The Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train

Tibet train at Lhasa station

Tibet Train Pulling into Lhasa ©YoWangdu

 

While researching the Qinghai-Tibet Railway 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 is the best way to get acclimatized 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 3490 meters (11,450 feet), then the journey is a great way to acclimatize, right?

Well, no, it’s not really that simple, and for many people it makes better sense to either:

  • fly to Xining (Siling in Tibetan), stay there at least 2-3 days, and then take the train to Lhasa, or
  • fly in to Lhasa and take the train out of Lhasa at the end of your visit

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, check out our free, easy and ethical Tibet Travel Service in which we match you with hand-picked, top Tibet travel agents dedicated to supporting the local Tibetan economy and culture.

Map of Xining to Lhasa Train Route

Map of Xining to Lhasa Train Route. Source unknown*

 

Why the 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 3490 m (11,450 ft).

Here’s a chart we’ve created to help you understand: **

 

Locations on Route Altitude in Meters Altitude in Feet Hours into the Trip
Beijing 43 143  
Lanzhou 1600 5250 17
Xining 2275 7464 20
Golmud 2809 9216 30
Tang Gu La Pass 5072 16,640 ~ 35
Nagchu 4436 14,639 40
Lhasa 3490 11,450 44

 

  • 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’s a graph of the altitude trajectory of the train journey:

 

Tibet train altitude graph

Tibet train Altitudes by Vistet at IndiaMike.com

 

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. ***

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. This part of the climb is actually high enough and gradual enough to help you begin to acclimate to higher altitude.

 

Tibet Train: Arrival in Lhasa

Tibet Train: Arrival in Lhasa ©YoWangdu

 

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 4,000m (13,123 ft), with the highest point, the Tang Gu La Pass, reaching 5231 m (17,158 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 1,000 feet per day after the first 10,000 feet” and “rest for an entire day each time you ascend 3,000 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.”

 

We are not trained in medicine or altitude. This post is just our opinion and should not be considered as professional advice about high altitude travel. Please take going to high altitude seriously, as it can be lethal, and consult with your doctor before traveling.

 

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 Train 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, it just means that the train is not a magic bullet for acclimatizing to Lhasa’s altitude, so you might want to consider the other options if that’s the reason you are taking the train from those cities.

 

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. Why?

  • Xining’s altitude is high enough to help you begin to acclimate but not so high as to make most people feel sick.*** If you stay 2-3 days, before moving on to Lhasa, it will help you to acclimate, and if you stay longer, you will be able to explore a bit of Amdo (See the excellent Land of Snows blog post on the Qinghai part of Amdo for more on this.)
  •  The main 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. (We are still working on finding out which trains, exactly, are the best for views. If you have experience with this, please drop us a comment below, thanks!)
  • One downside of staying in Xining is that the city does not, frankly, sound that interesting, except as a jumping off point to visit Amdo. It is the largest city on the Tibetan plateau and diverse in its population, but only 5% Tibetan. This could be a better option for people who have more time to explore the Amdo part of Tibet, as opposed to people whose goal is to get to and see Lhasa and Central Tibet.
  • 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.

 2. Fly in to Lhasa and take the train out of Lhasa at the end of your visit. Why?

  • Since you don’t acclimate very well on the Beijing-Lhasa train anyway, and are likely to experience sleeplessness, you could possibly be even more tired and susceptible to altitude sickness on arrival. So for some people it might be preferable to just fly into Lhasa and take it very, very easy the first 3-4 days, as many travelers did before the train, and still do. (See a brief description of our acclimatization process when flying in to Lhasa below. ****)
  • 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 Kumbum monastery, Kokonor (Qinghai Lake), and the stunning nomadic lands of Amdo. (See Land of Snows blog on 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 Lhasa and Central Tibet is our focus, 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.

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.

We’re still researching the Tibet train, and will post again later on schedules and fares, as well as what to expect on the train itself.

If you have knowledge of or experience with this train, and you can correct or expand on anything in this post, please comment below.

UPDATE: APRIL 10, 2012

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.

Footnotes

*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 :-)

**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.

** 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.”

***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.

More Resources:

Land of Snows blog post on the Tibet train

Land of Snows blog post on Xining

 
If you found this post useful, we would really love it if you share it with your Facebook fans or Twitter followers or Google+ circles today. All it takes is a simple click on the “like,” “share,” “tweet,” or Google+ buttons to the left of the post. Thanks!
 

 

 

By Lobsang Wangdu

 

Comments

  1. Hey, thanks for this great article!

    You stated back then that you would try to find out which train is best for daylight views. Anything you found out yet? We are going to take the 3:05 pm train from Xining, and the timetable says Golmud at midnight, Amdo at 8:39 – do you have any idea if we will be at Tanngula during daylight?

    Thanks again, all the best from Germany,
    Markus

    • Hi Markus — you are very welcome :-) Sorry but we have still not found out. A great source for ideas on this kind of thing is Lobsang at the Land of Snows. Check him out on Facebook, and he can very likely help. Please tell him hi for us :-)

  2. Mabel Morodomi says:

    We were expecting to ride on a ‘high speed rail’. I don’t think the train went faster than 55 mph. Also, for a 2 day ride, there are no amenities and I wish us ‘foreign’ travelers were told what to expect….I would have been better prepared. No napkins in the lounge nor toilet paper. Toilets also did not always work and very FILTHY! After suffering thru the train ride….trip to Lhasa, Nepal and Bhutan was very enjoyable. People were ‘awesome’. So friendly and nice….

  3. Hi Im just wondering if it is ok to bring a 2 1/2 old kid to Tibet or will altitude be a problem? We are not used to high altitude places.
    I hope you can enlighten me on this .
    Thank you so much

    • Hi Lori,
      We don’t know the answer to this. We will ask a friend who is a travel agent in Tibet and see if we can get a response for you. The bottom line, though, is that you should ask your pediatrician, just to be safe. All the best and hope it works that you all can take a trip to Tibet together :-)

  4. Hello,

    Wonderful article and well written. I just returned from a trip to China and Tibet. During my travel I took the overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xian and had a wonderful experience. I flew to Chengdu from Xian to see the Panda s and I took Diamox 24 hours before flying to Lhasa after reading many reviews before my trip to China 125 mg 2 times per day. I flew to Lhasa with 14 in our group everyone took medience with different outcome but when we arrived into the airport everyone felt tired but we took a beautiful bus trip into Lhasa passing through tunnels and wonderful views arriving at our hotel, just going up 2 flights of stairs I was glad to get into my room and rest for 2 hours and then we had a University teacher give us a 2 hour talk on Tibet and she was from Tibet and told us the different sides of the culture which was outstanding..We had a nice meal but 1 st night we all rested and took it easy. After breakfast the next day we were going to climb the palace about 1/2 of our group made it and I am glad I had the med s I think it helped and yes there were side effects but I think it was worth it to enjoy our time in Tibet..I did think about taking the train but glad I went the way I did and maybe next time to fly to Lhasa but take the train back and to stop in Xinging and go to the Amdo which sounds like a wonderful area to see more of Tibet culture. I enjoy Lhasa and we had a wondeful guide named Nyima he really brought the culture of Tibet alive during our days in Tibet..I would highly recomend Nyima to any of my friends…Thank You

  5. Hi, I just came back from China few weeks ago. I flied to Lhasa from Beijing. I came back to Shanghai by train. The journey sceneries are superb from Lhasa till Xining. Top Mountains covered with snow. Awesome. Total train journey (including 6 hours transit in Xining) is about 60 hours. Feel exhausted. But at the end, it was great journey.

    Jack

    • Awesome, thanks for the trip report, Jack! If you are interested in writing a guest post about your trip, let us know. Especially about the train journey from Lhasa to Shanghai :-)

  6. Vicente says:

    Dear Yowangdu:
    Thank you very much in deed for these data. It’s really greta to see that there are people that offer their knowledge this way
    I’ll be taking the train in a month aprox. from Xining to Lhasa. I have some questions that maybe you could answer (if you have time):
    Is it easy to buy the ticket either in Xining or Beijing (the same day of departure) or shall I book it in advance with some travel agency?
    Would you recommend any particular side of the train (left or right) to have better views of the magnificent landscape?
    Thank you very mcuh in advance and again for this valuable post
    Best regards
    Vicente (from Spain)

  7. Tina Tran says:

    Dear Lobsang Wangdu,

    Many thanks for these useful informations. We intend to take train from Chengdu to Lhasa. And after arrive Chengdu, we will take train immediately to Lhasa because we want to spend more time in Lhasa. I can see that Chengdu is lowest spot. So do we have any advice for us? Do we need to stay at Chengdu a couple of days.

    Thank you again, my friend.

    Tina

    • Hi Tina. Hope you have a great trip. There is no need to stay in Chengdu as it is low and you won’t acclimatize. If you’ve decided to take the train, just plan to take it easy in Lhasa the first few days (as you will need to do anyway). You will acclimatize a bit on the train just as much as it seems like you would.

  8. Do you think it is feasible to do this trip (Pekin-Lhassa) with kids 3 and 7 years old, considering that we have 3 weeks holidays and therefore time to stop in Xining for acclimatation?
    Thank you for sharing these useful informations!

  9. I would certainly advise people to spend more than just a couple of days in Xining, in my experience it takes about a week to acclimatise there, and if you go to the grasslands near Mahlo you are actually higher than Lhasa and it takes more time again. There is excellent Tibetan medicine for altitude sickness, the Tibetan hospital in Xining can help with that. And its important to eat! Many people loose their appetite but you must keep eating because your body is working harder.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your valuable experience, Karen :-) We would love to hear more about your time in Xining and the grasslands. We’ll contact you by email soon if that’s okay. One thing we didn’t delve into in the post above, because it was becoming monstrously long, was the fact that some of the interesting areas to visit around Xining/Siling are higher altitude than Xining and that it sounds like it is useful to acclimate at Xining altitude for a bit first. Based on our experience in Lhasa and other mountain places, we don’t need a week at 7500 feet for basic acclimatization, but since every person is different when it comes to altitude and AMS, it is valuable for people to hear your experience. Please share with us, if you would, what you experienced at Xining altitude, and how it changed over the week. We’re very curious to hear more about this Tibetan medicine for altitude sickness, which we’ve been hearing talk of a bit here and there. What do you know about it? Does it have a name? Great to hear from you, Karen, and thanks so much again for sharing your experience.

      • Hi again, of course you can email me, love any opportunity to talk about my travels in Amdo :) I have been four times.
        I will find the name of the Tibetan medicine, the bottles I have don’t have english on them, but the main ingredient is the plant rhodiola, helps increase oxygen in the blood. There are so many wonderful things to see around that part of Amdo that taking a week to acclimatise is no hardship. Of course as you say it is different for every person and does depend on how active you are being. Last year I was in Xining for a month and then went to Mahlo for a month. I though I was very acclimatsed in Xining but still had to take a few easy days in Mahlo when I went from about 2,400 to 3,800 above sea level. But it is worth it!

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