Railway to Heaven: a Trip on the Qinghai-Tibet Train

The lofty snowcapped Kunlun Mountains are veiled in a wispy mist as the train climbs up a steep mountain pass, trudging toward Lhasa. Through the window, great expanses of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau roll into view: grasslands dotted with black yaks and prayer flags fluttering from gold-topped temples. This is definitely the ‘roof of the world’.

For centuries, Tibet was cut off from the outside world by its remote location, extreme climate and geographic environment. This far-flung region thwarted all but the boldest travellers and explorers — that is, until the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006, which connected Tibet to the rest of China.

Those seeking the romance of Tibet will find the Qinghai-Tibet Railway an evocative journey that transports you to a different world, one far from the neon signs and skyscrapers of urban China. The train trundles its way through the back country and high mountains of remote Qinghai and into Tibet, snaking past glaciers, peaks, shimmering salt lakes and charming villages. Here’s what to expect along the way.

An Engineering Marvel

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway holds the record for the world’s highest train route, reaching altitudes over 5000m. The railway line, which cost US$4.2 billion to build, is an extraordinary feat of modern engineering. Sometimes hailed as the ‘sky road’, the railway traverses a region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.

As 960km of the line sits at 4000m, the designers and engineers had to tackle three main challenges during construction: the fragile ecosystem, the lack of oxygen and permafrost.

To provide proper aid for the construction workers, the government built dozens of medical facilities and oxygen-making stations along the way to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness. The route was also carefully chosen to avoid destruction of vegetation and the natural habitations of wild animals, and they tried to ensure stability in permafrost regions by installing gravel embankments.

The Train Route

Extending 1956 km across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the rail journey officially starts from Xining, capital of Qinghai province, and ends in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. From start to end, the trip takes only one day (20 hours 55 minutes to be exact), and there are trains plying the same route every day. It is possible to make stops along the journey, but this is not a spontaneous hop-on/hop-off affair. You’ll need to decide your route in advance and buy tickets for each leg.

The journey is a spectacular tour of the elevated highlights of Qinghai and northern Tibet: the boundless Qiangtang Prairie, the desolate, golden Gobi Desert and the wildlife-rich Kekexili Nature Reserve (where you can spot Tibetan antelope and wild yak).

There are plenty of dramatic moments as the train zips past spearmint-blue Qinghai Lake, trundles alongside the sparkling white Qarhan Salt Bridge, and skirt the edges of the legendary Namtso Lake. But, without a doubt, the highlight is seeing the Tanggula Mountains covered with snow all year round.