The ‘Sky Road’ runs 1956 kilometres across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau connecting Chinese Xining with Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. As the world’s highest railway, reaching a literally breathtaking 5231 metres at the Tanggula Pass, this incredible engineering success spans an area known for earthquakes, low atmospheric pressure and freezing temperatures.
The line opened in 2006, after engineers battled permafrost, low-oxygen levels and a very sensitive eco-system. At peak times, up to 1000 passengers board the train for this magnificent journey. Of course many tourists use this route; brimming with heightened anticipation for the fluttering prayer flags, golden temples, chanting monks and endlessly photogenic landscape of Tibet.
But this is essentially a working train. Locals and business people pack the carriages alongside climbers heading for the snow-capped Himalayan mountains hoping to acclimatise gently to the altitude over the 22 hour journey rather than more abruptly landing by plane.
On the Qinghai-Tibet railway, luxury is sacrificed for adventure. Squat toilets and basic canteen food go hand-in-hand with headaches and nausea as passengers take to the ‘roof of the world’. Accommodation is basic, ranging from ‘hard seats’ to ‘hard sleepers’ to ‘soft sleepers’.
To counter the increasing altitude, where outside oxygen levels drop by as much as 60% on the highest stretches, carriages are fed oxygen as the train ascends. Private oxygen-dispensing outlets are provided for each passenger. Other specialist adaptations are built into the trains including pressurised cabins, temperature control and a special UV coating on the windows to protect against powerful high-altitude sunlight.
As this great train journey climbs from China, the grey and inhospitable backdrop gives way to an open Tibetan landscape bathed in a clear and pure light. Needle-sharp peaks, crystal-white salt lakes, vast open valleys, lush grasslands and fertile hillsides emerge as one spectacular vista follows another.
- Book well in advance if you plan to travel in the summer months
- Take altitude sickness medication with you
- Hot water is provided so take tea bags and instant noodles
- Many visitors need a permit to visit Tibet
- Official tickets can be purchased at www.chinatibettrain.com