3757 kms. 44 hours. 8 provinces. One unforgettable train ride. Beijing to Lhasa China

One of the highlights of my trip to China is experiencing the train ride from Beijing to Lhasa. Despite the initial reservations of coping for two days on a train, dealing with altitude sickness, and living in a cramped compartment (meant for four), I am excited! 

I get to the Beijing West Railway Station with just enough time to battle the madding crowds, pass luggage through overworked scanners, decipher the Chinese-only ticket details, search for correct gate and platform, and struggle down the escalator without tumbling down headfirst! 

With ten minutes to spare (train departs at 20:00), I am at the platform and boarding the Z21, the sky train that will be my accommodation for the next two days

I have (wisely) got a soft sleeper, better known as a first-class sleeping cabin. These berths comprise of four soft sleeping beds, a pillow and a blanket each, a small table, flask for water, one power outlet and four oxygen outlets, and a door that can be closed for privacy.  

The bathrooms (squatting and sitting) are located at the end of each coach, with public sinks and small mirrors that are to be used by the passengers in the cabins in this carriage. I have been advised to shower before getting on the train as there is no provision for a shower for the next 44 hours, so for the moment, I smell good! The carriage itself is clean though the cabin is a tad cramped.  

After tucking away (oversized) luggage into every available space, I settle in to this limited space with my three companions. This is going to be fun! 

Launched in July 2006, the track from Beijing to Tibet is a whopping 3,757 kilometers long, the third longest of all the train journeys in the world. This railroad crosses eight provinces from the Northern China Plains to the world highest Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and beyond on to Lhasa, completing the journey in 42 hours.

Sometime after departure, the guards come around to check our tickets and the valid permit to enter Tibet. This document is vital, because without this, I would most probably be on the next train back! 

Departing from the capital citythe train passes through the vast flatland with countryside scenery, as it heads to the central inland cities.  

It is actually after Lanzhou, as the train moves towards Xining, when the starting point of the breathtaking Qinghai-Tibet Railway begins. This stretch extends as long as 1,110 km until Lhasa and we traverse across some of the most breathtaking landscapes along the way. 

We ride past the Qarhan Salt Lake,  through the Gobi Desert,  across the snow-capped Yuzhu Peak, and the lofty Tanggula Mountain, and vast grasslands, and beautiful landscapes, etc. 

From Lanzhou the train begins to climb and the altitude starts to increase. I can also feel a slight headache coming along! At Xining, the altitude is at 2,275 meters above sea level and I pop some aspirins and hope for the best! By the time we reach Delingha the altitude is at 2,809m, and the train feels like it’s straining on the track! 

We chug past Golmud, the last point before heading to the “Roof of the World”, and continue on. From here on, the altitude increases sharply, ascending more than 1,000 meters in less than 100 kilometers.  

Tanggula railway station

Once over the Kunlun and Tanggula Mountains, we travel through the world’s highest railway pass, the Tanggula Pass (5,072m).  The Tanggula railway station is at an altitude of 5,068 metres (16,627 ft) above sea level, making this the highest railway station in the world! My excitement levels are probably the same as the altitude! 

Nagqu is the final place where I am allowed to get down (for a couple of minutes) from the trainThe station at Nagqu has some great views of the beautiful Changtang Grassland, which is home to many Tibetan nomads and their domesticated yaks. 

Back on the train, as we travel on south through Nagqu, the elevation drops slightly and then on to 3,641 in Lhasa.  

Despite the many hours on the train, I consider this to be an unforgettable experience. From the snow-capped mountains to the serene and scenic lakes, the amazing sunsets to struggling with the altitude, meeting with so many travelers on this train to the many card games we played along the way, it was worth the time and effort.  During the journey, our cabin became quite a social center with passengers and crew joining us for sing-alongs and to share personal experiences.  

Two sunrises, no showers and umpteen number of card games later, I am ready to pack up and disembark. I cannot wait to stretch my legs, take a shower and experience Tibet, the Roof of the World! 

THINGS WORTH KNOWING ABOUT THIS TRAIN RIDE! 

  • World’s Highest Railway – Along the railway, the section built on the altitude above 4,000 meters is 960 km. The highest point of the railway on Tanggula Mountain is 5072 meters above sea level.    
  • World’s Highest Tunnel on Permafrost – The Fenghuoshan tunnel is located on Fenghuoshan Mountain with an altitude of 5010 meters above sea level. This section, in total, is 1338 meters long. The elevation of track surface is 4905 meters above sea level, all located within a permanent plateau permafrost. It is currently the world’s highest  permafrost tunnel across the permafrost zone on plateau.   
  • World’s Longest Plateau Permafrost Tunnel – With the length of 1686 meters, and 4648 meters above sea level, the Kunlun Mountain Tunnel is  the world’s longest plateau permafrost tunnel.   
  • World’s Longest Railway Bridge – The Qingshui River Bridge, with an altitude of over 4500 meters, is located at the Hoh Xil’s depopulated zone. It is 11.7 km long, and is the longest giant railway bridge along the Qinghai-Tibet railway.   
  • Word’s Highest Railway Bridge – The Qinghai-Tibet Railway’s highest railway bridge is located at the north ridge of Kunlun Mountains. It is over 3800 meters above sea level.  

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