Altitude sickness is not fun and can be very dangerous. Visitors to Tibet need to be concerned about the changes in altitude they will encounter. One of the easiest ways to adjust to the higher altitude is to arrive in Tibet by train. Not only do you reduce your chances of suffering altitude sickness, you have the thrill of riding the highest train in the world.
The train system in China is extensive and inexpensive. The train to Lhasa departs from Xining (2275 metres). Trains from all over China connect to Xining. If you are arriving from Beijing or Shanghai it is advisable to spend a couple of days in Xining before proceeding to Tibet. The altitude increases dramatically after leaving Xining.
Independent travel is not allowed in Tibet, so having your tour company book your train tickets when you book your tour is the best and easiest option. Tickets often sell out, so it is wise to book as far in advance as possible.
Overnight trains have hard and soft sleeper cars. Soft sleepers have two sets of bunks in each car, and hard sleepers have three levels. Soft sleeper rates average US$115, while hard sleepers cost about $75. Each car will have one squat toilet and one Western toilet. Bring your own toilet paper. It is also advisable to bring several litres of drinking water and some snacks. Keeping hydrated is one of the keys to reducing the chances of altitude sickness, so monitoring your fluid intake is important. Each train car also has a hot water dispenser so you can make your own tea, coffee, or instant noodles. There is a dining car with a limited menu.
As you enter the station in Xining, you will be required to put all your luggage through an X-ray machine. Prior to boarding the train, you will show your Tibet Entry Permit. Keep this handy as you may be required to show it often. Make three colour copies as they may keep one copy at the station. Once you are on the train you will be given a waiver form to sign. This says you understand the threats posed by high-altitude travel, and you accept all responsibility for any problems this may cause.
During the 21-hour journey you will travel 1956 kilometres, and go from an elevation of 2283 metres to 3650 metres. Most of the staff on the train speak English and are very knowledgeable. They are more than willing to try to answer any questions you may have. There are medical staff on every train if you should need them.
The air in Tibet is thin, with the oxygen partial pressure 35% to 40% below that of air at sea level. To help with this adjustment, the train has an automatic oxygen system, increasing the oxygen from 21 – 25% as required. There is also an oxygen outlet for each passenger, which provides oxygen on demand.
The train crosses the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres, and the station at Tanggula is the highest train station in the world. This is also the highest plateau in the world.
It is preferable to board an evening train in order to see the best scenery during daylight hours. Trains leave Xining at 7:45 pm and 9:30 pm. The hypnotic clickity clack of the rails puts most people to sleep very quickly. There are fold-down seats in the corridor if you want to sit and watch the world go by, as the seats in the compartments always stay as beds.
As the sun crawls over the horizon to begin a new day, you will be rewarded with scenes of vast plains and the bluest sky possible. Herds of hairy yaks dot the landscape. Jagged brown mountain peaks start to appear in the distance. Snow caps soon appear and are so brilliant you feel the risk of snow blindness if you stare at them, but you cannot look away. Ireland may be famous for its shades of green, but Tibet can certainly rival it with its many shades of brown. Due to the dry climate, there is little snow in most areas.
You will see sun-bleached strings of prayer flags fluttering in the slightest wind. Locals believe the wind will spread the peace, compassion, strength and wisdom of the prayers to the surrounding area.
Arriving in Lhasa you will be escorted to a police station at the train station. Here, they will examine your permits and passport. As Tibet is considered an autonomous region of China, you will not get a Tibet stamp in your passport.
Travel to Tibet takes time, but it can be time well spent. Make sure you allow the extra time needed to acclimatize in order to maximize your enjoyment at “the roof of the world”.
Article by Gloria Jackson.
Top image by Kyle Taylor/Flickr.
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: