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Thirteen Scenic Attractions Along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The Qinghai LakeQinghai Lake, the first scenic spot seen after leaving Xining

While riding this historic engineering marvel, you'll see amazing and rare high altitude scenery. This train now allows rapid and cheap transport of tourists. While you acclimate and rest on the train, out the window you might be able to see these 13 scenic areas if conditions and light allow.

The trip takes about 22 hours to travel the 1,960 kilometers (1,217 miles) from Xining West Station (西宁西站, Xīníng Xī Zhàn) in Xining to Lhasa. You'll get a Himalayan high seeing the wilderness and pastures. It is the longest high altitude train trip in the world, and the scenery is beautiful, stark, and almost other worldly.

Most of this route is over 4,000 meters, and several times, it goes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). The reward of taking the train route is to see a starkly beautiful part of the world that was once almost inaccessible without a lot of time and struggle. The terrain is like few places in the world, and the train goes by nine renowned scenic attraction including the largest lake and the second largest salt lake, the source of the Yangtze River, and very high plains.

1) Qinghai Lake

Map of Xining Lhasa TourXining to Lhasa train

Qinghai Lake in the picture above is about 130 kilometers or 80 miles from Xining. So you'll see it within an hour after the train leaves the station.

It is about 3,205 meters or 10,515 feet above sea level and is both alkaline and very salty.

This altitude is high enough to give a lot of people altitude sickness if they stayed there more than a few hours.

The lake is frozen over in the winter, and it is forbiddingly cold then. But it is a popular tourist area in the summer. Summer and autumn are the seasons when the weather is most comfortable. This is the best time to visit the lake.

2) The Bird Island

bird islandBirds on Bird Island

Bird Island: There is a little island in the northwest corner of Qinghai Lake. It is a bird sanctuary and a tourist attraction.

In March and April, more than 20 kinds of migrating birds come to the island to breed. Flocks of birds cover the whole island.

3) Chaka Salt Lakes

The Chaka Salt Lakes are a group of lakes in a depression in Qinghai Province about 750 kilometers from Xining. These very salty lakes are a rich mine for salt used all over China. About 32 kilometers of the train journey is by these whitish blue lakes.

There are a total of thirty lakes or ponds. The largest is named the Chaerhan Salt Lake. There is a distinctive smell of salt in this area.

4) Kunlun Mountains

Kunlun MountainsSouth of Golmud, the train then goes to the Kunlun Mountains that are part of the largest mountain system in China. The range extends a distance of 2,500 kilometers at an altitude of between 5,500 and 6,000 meters above sea level. The Kunlun peaks are always snow capped.

You'll see Yuzhu Mountain from the platform at the Yuzhu Peak Station if the train stops there. The station is 4,159 meters above sea level. Yuzhu Peak is one of the highest peaks of the Kunlun Mountains.

5) Kunlun Mountain Pass

The Kunlun Mountain Pass is 160 kilometers south of Golmud, and the altitude rises abruptly from 2,800 meters to 4,700 meters. The scenery here is interesting because you'll see a quick change of vegetation as the train travels up into the tundra region.

You will be suddenly transferred from hot summer to a severe winter where the magnificent snow white mountains surround you. The pass is 4,767 meters above sea level. It is in the middle of the mountain range.

6) The Holxil Area

This area has few residents, and there is an average elevation there above 4,000 meters. Since the climate there is cold and the air is rare, the Chinese regard the area as a "Human Life Forbidden Zone." It is known for its flocks and herds of wild animals that you might see.

There are Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan wild donkeys, wild yaks, white-lip deer, snow leopards, Tibetan snow pheasants, and black-necked cranes inhabit the land. You might be fortunate to see wild animals.

7) The Source of the Yangtze River, the Tuotuo River

China's most important and biggest river begins as the Tuotuo River. You might see strangely shaped ice bars and ice bridges. There are icy lakes.

You can see this area from the special viewing platform if the train stops there. To see this area up close, you could take our Tuotuo River tour. We can customize it as you wish.

8) Tanggula Mountain Pass

At Tanggula Pass, the highest point of the journey, you can see snow even in the summer. The altitude is 5,068 meters (16,627 feet), and its so high you might feel the need for oxygen.

The Tangula Pass has a special viewing platform that was built for the train there. If the train stops there, you might see Geladandong Peak, the highest peak of the Tangula Mountain chain, rising high against the blue sky.

9) Conag Lake

Lake Conag or Lake Cuona is a large lake of 400 square kilomters. There is a train viewing platform here as well. You might see it reflecting the blue sky and the fluffy white clouds. The altitude of this station is 4,594 meters.

There is a scenic viewing platform here as well, and the train might stop here for the passengers to get out and enjoy the valley scenery.

10) Changthang Grassland (Nagqu)

Changthang GrasslandA tiny bit of the Changtang Grasslands

The Changthang Grasslands is a high desert and grassland area in Nagqu surrounded by the Kunlun, Tanggula, Kangdese and Nyainqentanglha mountains. It is considered the most beautiful high desert in the world. There are sheer crags, verdant prairies, and pristine turquoise lakes.

The vast highlands extend 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from West Tibet to Eastern Ladakh. The region has supported nomads for thousands of years. You might see the nomads' camps and their yaks.

If the train stops at the Nagqu viewing platform, you'll have a chance to look at this forbidding cold area north of Lhasa. It is over 4,000 meters high.

11) Eight Pagodas in the Northern Tibet Pasture

If the light is right, you might see the Eight Pagodas. It is in Wuma Town about 40 miles from Damxung. Tibetan herdsmen gather here frequently for festivals or others reasons.

If the train stops at the viewing platform here called the Damxung Station, you might be able to get some good photographs of these pagodas and any Tibetans encamped there. The station is at an elevation of 4,293 meters.

12) Lake Namtso (Lake Namco)

Namtso Lake at duskLake Namtso at dusk

The name Namtso means "holy lake." It is 30 kilometers from north to south and 70 kilometers from east to west. It is the second largest salt lake in China and the highest salt lake in the world at an elevation of 4,718 meters.

People visiting Lhasa might want to visit it in the summer and early fall. It is a great place for a scenic high altitude hike, and the sunsets and sunrises are especially glorious.

It is close enough to Lhasa to make it a good afternoon trip, see the sunset, and return in the evening.

13) Yanbajan Hot Springs

YambajanSteaming Yambajan hot springs

When the train approaches Lhasa, it will pass by the famous Yambajan Hot Springs. The steam rises over the turquoise waters.

You can watch this sight and look around if the train stops at the Yangbajian viewing platform that is one of the last ones before Lhasa.

Travel Information for This Route

Summer and early fall is when there is better scenery. The native people are out and about and camping alongside the train tracks with their yak herds.

An alternative is to take the train north from Lhasa. Decide on what parts of the route you'd want to see during the daylight hours, and take the appropriate train.

The train goes all the way to or from Beijing or Hong Kong.

Sometimes tourism closes in Tibet, and there are special visa requirements for foreigners.

We suggest you take the soft bed cabins or the hard beds, but don't get a "hard seat" ticket for this trip. Let us help you prepare and enjoy a Tibet tour and take this train trip. You can easily book this train online with this Lhasa train schedule link.

Health Tips

1) Visitors who are sick, have a high fever, asthma or other lung problems, or cardiovascular diseases should avoid travelling to Lhasa. We advise that women in late pregnancy and kids under three years old should also not travel unless they are acclimated already.

2) Avoid smoking and drinking while acclimating.

Tibet Tours and the Train Tour

Tibet sceneryThe Tibetan scenery along the way

We'll make a week long train tour from Xining to Lhasa fitted to your needs, and arrange the tickets and accommodations as you wish. We can also provide a tour guide and driver.

See our Tibet tours>>

Further Reading