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China: Train to Lhasa

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Train to Lhasa > China > Asia

[Visited: April 2007]

I was looking forward to boarding the train to Lhasa, and excited to arrive at Xining station. A hostess was formally welcoming passengers to each individual carriage. Once inside, I immediately noted how new and clean the train was, nicely decorated, with a thick blue carpet on the floor, and a tablecloth on the small table in our hardsleeper compartment which, on the other hand, had no door. Departure was punctual, and we almost directly started climbing: Xining sits at around 2,300m while Lhasa is at just under 3,600. The train to Lhasa must also be the only one in the world where you have to fill out a declaration of health, indemnifying the Chinese railways in case you do get altitude sickness. Handing in your ticket and the declaration will bring you a credit-card type tag with your carriage and seat number. The newness of the train could not prevent Chinese from exercising their most favourite pastime: spitting, and while I wondered where they would leave their product, I soon realized that I could hear them all the time because my compartment was next to the wash basin.

Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Train to Lhasa: locomotive on one of the few stations

After a very good sleep, I woke up just as we rolled into Golmud station the next morning. Still under 3,000m, I knew we would soon go higher than that, and for most of the day, would stay well over 4,000m. Soon, recordings over the public address system were telling all kinds of facts and legends in three languages, at times coming very close to be pure propaganda. Anyone has to admit that what for a long time seemed impossible, was done in just 5 years: building the highest rail line over a distance of more than 1100km, most of which lies at over 4000m altitude and runs over permafrost terrain. I mostly just looked out, to the empty landscapes (this area is one of the least inhabited in the world), before I started walking around the train.

Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): The Tibetan plateau seen through the window of the train to Lhasa

I did not see anyone using the oxygen supply above each seat, and in general, did not feel nervousness by passengers concerning altitude sickness. Instead, I found a full dining car, where the menu had some hilarious items like "Green pepper cow" or "The spring onion explodes mutton". While having lunch here with a fellow traveler, we passed the highest point of the track, Tangu La pass at 5068m, which is also the highest railway station in the world - seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As we were getting closer to Lhasa and the landscape seemed to become colder, and lakes appeared reflecting the snow capped mountains behind them, the voices on the pubic address system did not stop to give us more information about the Tibetan "province", and the wonders one can find in Lhasa. When the train finally pulled into Lhasa station in the dark, I felt fresher than when I boarded the day before. We were summoned to quickly leave the station. Once outside, my attention was immediately drawn to a light spot in the darkness, and I was surprised to realize I was actually looking at the Potala Palace from a distance. I had arrived.

Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Silhouettes of travelers with the Tibetan landscape in the background
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Xining railway station, the beginning of my 26 hour train trip to Lhasa
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Passengers on their way out of Lhasa railway station
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Xining-Lhasa train in Xining railway station
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Lhasa railway station: enormous map of the Tibetan province
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Looking outside the train to Lhasa you can see endless empty spaces
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Typical empty, snowy landscape with clouds seen from the train to Lhasa
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Highest station in the world: Tangu La, 5068m
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Almost the entire journey after Golmud has views over empty landscapes
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Sitting in the aisle of the train to Lhasa
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Dining car on the train to Lhasa: having a meal with a fantastic view
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Train hostess waiting for passengers on the train to Lhasa
Picture of Train to Lhasa (China): Hard sleeper compartment on the train to Lhasa

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