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.
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|
|Tang Gu 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’s a graph of the altitude trajectory of the train journey:
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.
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.
*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.
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