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The Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Qinghai-Tibet Railway MapQinghai-Tibet Railway Map

For centuries Tibet has been regarded as one of the most inaccessible areas for tourists. Before the Xining-Lhasa Railway, this remote, inhospitable highland was only accessible by air, or over rough highways.

The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway ends this situation. Trains to Tibet provide more choices and convenience to travelers who want to explore the mystical highland of Tibet. Passengers can acclimatize on the journey.

The Lhasa Express is the world's highest railway line, and it might arguably be the most beautiful and intriguing among those of comparative lengths. It takes about 24 hours to run from Xining West Station in Qinghai Province to Lhasa. The government has prepared the line to be a tourist sightseeing train with viewing platforms at scenic highlights. This useful introductory information may help you understand the train route, the scenery, and prepare for a trip.

This train line that was opened in 2006 is an engineering wonder. It has made Tibet accessible for the Chinese masses and foreign tourists in comfortable and economical style.

There are trains to Lhasa from Beijing (48 hours), Xi'an (36 hours), Chongqing (47 hours), Chengdu (48 hours), and Xining (25 hours). All train routes to Tibet converge at Xining for the Himalayan high leg to Lhasa.

  • Length: 1,960 kilometers (1,217 miles)
  • Average travel speed: Between 100 and 120 km/hour (62 to 75 miles per hour)
  • Features: world's highest rail line, stunningly beautiful scenery in Qinghai and Tibet
  • Time needed: 24 hours approximately
  • Popular activities: Sightseeing, photography
  • Suited to: Tibet visitors who want to see the scenery on the rail line, travel economically, wanting a day to acclimate on the train

Some Interesting Facts about the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

  • About 960 kilometers of the line is more that 4,000 meters above sea level, and the highest point is 5,072 meters (16,640 ft)in altitude.
  • About 550 kilometers of the track is laid on frozen earth, the longest distance anywhere in the world. The train is designed to operate at 100 kph in the frozen earth areas and 120 kph on non-frozen earth.
  • The highest railway station in the world is Tanggula Station which is 5,068 meters above sea level.
  • Fenghuoshan Tunnel, 4,905 meters (16,093 ft) above sea level, is the world’s most elevated tunnel built on frozen earth.
  • Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, running 1,686 meters, is the world's longest plateau tunnel built on frozen earth.

Introduction and History

The Xining to Lhasa trainXining to Lhasa Train

Chinese have wanted to build a train line to Lhasa for decades. This area was once difficult to reach until plane travel was introduced in the 20th century. But this new train line now allows comparatively cheap and rapid transport of passengers and materials. It is being expanded to reach more of Tibet.

It is an engineering marvel that goes through scenic marvels. 960 kilometers of the line is more that 4,000 meters above sea level. The highest point at Tanggula Pass is 5,072 meters. It is at least 200 meters higher than the Peruvian Railway that was the highest track in the world. The railway was opened on July 1, 2006.

Project Construction History

The railway construction project was divided into two phases. The first phase constructed the 814 km from Xining to Gomuld. It was finished in 1979.

The second phase commenced in June 2001 with the aim of connecting Gomuld and Lhasa, a distance of 1,142 km. The project has cost approximately 26.2 billion RMB (4.2 billion USD).

Mountain Scenery Along the Way

YambajanSteaming Yambajan hot springs near Lhasa

While traveling on this historic engineering marvel, you'll see rare high altitude scenery. While you acclimate and rest on the train, you'll see great scenic areas if conditions and light allow.

You'll get a Himalayan high seeing the wilderness, peaks, and pastures. The scenery is beautiful, stark, and almost other worldly. Several times, the train goes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). The terrain is like few places in the world.

Scenic attractions: The largest lake and the second largest salt lake in China, the source of the Yangtze River at the Tuotuo River, and very high plains and peaks.

  • Qinghai Lake: The first attraction is 130 kilometers or 80 miles from Xining. So you'll see it within an hour after the train leaves the station. It is the biggest lake in China.
  • Bird Island: There is a little island in the northwest corner of Qinghai Lake. It is a bird sanctuary and a tourist attraction.
  • The Changthang Grasslands: A high desert and grassland area in Nagqu.
  • Lake Namco: The Tibetans consider this high altitude salt lake to be holy. It is known for the beautiful color and the sunrise and sunsets.
  • Yambajan Hot Springs: From the ninth scenic viewing station, bout 90 kilometers northwest of Lhasa, you'll see the steaming turquoise water.

Nine Scenic Viewing Platforms

Nine viewing platforms that are about 500 meters long were built between Golmud and Lhasa in Qinghai and Tibet. There are all over 4,000 meters or over 13,000 feet, and some of them are over 15,000 feet. The trains don't stop at each station. But where they stop, you'll see some of the best scenery along the route. Read more>>

Information for Trains To Tibet

Beijing (48 hours), Chengdu (48 hours), Lanzhou (24 hours), Xining (25 hours), Guangzhou (53 hours) and Chongqing (47 hours) are the starting stations for the Tibet express train. To enjoy only the best scenery, we suggest you start at Xining. See more about Trains to Tibet from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

Advantage of train travel: The advantage of taking the train instead of a plane is the economy and scenery. Train travel is much cheaper. On the train, you can get to see China up close quickly and comparatively comfortably.

You'll also meet the Chinese around you on the train. You'll learn something about China's culture in direct experience you'll not learn about on a plane flight.

Tips on Prices and Conditions

Take the hard of soft sleepers: We suggest you take the soft bed cabins or the hard beds, but don't get a ticket for a seat for this trip. The T class trains are generally higher quality than the K class trains, but on this route, both classes of trains arrive in about 23 and a half hours, and soft sleepers on both cost about 132 USD.

Peak travel: It is hard to buy a train ticket into Tibet during peak travel time from May to October. Other agencies might charge a ridiculously high service charge for obtaining a ticket, as expensive as 1,000 yuan (around 150 USD), higher than the ticket itself. Even you are willing to pay that money, you can’t be guaranteed a ticket. So it is good idea to contact us in advance of your trip, and let us handle the train tickets.

Visas and tourist access: Sometimes tourism closes in Tibet, and there are special visa requirements for foreigners. How to get Tibet travel permits>>

Entry prohibited: Tibet is usually closed for most of February and March for the politically sensitive time of Tibetan New Year. So we suggest you to plan a Tibet tour from April 15th onwards to be on the safe side.

Train Safety and Health

Oxygen: The railway uses sealed, oxygenated cars to cope with thin air. Each car has an oxygen supply system to maintain the air pressure at a suitable level. Each berth is supplied with oxygen that comes out of little vents, or if you wish, you can insert a tube to breathe.

At Golmud, oxygen is released into the cabins to prevent altitude sickness. It is on hand in canisters for the Golmud to Lhasa leg.

Security: At night, the hard and soft sleeper coaches are closed so people with no boarding cards are refused entry. People can lock the soft sleeper cabin doors, but the hard berths are open to the corridor, so there is a possibility of baggage theft.

Health Tips

1) Visitors who are sick, have a high fever, cardiovascular diseases or lung problems should avoid touring Tibet. Women in late pregnancy and kids under three years old should also not travel unless they are already well acclimated.

2) Avoiding smoking and drinking while you acclimate in the train.

Tibet Tours and the Train Tour

Book in Advance

All Tibet tours must be booked at least 20 days in advance. It normally takes 2 or 3 days to confirm hotel bookings. It takes a further 10 days for the Tibet Tourism Bureau to issue the Tibet Entry Permit.

Entry Permit: You should make sure you secure an Entry Permit first before you apply for a visa and make the final preparations for your trip unless you are willing to consider alternatives to Tibet once you arrive in China. Top 10 Tibet Travel Tips>>

Best Season

In general, the best time to visit Tibet is from May to October when the weather is comfortable and oxygen content higher. This is Tibet’s high travel season. Read more on Tibet weather>>

You might consider visiting Tibet in the low season for a less-crowded trip and various discounts.

See Tibet by Rail with Us

Map of Xining Lhasa TourBeautiful scenery along the route

We could design a tour in Lhasa and the rest of Tibet fitted to your interests and requirements. Tell us how to design the tour. We can arrange the tickets and accommodations. We can also provide a tour guide and driver.

Getting around Tibet outside of Lhasa is more convenient with a driver, especially if you want to go to places far from Lhasa.

China Highlights is one of the largest professional tour operators in China, and we have a good reputation. If you are interested in booking train tickets or have any question about the Qinghai to Tibet train journey or traveling in Tibet, please feel free to send us an inquiry. We offer a 7 day Qinghai to Lhasa train trip and tour>>

Our Tibet tour packages>>

Further Reading