shimmering holy lakes and fast-flowing rivers. At its highest point, at the famous Tanggula Pass, the tracks reach an elevation of 5,072 meters, the highest railway pass in the world, beating the previous highest in Peru. It also has the highest increase in elevation of any railway in the world, rising from just 234 meters above sea level at the station in Zhamalong to 5,068 meters at the station in Tanggula.
The highest railway in the world, it also holds a number of other world records, including the longest plateau tunnel built on frozen earth, the longest extent of tracks built across permafrost, the highest railway tunnel in the world, one of the longest railway bridges in the world at the Qingshui River Bridge, and it is the fastest plateau train in the world, running at between 100-120 kilometers per hour over the plateau’s frozen ground. The railway is seen by many as a miracle of modern engineering, and has become a major transport system for tourism in Tibet, reducing the cost of travel to the region by more than 60 percent.
The Fact of Tibet Trains
The trains to Tibet are modern carriages built by the Bombardier Company in Canada, and shipped to China overseas. The quality-made trains contain three main types of passenger compartments for the three classes of tickets. The third-class ticket is for a padded seat in the “hard seat” compartments of the train, and which is the cheapest option for travel. However, it is not recommended for traveling to Tibet, since it can get very uncomfortable after the first several hours, and the trains take a minimum of 22 hours to get to Lhasa.
The second-class compartment is known as the “Hard Sleeper cabin”, and despite the name, is definitely not hard. The beds are soft and comfortable, albeit a little crowded. The hard sleeper carriages have six berths per cabin over three levels, and are a little cramped, with almost no privacy except for a light curtain between the berths and the corridor. This is the cheapest option for comfortable travel, and if you are not worried by a little overcrowding, it is ideal for getting to Lhasa on a budget.
Soft sleeper on Tibet train
The first-class compartments, known as the “Soft Sleeper cabins”, are a little more comfortable than the hard sleepers, with only four berths per cabin, and a lockable door to the corridor outside. With more room to move around and store you luggage, the soft sleepers are often the preferred travel compartments of foreign tourists to Tibet, although they are the most costly of all.
All the carriages have Chinese and Western style toilet facilities, washing facilities, and boiling water on tap, although there is no shower room as showering on the train at the increased altitudes is not advisable. An oxygen supply system is built into the train, and releases oxygen into the air once the train passes Golmud and gets higher on the plateau. The system also has individual outlets for additional oxygen supply for those suffering from the effects of altitude sickness.
For dining, the trains all have a restaurant car, with freshly cooked meals available, and a wide-ranging selection of Chinese and Tibetan foods, with a few western favorites to fill in the gaps. Food service trolleys also run the length of the train, selling snacks and packet meals to passengers, and providing box meals from the dining car for those that do not want to eat in the restaurant.
Large windows in the cabins and corridor sides of the train allow an expansive view of the landscape the train travels through, giving passengers amazing views of the stunning Tibetan scenery and the high snow-capped mountains. And if that is not enough, the staff of the train will point out the most famous and popular sights in English, Chinese, and Tibetan as you approach them, so you will not miss out on the spectacular sights.
Trains Routes to Lhasa
The trains to Lhasa leave from seven different gateway cities across China, and travel various routes to reach Lhasa, although all trains pass through Xining Station and along the Qinghai Tibet Railway. The seven gateway cities are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Lanzhou, Chengdu, and Xining. From Lanzhou, the route goes straight to Xining, while from Beijing, Chongqing, and Chengdu, the routes all head from different directions to Lanzhou, and then on to Xining, the next station on the route. Trains from Shanghai and Guangzhou both head through Xi’an, Zhongwei, and Lanzhou before reaching Xining and the start of the Qinghai Tibet Railway.
Lhasa Railway Station Guide
Lhasa Railway Station is huge, much bigger than is necessary for the volume of passengers that were originally expected through its doors. However, with the increase in tourism over the last ten years, the reason for the station’s size soon becomes apparent. Despite being large, it is filled with people every time a train leaves or arrives, and the square outside is a busy place.
Comfortable waiting room in Lhasa Railway Station
The station has three waiting halls on the two levels, with mother and baby rooms, special rooms for soft sleeper passengers, medical rooms, a huge entrance hall, modern LED screens showing the departures and arrivals, and a long line of ticket kiosks. Set up for modern travel requirements, the interior of the station is well equipped and very functional. It even has a small shopping area with snack bars and some restaurants.
A classic Chinese station building, with a little Tibetan look to it, the station itself is stunning, and is a comfortable and delightful place to wait for your train. Located around eight kilometers from the center of Lhasa, near the Lhasa River on the north bank, the station is accessed by most people by private car courtesy of their tour operators. For those who are permitted to travel individually, which is mostly the Chinese tourists, there are regular shuttle buses to Lhasa downtown, as well as taxis that can cover the distance in just a few minutes.
Travel Tips for Taking a Train to Lhasa
If you are taking the train to Tibet, it is important to remember that your Tibet Travel Permit is the most important document you will need. You cannot get onto the platform for the train to Tibet without it, nor can you board the train, or get through the checks at the other end if you lose it. Keep it safe on your person at all times, as it will also be needed for hotel check-in and police checkpoints across the region.
Tibet Train Tickets can often sell out pretty fast, so it is advisable to book your train tickets in advance, as soon as the ticket offices open for the required date. It is normally 60 days before the date of travel that tickets become available, so make sure you book them fast, especially in the summer months when the train is busiest. If you really can’t get the train ticket to Lhasa, you can take a train from Lhasa to mainland China after your Lhasa city tour. You can also see most of the best parts of the Qinghai-Tibet railway during the daytime.
If you are not sure about the food on the train, or it is your first time in China and Tibet, it is a good idea to bring pot noodles and packet foods with you. There is boiling water for free on the train, and it can be used for packet and pot meals or tea and coffee. If you have never had local Chinese or Tibetan tea, you might want to bring your own, as it is very different from western teas, most of which use Indian tea leaves.