Reaching altitudes of over 5,000m, the Qinghai-Tibet is the highest railway line in the world, a construction masterpiece battling obstacles like lack of oxygen and permafrost. The route cost US$4.2 billion to build and is often hailed as the ‘sky road’, taking guests from China’s capital Beijing to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Numbered the Z21, the route – departing daily – takes around 45 hours and is a comfortable and very economical way to travel, with sleeper compartments, wash facilities and a dining car. One of the most romantic journeys in the world, the train climbs into mountain passes shrouded in mist, through the wilds of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and finally into the once remote country of Tibet. Demand for this train definitely outweighs supply, so make sure to secure your journey well in advance.
Prices from: 720 CNY
Departing from: Beijing West Station
Journey length: 2 nights
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway journey
The China Tibet train runs just one route, and it’s a truly breath-taking one. Travelling 3757km along the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau from Beijing West Railway Station to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, you’ll see why so many travellers brush aside the lack of hot water. The train slowly ascends to an altitude of 5,000m, snaking past glaciers, the snow-capped Kunlun Mountains, Gobi Desert, charming villages and crystal-clear salt lakes.
A highlight of the trip being the Qinghai Salt Lake, famous for its Long Salt Bridge, and the chance to spot wildlife like mountain yaks and Tibetan antelopes. For those boarding at Beijing, the total journey time is 40 hours and 45 minutes, departing from Beijing’s West at 20:00 daily and arriving in Lhasa at 12:40, two days later. The train stops along the way at stations like Shijazhuang, Zhongwei, and Xining, but these are only for between two to 25 minutes.
Qinghai-Tibet Railway train
The train itself is extremely basic; there are no showers and no hot water, and ablutions are done in communal washrooms (rooms with sinks). Come prepared with bathroom essentials, wet wipes and a towel and you’ll be just fine. Along with sleeper cars and cars with seating for Hard Seat ticket holders, there’s also a dining car, offering three meal services a day with clean dining chairs and tables.
The dining car is equipped with a bar area serving tea, coffee and some beers. While is no place to shower on the train, three washbasins and two toilets (both Western and Chinese) are located in each carriage, and there is one disabled toilet. To eliminate the chance of altitude sickness, the train is slowly pumped with oxygen throughout the journey, with oxygen supplies in cabins and carriages.
Cabins on the The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Beijing to Lhasa
There are three categories of seating on each Tibet train, soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat, but those taking the full 24-hour journey should opt for a soft or hard sleeper. Soft Sleeper cabins are the train’s ‘first class’ offering, a four-berth (two upper and two lower) private compartment with a lockable door, large window, plug sockets, a small fixed television (airing local channels) clean crisp bedding and a decent amount of luggage space.
Hard Sleepers are a more economical option, while still being comfortable. Akin to second class, there are six berths in each hard sleeper compartment, but as the cabins are usually shared between groups there is no door provided. While the mattresses aren’t as comfortable, clean bedding is provided and there is a small table between the two lower berths for reading and eating.
Food and drink
A separate dining carriage in the middle of the train provides guests with hot meals and snacks, and a selection of Chinese and Tibetan dishes are available to purchase for around 28 CNY. This includes 55 cold dishes, 8 Tibetan dishes, 32 Chinese dishes and eight soups, like stewed yak with crassulacean and beef noodles. For 15CNY guests are served with a breakfast of steamed buns, eggs, porridge, pickles, bread, and milk.
During mealtimes a food trolley is pushed down the train selling boxed up meals, with snacks and drinks also available. It’s worth stocking up on packet soups and noodles and bringing a mug and spoon, as unlimited boiling water is available for free on from drinking water dispensers at the end of every carriage.
While there is no dress code on board the train, remember to bring comfortable clothes and pyjamas, slippers, a towel, toiletries and a mug – to make use of the free hot water.
With tickets in three price brackets, the train attracts a wide range of travellers, from backpackers to retired couples or even locals making the journey between China and Tibet.
Accommodation and bedding are both included in the ticket, while meals are at an additional cost. Boiling water is complimentary and available from dispensers in each carriage.
Pros and cons
While this train route is truly unique and one of the most thrilling rail journeys in the world, it’s important to note facilities are very basic. There are no showers, hot water or wifi on board and no privacy unless booked into a soft sleeper. Before travel make sure you have a Tibet Travel Permit, available through a local travel agency.