Journey the Highest Railway in the World on the Tibet Express

Taking long train trips is reminiscent of days past, when journeys were as important as the destinations. Trains also provide a way to witness scenery you would not be able to see if you traveled by plane or car. The Tibet Express provides one of the most thrilling train travel experiences in the world.

Here are some tips you need to know before you decide to embark on this remarkable trip.

The Tibet Express
The Tibet Express is one of the most remote railways in Asia. In fact, this railway is the only one to go all the way to Lhasa in Tibet. Along the way, the train reaches an astonishing elevation at Tanggula Range, at more than 5,000 meters above sea level, making it the highest railway in the world.

The idea for the railway came from Chairman Mao. In the 1950s, he sent a team to investigate whether constructing a railway to the Tibetan Plateau would be possible. Not until 2005 did workers lay track at Tanggula Pass, the railroad’s highest point.

The train journey to Lhasa grows ever more popular. In 2006, 6.4 million people rode the train along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. In 2012, the number exceeded 10 million. Today, the journey is so popular you have to book your trip well in advance through a travel agent.

Potala Palace in Lhasa
Potala Palace in Lhasa

Things to Know
Surely, the idea of taking this train captures the imagination, but before you sign up, there are some considerations you need to be aware of.

The train has three types of coaches:

  • Tibet Express Soft Sleeper
    Tibet Express Soft Sleeper

    Soft berth sleeper. Otherwise known as “first class,” this type of ticket puts you in a relatively roomy cabin with a private locking door. The compartment has four beds and a small table, and it includes all necessary bedding. The windows in these compartments are fairly clean and new, making this option a good choice if you want to snap photos of passing scenery.

  • Hard sleeper. This “second-class” ticket places you in a compartment containing six beds and no door. The increased bed number makes getting this ticket option easier. Also, keep in mind that you won’t have much room between the top bunk and the ceiling. Don’t worry. Contrary to what the name implies, hard sleepers aren’t actually hard. You’ll be able to rest in comfort on the soft mattresses.
  • Hard seats and soft seats. With third-class hard seats, you don’t have a specific seat reserved. This option is the cheapest way to take the train, but some may find the close quarters uncomfortable. Soft seats are reserved, and they recline farther back.

You can spend the entire journey in one section or switch between sections of the train.

Since the train travels at such an extreme elevation, you need to think about high altitude sickness. Your body will need some time to adjust to the decreased oxygen levels. Symptoms such as shortness of breath and increased urination are normal when you’re acclimating to a higher elevation. However, more serious symptoms may occur. Take the time to learn about different forms of high altitude sickness so you can recognize the signs and take necessary action. The train has an oxygen supply system, which may help prevent sickness when you approach the Lhasa plateau zone.

The train has both Asian and Western-style toilets. When you board, find the Western-style ones for your comfort.

The price of your ticket does not include meals. However, the dining car serves three basic meals every day. Bring snacks to sustain yourself. Choose snacks like fruits and vegetables because they have a high water content – you should not drink the water while you’re on the train.

The train is very clean, so there is little need to worry about hygiene while you’re on board.

Where You’ll Go
The Tibet Express travels a direct route to Tibet from several different cities, including Xining, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Lanzhou. All of the routes disembark in Lhasa, Tibet.

You can choose to board the train at different locations:

  • With the China, Tibet, and Nepal 13-day tour and the 16-day tour, you board the train in Beijing and spend two nights aboard.
  • The China and Pandas with Tibet Train tour takes you to Chengdu, where you will see the iconic giant pandas. From Chengdu, you will fly to Xining, where you will board the train and spend only one night aboard.
Three pandas posing, Chengdu
Three pandas posing, Chengdu

What You’ll See
Without a doubt, the scenery along the railway will be one of the highlights of your China vacation. You’ll see majestic snow-capped mountains and flat grasslands that stretch on forever. The route travels over the longest frozen track on earth and stops at the world’s highest railway station, the Tanggula Station.

The Chu’erma Station offers stunning views. Here, you can witness the source of the mighty Yangtze River.

At the Tuotuo River Station, you’ll be even closer to the Yangtze’s source. Conag Lake Station brings you to a lake the locals revere as holy. The serene body of water is a tranquil spot that stands out in its vast grassland surroundings.

A journey on the Tibet Express is truly marvelous. The trip combines the comforts of train travel with the novelty of exotic places and irresistible natural beauty. Indeed, this experience is a must for travellers who want to get a new perspective on China and Tibet.

Tibetan landscape
Tibetan landscape
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Adam Hodge
Adam Hodge

VP of Marketing - When he’s not paddling a canoe or drinking copious amounts of coffee, you’ll find Adam talking about some kind of travel plans. He spent a month doing Tai-Chi in China, horse-camped in Mongolia, rode 3rd class trains all over India, tour-guided in Europe, worked in Namibia and surfed in Costa Rica – the travel bug bit this Canadian repeatedly. Food is one highlight of any destination for him, and he’s admitted on a few times to be willing to try just about any food once, and apparently “putrefied shark wasn't that bad”.

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