A breathtaking 2 day, 3,750km train journey through the rooftop of the world
“There is no possibility of building a railway which reaches Lhasa as long as Kunlun Mountains stands there.” American traveler Paul Theroux had claimed once. The Chinese proved everyone wrong years later by building the man made wonder – Qinghai Tibet railway. The Qinghai-Tibet railway begins from Xining, the capital of Qinghai province where the train enters the Tibetan plateau and traverses the rooftop of the world. Did you know that the Qinghai-Tibet railway holds 9 world records – the highest railway in the world (5072m above sea level), longest plateau railway in the world (1956 m), the highest train station in the world (5068m at Tanggula pass), highest tunnel in the world (4905m), longest plateau tunnel in the world (Fengoshuan tunnel at 1686m) amongst the others. No wonder, the Xining-Lhasa train was on my bucket list and I had researched many times over, but nothing prepared me for journey and the incredible experience that it was.
Often known as the ‘Skyroad’ or ‘Heaven road’, the train journey is incredibly scenic, crawling slowly through the permafrost plateau and the high passes. Without a doubt, the railway is an engineering feat and a man made wonder! It is unimaginable, the conditions which the construction crew must have braved to construct this! The Tibetan plateau has one of the harshest environment in the world (often known as the third pole of earth) with sub zero temperatures, high UV and low oxygen. On top of it most sections on the route are under permafrost which made it a construction challenge to not tamper with the ecological balance. With their environment first policy, the Chinese government left no stone unturned to build with care for the fragile plateau ecosystem, roping in many wildlife experts who oversaw the plan and construction. The full route to Lhasa was opened up in 2006.
I started the journey from Beijing from where one can go directly to Lhasa via a 45 hour direct journey. There is option to break the journey at Xining and then go onwards to Lhasa. I chose the second option and boarded the Beijing – Xining train at about lunchtime and we arrived in Xining the next morning. A 7 hour break and a delayed train departure later, we boarded the Xining-Lhasa train at around 8 pm at night. The train turned out to be a mini united nations conference as the fellow travellers were from all over the world with a very few locals on the train. Our fellow occupants were from Ukraine, Australia, Britain, Germany etc. The soft sleeper compartments were very comfortable with fresh linens. The dining car serves some non-veg food but as vegetarians, we had to carry our supply of cup noodles, fruits and snacks. A quick dinner later, we retired to bed. The scenic parts of the journey starts after the train crosses Golmud around 2.30 am. Not wanting to miss the beautiful scenery, I kept an alarm and rose along with the first ray of morning light. The next 10 hours passed by the window as I couldn’t peel myself away from the seat to even get up and use the washroom. The announcements over the train speaker system kept educating me on the marvel that the railway is.
After Golmud, the train slowly ascends the plateau passing through the Kunlun Mountains Pass and Tuotuohe Town which is the origin of Yangtze River. After crossing the Tanggula Mountain Pass which is the highest mountain pass at 5068m, the train crosses the Tibetan cities Ando, Nagchu, Damxung, Yangpachen and reaching Lhasa. Along the way, one can see snow clad mountains, frozen plateau land and dozens of beautiful lakes. If you look carefully, you can spot Yaks, Antelopes and other wild animals grazing peacefully. A highway to Lhasa also runs in parallel to the train track and one can spot hundreds of trucks ferrying goods to and fro from Lhasa. What mars the scenery are the electric lines and the telecom towers on an otherwise spectacular landscape.
The impact of the railway is much debated. Though all steps were taken to protect the environment during the construction and with the regular operations, the impact on the permafrost, the plateau temperature and the migration routes for wildlife is not well established. The railway was built with the intent of helping the most backward region of China i.e. Tibet to benefit from the economic activity that the connectivity and tourism would bring. It has raised standards of living in the Tibetan region for sure, but arguments exists on the rapid erosion of Tibetan culture.
On whatever side of the debate you are on, the only winning argument is that men are only limited by their imagination of what’s possible. Kunlun mountain pass still stands and has gracefully allowed the passage of millions of people to experience the spectacular Tibetan landscape.
Top tips for planning the journey:
- Acclimatisation is important. One can take the Beijing Lhasa direct train which is about 45 hours. It is often advised to break the journey at Xining, rest for a day and then board the Xining Lhasa train to allow for full acclimatisation. Moreover, the scenic parts of the journey are after Xining, so it is better to save time by flying to Xining, spending a day in Qinghai province to see the Qinghai Lake and then enjoying the journey towards Lhasa. Each seat on the Xining-Lhasa train is equipped with oxygen supply in case someone develops altitude sickness.
- Board the last train from Xining: Take the last train possible out of Xining as the scenic parts will then start after early morning and you can enjoy the Tibetan plateau in your waking hours. You don’t want to be taking a day train out of Xining only to sleep through the nice parts.
- Book early: Trains tend to get costlier nearer to the date of the journey. Book early than two months ideally to get best prices.
- Choose soft sleepers for comfort: The sleeper trains are of two types – hard sleeper with 6 berths per compartment and soft sleeper with 4 berths per compartment. There is a steep price difference and if you do mind a cramped compartment, you are better off paying extra to journey comfortably.
- Bring your food: There is a pantry that serves food, mostly noodles all day. If you are vegetarian and cannot speak Chinese, it is better to bring your own food supplies as communicating with the attendants is difficult and you can’t make sure you are not eating anything that you don’t want to be eating. There is boiling hot water available through the day to cook noodles or ready to heat and eat packaged food. Bring fruits and snacks from the station as there is pretty much nothing else to do, but eat and look outside the window.
- Travel light: The compartments are small and luggage storage is under the seats. There is also a overhead storage compartment. Do bring only small suitcases and backpack luggage else you will struggle with luggage storage.
- Grab the alley seats in the morning: Each compartment has a door that can be locked from inside for privacy. There are foldable seats in the alley where one can sit and enjoy the view of the other side of the plateau. In the early morning, the sun rises on the left side of the train and you can sit on the alley seats to enjoy the dawn light bathing the Tibetan plateau.