While researching the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (the Tibet train) as a way to travel to Tibet, we have learned a lot, which we would like to share with you to save you making some common mistakes.
A lot of people still think that taking the Tibet train from Beijing will acclimate them to Lhasa’s high altitude.
It makes sense that if you start at near sea level in Beijing and two days later you end up in Lhasa, at 11,975 feet/3650 meters, then the journey is a great way to acclimatize, right?
Well, no, it’s not really that simple, and if you really want to be acclimated before going to Lhasa or other high-altitude Tibetan cities, the bottom line is that you need to spend some time at an intermediate elevation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention5 says this: “The process of acute acclimatization to high altitude takes 3–5 days; therefore, acclimatizing for a few days at 8,000–9,000 ft before proceeding to a higher altitude is ideal.” If you are short on time, as the great majority of travelers to Tibet seem to be, here is one option:
- Get to Xining (Siling in Tibetan) (7490 ft/2283 m), stay there at least 1 day, and optimally 2 or 3, and then take the train to Lhasa. (Note: For many, Xining is not itself a great tourist destination, though there are some very interesting day trips to take while you wait.)
In this post, first we will look at the acclimatization issues, then talk about some of your options.
If you are planning a trip to Tibet, we can put you in touch with a reliable Tibetan-owned agent who will plan a non-touristy trip that gives you a real feel for Tibet. Contact us here for Tibet travel help.
Why the Tibet Train Journey Itself is Not a Great Way to Acclimate to Lhasa’s Altitude
The trip from Beijing to Lhasa takes roughly two days, but you are not spending two days acclimatizing.
In a nutshell, you are spending too much time at altitudes both too low and too high to help you acclimate to Lhasa’s 11,975 feet/3650 meters.
Here’s a chart we’ve created to help you understand: 2
Locations on Route
Altitude in Meters
Altitude in Feet
Hours into the Trip
|Tang La Pass||5072||16,640||~ 35|
- Yellow: Altitude too low to help acclimatization
- Green: Altitude helpful to acclimatize
- Red: Altitude too high, even with extra oxygen on train, to be helpful to acclimatizing
And here are two graphs showing the altitude trajectory of the train journey, in meters and in feet:
Learn more about altitude sickness in Tibet here:
- Altitude Sickness in Tibet: How Bad are the Symptoms?
- What is My Risk of Getting High Altitude Sickness?
- How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Tibet
- Itineraries for Preventing Altitude Sickness in Tibet
- Altitude Sickness Prevention in A Nutshell: Worried about Getting Altitude Sickness? You’re Not Alone.
In Other Words…
Over two-thirds of the first 24 hours on the train are spent well under 1524 m/ 5000 ft, which is too low to be useful for adjusting to high altitude. 3
After 20 hours into the journey, at Xining, the train begins to climb into more serious altitude, and you spend the next ten hours reaching Golmud. (See this post on how to avoid altitude sickness.) The climb from Xining to Golmud, goes a bit high, reaching 3248 m/10,656 ft, but the general trend is a gradual ascent that is helpful for acclimatizing.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the train journey is at altitudes actually higher than Lhasa’s.
Over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa section is at an elevation of more than 4000m / 13,123 ft), with the highest point, just on the Lhasa side of the Tang La Pass, reaching 5072 m/16,640 ft).
Although this might sound like a good way to get used to Lhasa’s altitude, it’s not really. The key to getting used to high altitude is to ascend slowly, and the train is, unfortunately, climbing very high quite fast.
Rick Curtis, in the Princeton University Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses, suggests that you should “ascend at a rate of no more than 1000 feet per day after the first 10,000 feet” and “rest for an entire day each time you ascend 3000 feet.”
Not only is the train climbing, obviously, much more rapidly than this, but also, some of the trains end up passing through the highest point on the journey during the second night.
The passengers then are likely to have a rough night because, according to Curtis, “respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating the symptoms” of the onset of the milder forms of altitude sickness: “headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise.” Learn more in our post on the symptoms of altitude sickness.
But wait, don’t they pump extra oxygen into the train?
Yes, actually, the Qinghai-Tibet railway train cars are equipped with two ways to deliver oxygen. First of all, oxygen is pumped in when the train reaches the higher altitudes, raising the concentration of oxygen in the air from the normal 21% to about 25%.
Plus, there are oxygen outlets that individuals can plug into with a tube fitted with a nosepiece. (The trains are not, as Chinese travel agency sites often claim, pressurized.)
An article called High Mix: Oxygen on the Train6 on the “High Road to…” blog notes that the extra oxygen creates conditions basically equivalent to being at Lhasa’s altitude during the higher parts of the journey.
This accounts for the fact that a number of travelers and tour guides report sleeplessness and other symptoms of mild altitude sickness, just as they would in their first days in Lhasa.
According to a study headed by Tian Yi Wu, MD of the High Altitude Medical Research Institute in Qinghai, Altitude Illness in Qinghai–Tibet Railroad Passengers, “passengers reached 4768 m from 2808 m in less than 1.5 h, after which 78% of the passengers reported symptoms, 24% reaching the Lake Louise criterion score for AMS [Acute Mountain Sickness].”
The bottom line is that, in terms of acclimatization, “the main advantages of taking the train lies in the time spent between Xining and Golmud.” (From High Mix: Oxygen on the Train), about 10 hours of the whole trip.
So, over the course of the ~ 44 hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa, you’ve got almost a whole day at altitudes too low to count, about 10 hours worth of helpful acclimatizing, and the rest of the ride at the equivalent of Lhasa’s altitude.
It clearly doesn’t add up as a great way to progress slowly up to Lhasa altitude.
Does this mean I shouldn’t take the train from Beijing, or Shanghai or Chengdu, to Lhasa?
No, not at all. In fact we do recommend taking the train instead of flying in to Lhasa, because the flight is considerably worse in terms of acclimatizing. By flying, a small percentage of people are actually at risk of getting pulmonary edema. (See the post on symptoms of altitude sickness. )
We just hope to let you know that the train is not a magic bullet for acclimatizing to Lhasa’s altitude, and that you may need to consider further strategies to help you acclimatize.
What are my Options?
A whole bunch of travel agents and expert Tibet travelers suggest one of these two routes:
1. Fly to Xining, stay there at least a couple of days, and then take the train to Lhasa. (See the Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights Tour: How to Make the most of your Time in Lhasa) Why?
- Xining’s altitude is high enough to help you begin to acclimate but not so high as to make most people feel sick.3 If you stay 2-3 days, before moving on to Lhasa, it will help you to acclimate. While you’re in Xining you can take a few interesting day trips. (See this post on itineraries to help prevent altitude sickness in Tibet.)
- A major reason to take the train, it has become clear to us, is for the views. The views in the first day from Beijing are apparently not that interesting. By all accounts the best views are between Golmud and Lhasa, and if you take the right train from Xining, you can see the best bits in daylight.
- One downside of staying in Xining is that the city itself, frankly, is not that interesting. But the good news is that it is a jumping off point to visit the Amdo region of Tibet. It is the largest city on the Tibetan plateau and diverse in its population, but only 5% Tibetan.
- By the way, though Golmud is a bit higher than Xining, at 2809 m (9216 ft), no one seems to recommend moving on there for another “step” in acclimatizing, except the Chinese researcher Wu, who clearly wasn’t looking at things from a touristic point of view. Not to malign the place without having ever been, but Golmud doesn’t sound like a place that most folks want to hang out. It might not even be possible to do this. Several reports online indicate that you can’t get off the train at Golmud and/or that you can’t buy a ticket from Golmud to Lhasa. Some report that you can get a ticket but that it is very expensive due to scarcity. The bottom line is that no one recommends doing it.
2. What about flying in to Lhasa and taking the train out of Lhasa at the end of your visit?
- Like many people we have flown into Lhasa ourselves (see a brief description of our acclimatization process when flying in to Lhasa below 4), and suffered from altitude sickness for sure, but took it easy for 3 days and were fine. However, you should be aware that for a low percentage of people, the risk of flying in to Lhasa directly from low altitude can result in pulmonary edema, which is potentially fatal. Here’s a comment from Vistet, over at “the high road to…” blog, where he has a much more complete discussion of these issues, including good links to some studies: “…people do get AMS both on flyins and the nonstop Beijing-Lhasa run , but it’s worse in every way on the flyins . More (twice as many) get AMS, more get it in worse forms, and need more treatment in Lhasa.” It’s very well worth a read of Vistet’s observations on the studies of this subject, with his bottom line being that, it seems to us, that people taking the train do definitely have significant risk of getting AMS to some degree, but that greater and more serious risk is associated with flying in, due to the 2% incidence of developing pulmonary edema in those who fly, compared to 0% in those who took the train. This is a serious consideration. It is impossible to know who will suffer from altitude sickness, and who might be at risk of developing pulmonary edema. Learn more about the risk of getting high altitude sickness here >>
- If you do decide to take the chance and fly in, which we do not recommend, there are some advantages:
- By all accounts, it is easier to book a train ticket out of Lhasa than into it (though it will be difficult either way during major Chinese holidays).
- In the high season— late May to early October — surcharges on tickets for Lhasa-bound trains, due to corruption, can get so high that it can be cheaper to fly.
- If you take the train out of Lhasa, in the morning, you have the best chance of seeing the nicest views of the journey, the 14-hour Lhasa to Golmud section, especially the section between Lhasa and the Tang Gu La pass, in daylight.
After all this research, what do we plan to do?
Well, it depends on what kind of trip we will be on:
- If we have plenty of time, and our goal is to explore Amdo a bit, it sounds like a great option to fly to Xining, stay a couple of days, then move on out to explore Kumbum monastery, Kokonor (Qinghai Lake), and the stunning nomadic lands of Amdo. After some weeks out in Amdo, we would head back to Xining and take the train to Lhasa, better prepared for the next step in altitude.
- If we had just a little extra time, we would fly into Xining, and spend two nights there, with day trips to Kumbum, Kokonor Lake, or, if you don’t want a big tourist scene, to some of the local monasteries. Then we would catch the Tibet train to Lhasa.
- If we had very little time, we would suck it up and fly in again, with Diamox, and take the train out, to catch the experience and the views, and possibly jump off at Xining, to fly on elsewhere. We would do this partly because we have flown directly to Lhasa before and were hit by AMS but only relatively mildly. Knowing now that 2% of people are risk to pulmonary edema on flying in, we might have made a different decision that first time.
That’s just us, of course :-) Please consult your doctor before you head off for any of these.
We hope this helps in your decision making! Please let us know what you think.
If you have knowledge of or experience with this train, and you can correct or expand on anything in this post, please comment below.
Comment from our friend Losang at the Land of Snows
Losang from the Land of Snows blog had some great responses to questions we ask him about this. Thanks, as always, Losang!
There have been a handful of people having died from the train (usually dying shortly after arriving in Lhasa), but this would be a very, very small percentage (less than 0.00001%) and many of these people were in poor health to begin with.
The train schedules to Lhasa usually change every 18 months or so. Currently, there are 2 trains per day going from Xining to Lhasa. The first departs at 15:04 and arrives the next day at 14:55. The second train departs in the evening at 22:00 and arrives at 21:40 the next evening. I highly suggest taking the earlier train as you will see more of what this route has to offer.
To me, it is so funny because for years the guidebook writers described the route from Golmud to Lhasa as being “barren, bleak and monotonous”! Those writers must have been blind! It is an incredible route, much of which crosses through the remote western portion of Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture and the Kekexili (A Chen Gang Gyab) Nature Preserve, which is where most of the wildlife live along the route as well as countless high, snow-capped peaks.
If you like this post, you might also like:
- Best 100 Tibet Travel Tips: The Ultimate Guide
- Tibet Travel Blog
- A Beginner’s Guide to Train Travel in China
1. We always try out best to give correct attribution to images we find online, but this one is so widespread that we can’t with any certainty say where it first came from. If you know, let us know :-)
2. Note that all numbers are approximate. We used Wikipedia (which we are sad to say is often inaccurate when it comes to Tibet topics) for altitudes, and compiled the trip hours form various online timetables and reports.
3. According to the Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude at Princeton, altitude is “defined on the following scale High (8,000 – 12,000 feet [2,438 – 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 – 18,000 feet [3,658 – 5,487 meters]). Most people can go up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with minimal effect.”
4. Every person is different, but in our case, it wasn’t pleasant, but it also wasn’t that bad. We flew into Lhasa, and at some point during the first 24 hours, developed a bad headache, and felt weak, weird and breathless when moving around. For one whole day, we just mostly lay around. We didn’t sleep well and added tiredness to the weak and weird on the second day, but began walking very slowly around, with lots of rest, and soaking up the atmosphere. By the third day we were much better, and except for panting like lunatics with any stairs, we were basically fine to walk slowly around, visit the Jokhang and Ramoche temples, easy stuff like that. This was a trip without Diamox. On another trip, one of us used Diamox and experienced significantly less altitude sickness symptoms, though there were unpleasant side effects of tingling in the fingers and toes, probably due to too high a dose of Diamos. See the medications section on our How to Avoid Altitude Sickness post for more info on Diamox.