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

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: **

 

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.

 

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.
  •  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. 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.

 

 

 

 

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