A little preparation can go a long way to making your Tibet train experience an easy, peaceful journey that helps you acclimatize to Tibet while you get the first taste of her vast, beautiful vistas. Here are ten tips for your Beijing to Lhasa train trip.
2024 Travel Advisory:
China is piloting visa-free programs for certain countries for entry to China, but all international travelers to Tibet also require a special Tibet permit.
US travelers must have both a Chinese visa (which you get on your own in the US) and a special Tibet travel permit, which you must get from an official Tibet travel agency. Starting January 1, 2024, China is simplifying the visa process for Americans, removing required proof of round-trip flights, hotel reservations and itinerary.
Note: Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great, safe trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.
- Know what to expect: What is beautiful and extraordinary about the ride are the stunning Tibetan vistas out the window. The train itself is like a mid to low level Chinese hotel, with a few minor trappings of class and service. Under that thin veneer, it is – honestly – pretty dirty and faded. The bathrooms are okay at best, and nasty at worst, getting progressively worse along the way. The decor, the food, your fellow travelers, are all Chinese, but for a handful of Westerners and Tibetans. (On our train, all the Tibetans were located in a single, broiling hot hard seat car.)
- Get “soft sleeper” class: If you value space and a little bit of privacy, opt for the best class, “soft sleeper.” The primary difference between “soft” and “hard” sleeper is space. There are 4 instead of 6 people in a car, and two horizontal rows of beds instead of three, which gives everyone more head room when seated. When seated during the day, the extra row of beds in hard sleeper cars will cut right over your head if you are average height. Even in soft sleeper the space between the seats is super narrow — two people’s knees and feet can’t really fit opposite each other. You can also shut and lock the door in a soft sleeper car.
Video: Quick View of a “Hard Sleeper” Car
- Board in Xining: Unless you really really dig Chinese train travel, it’s best to fly to Xining, spend a couple of nights there, then take the train, rather than taking the full Beijing to Lhasa train ride. Why? — There are more trains available out of Xining, a key factor since the train sells often and early. — Xining is at around 7500 feet, and staying there two nights is a great, key step in acclimatizing to the Tibetan plateau’s high altitude. Combined with the mild acclimatizing effects of the train, starting in Xining is an altitude-healthy choice. — The most beautiful part of the trip starts in Tibet, from Xining. — You cut at least a day of unnecessary travel by avoiding the Beijing to Xining part of the train ride.
- Oxygen: If you need extra oxygen, ask for it. When the train reaches a certain altitude, oxygen is pumped in to the car — at least that is what is announced, and smoking is prohibited at that point. But if you feel you need some additional oxygen, you may need to request a nasal cannula (plastic tubing to fit into the oxygen outlets in your car.) There were no cannula’s in our car, and after requesting, and getting one, we found that only 1 in three of the outlets actually provided oxygen!
- Wifi: There’s no wifi on the train.
- Power Outlets: There was only one power outlet per car, so it’s handy to have a means of plugging in more than one device, like the outlet cube pictured.
- Food and Drink: You’ll probably be happiest if you bring your own. There’s a hot water dispenser at the end of every carriage. Food is available in the dining car, and instant noodles and a few other things items on a food cart, but the quality looks pretty iffy, and the dining car was pretty dirty by the time we got on in Xining (if it was ever clean). We made good use of personal cups and a thermos, and could have used paper or plastic plates and a few plastic utensils, to spread peanut butter, or eat with. Our Swiss Army Knife was taped up by security at the beginning of the trip, but we could have used it since there’s no further check along the way or at the end.
- Various things to bring: Toilet Paper (the toilet had some at the beginning of our trip but ran out), hand sanitizer or wipes, shoes you can wear into the wet toilet and sink areas, something to cover your pillow case with as they don’t seem washed, either at all, or very well.
- Lock for your luggage: There’s not a lot of space to store your luggage –– our roller duffels were too big to fit in the smallish storage space in the car, had to be placed at the end of the carriage, in a public space. We were glad for small locks to keep lock the bags locked closed.
- Walking around the train: It’s not really the kind of train you can stroll around. The narrow hallways are made narrower by little seats you can sit in during the day and which were always filled.
- None of the officials on the train appeared to speak English, but other passengers did.
- Although the train is said to have a medical doctor onboard, this is very highly unlikely.
- In general, although the promo info makes it sound all new and deluxe, the Beijing to Lhasa train is nothing fancy at all. It’s perfectly comfortable, but definitely on the dirty and run-down side.