The Tibet train (also knows as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway) connects Xining in Qinghai, China to Lhasa in Tibet. The train is a good alternative to flights into Lhasa, for health reasons.
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But did you know:
There is a widespread misunderstanding about the train.
Travelers to Tibet think that traveling by train from mainland China is a good way to acclimate to Lhasa’s high altitude.
This is not correct.
Actually it helps a little. But not nearly as much as you think.
The failure to understand this fact puts many travelers at risk of getting altitude sickness.
In this post we will lay out the facts, and offer you a less risky, more healthy option.
It’s easy to mistake the benefits of the Tibet train
If you’re going to visit Tibet, traveling by train seems to be a great way to acclimatize.
If you start at near sea level in Beijing and two days later you end up in Lhasa, at 11,975 feet/3650 meters, it appears that you would be slowly acclimatizing all along the way.
Unfortunately, that is not correct.
What’s the real story?
To adjust, your body needs middle ground
The Tibet train journey is missing a key step that is critical to adjusting your body safely to an elevation as high as Lhasa’s.
You need to ascend to high altitude slowly. And that means it’s good to sleep at an “intermediate” elevation.
To learn more, see our beginner’s guide for avoiding altitude sickness.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention4 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.”
Even though you will sleep on the Tibet train, you won’t spend very much time at any intermediate altitude.
But the train stays low then jets up too high
For acclimatization purposes, it would be good if the train spent a lot of time in areas around 9,000 feet.
Unfortunately, the train journey is not at all like that.
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
- 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. Notice that there is little time spent around the 9000 foot mark:
The actual altitudes of the Tibet train ride
Over two-thirds of the first 24 hours on the train from Beijing to Lhasa are spent well under 1524 m/ 5000 ft, which is too low to be useful for adjusting to high altitude. 3
It’s only after 20 hours into the journey that the train begins to climb into more serious altitude. This happens at Xining, which sits at 7464 ft/ 2275 m.
You spend the next ten hours reaching Golmud (9216 ft/ 2809 m).
And this section of the train ride is pretty much the only part that is actually helpful for acclimatizing.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the train journey is at altitudes actually higher than Lhasa’s!
Too high, too fast
Over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa section is at an elevation of more than 4000 m/ 13,123 ft. The highest point, just on the Lhasa side of the Tang La Pass, reaches 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.
Passengers who are more inclined to altitude sickness 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.”
You can get the lowdown about altitude sickness in Tibet in our post on staying healthy at high altitude in Tibet.)
But don’t they pump extra oxygen into the train?
It’s true that the Qinghai-Tibet railway train cars are equipped with two ways to deliver oxygen.
First of all, oxygen is supposed to be pumped in when the train reaches the higher altitudes.
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.)
But you should know a few things…
One, is that the oxygen outlets on the train don’t all work. On one of our rides, only one out of four of the outlets in our compartment worked.
This leads us to doubt, honestly, how well the system of pumping oxygen into the cars is working.
Also, an article called High Mix: Oxygen on the Train5 on the “High Road to…” blog suggests that the extra oxygen creates conditions basically equivalent to being at Lhasa’s altitude during the higher parts of the journey.
It’s not unusual for travelers to 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].”
Here’s the bottom line:
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 even 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?
1. Recommended: Fly to Xining, stay there at least one night, and then take the train to Lhasa. (See this sky train to Lhasa tour) Why do this?
- 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 check out some of the amazing Tibetan cultural sites in the area. (See this post on itineraries to help prevent altitude sickness in Tibet.)
- A major reason to take the train 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. (Take trains after 7p if you can for this purpose.)
- Xining 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), it is not recommended to move on there for another “step” in acclimatizing. 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.
- For help connecting to a reliable travel agent to assist you with booking a trip like this that includes the Tibet train, click here.
2. What about flying in to Lhasa and taking the train out of Lhasa at the end of your visit?
- 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 this route, definitely talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking diamox, a medication to help prevent altitude sickness.
- 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).
Contact us here if you would like to be connected to a reliable travel agent.
- 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.
- 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).
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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.
- In my opinion and experience (20+ times on the train), the earlier trains departing Xining are good for those who want to see the area between Xining and Golmud in Qinghai (good, but not the absolute best scenery the route has to offer). These earlier trains departing Xining, particularly the 12:14pm (Z323) and the 2:05pm (Z917) only allow passengers to see the TAR from Nagchu to Lhasa in aylight….the final stage of the train.The afternoon train departing at 3:20pm (Z21) will allow passengers to see the area between Xining and Qinghai lake in daylight hours, as well as a little west of the lake. It will then alow passengers to see the TAR starting from just north of Nagchu all the way to Lhasa. Passengers won’t really see any of the wilderness of Kekexili (Hoh Xil) as they will go through it at night. This is the region where Tibetan antelope and even wild yaks can be seen.The later trains departing at 19:51pm (Z265) and 21:35pm (Z165) leave Xining when it is usually dark. So, guests will not see any of the route from Xining to Qinghai Lake, Golmud and the next 2 or 3 hours south of Golmud. However, guests who get up early the next morning (which they most likely will anyway on the train), can see a lot of the wilderness beauty of Kekexili and will see all of the TAR in daylight hours.So, it is really hard for me to say what the BEST train is to take as they all offer good views. As the train takes about 22 hours, it is impossible to see everything, of course, in the daylight. I personally recommend the later trains, which allow for more viewing of Kekexili and all areas of the TAR.
- 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:
- How to Visit Tibet: An Insider’s Guide
- Best 100 Tibet Travel Tips: The Ultimate Guide
- 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.”