A while ago, I was convinced that train journeys are way more romantic in books than in real life. I had taken long train rides in Europe and in Asia, and never did I, upon stepping out of the train and onto the platform, think Gosh, that was the best thing ever! I might as well jump back in and do it all over again.
So how did I find myself taking the high speed train from Beijing to Lhasa?
I blamed it on Nellie.
I met Nellie during a travel blogger conference in Sri Lanka and we hit it off right away. Maybe because we’re similar in age and have similar background. We were both raised in South East Asia and ended up halfway from our native countries. Maybe because we share the same lust for not-too-comfortable (read:cheap) travels.
I also blamed it on my weakened state of mind at the time. I just finished a 2 week trip to Florida, swimming with manatees, and road tripping down Florida Keys. I LOVED my time in Florida and I was bummed to be back in SF. So when Nellie wrote me saying that she’s running a tour to Tibet and she, along with some other people in the group, are thinking of taking a 2-day train ride to Lhasa – I was like a hungry person in front of a buffet, Sounds like an adventure, sign me up!
A 40 hours journey, this was the longest train ride I’d ever been on
After I forked over $200 it started to dawn on me and I was slowly panicking. What did I just sign up for? I get restless just sitting on a couch for too long. Spending 2 days in a cubicle-sized room with strangers? I’m feeling claustrophobic just thinking about it.
But what’s done is done. I’ll just have to make the best of it.
Departure day at Bejing West Train Station
So one day after my visit to the Great Wall, I met up with Nellie and the other people on our group outside Bejing West Train Station, a giant building that looked like one of those south East Asian shopping malls. You’re not allowed to enter the building without tickets (which I though was unusual, right?) so our group hung around outside in muggy Beijing air while Nellie track down the agency person who had our tickets.
Tickets in hand, we finally entered the station and found our assigned waiting room. We used the time to stock up on food and snacks.
Pro tip: you can always buy food and instant noodle on the train, but what you should get is fresh fruit and drinking water.
Our group of 6 was assigned into 3 separate cabins.
Boarding the train was a chaotic affair, with lots of jostling among human and luggage. I marveled at the tiny size of our cabin and wonder if we were all going to fit – all 4 of us and our luggage.
My assigned cabin buddy was a British woman on a 6 month trip around the world. We shared our first-class cabin with a young-ish Chinese woman, and an elderly woman with a striking, orange perm. She, of the orange perm, came with 2 other people who were standing on the the cabin doorway, our cabin doorway, making the tiny cabin feel even more cramped. They were talking animatedly, almost to the point of screaming, to the younger Chinese woman.
Why are they so angry about? Then I realised that they were not yelling. They were just very loud. Every now and then they’d turn to look at me and I knew they thought I understand Chinese. (I don’t). I stared blankly back, silently communicating our lack of ability to communicate.
My guess is that the older lady was trying to get her two travel mates in the same cabin and she was trying to convince both of us to switch. In the middle of this chaos, all of a sudden, there’s a high pitched beeping sound – like a fire alarm. Nobody else seemed to be bothered by it or even realised the noise was there. OMG, am I the only one hearing this? Am I developing a hearing disease? I looked up at the British woman at the upper bunk, “You’re hearing this too, right?” She just looked at me blankly. Between the yelling and the piercing alarm, I don’t think she heard me.
The train hasn’t even moved and I was already feeling massively overwhelmed.
Suddenly Nellie popped her head into our cabin, “Guys, do you want to move to our cabin?” “Yes!” I immediately jumped up and grabbed my stuff.
Somehow Nellie, who speaks Chinese fluently, managed to organize a switcheroo and now 4 people from our group are sharing a cabin. Guys, that might’ve been the thing that saved trip for me.
The Beijing to Lhasa high speed train, also called the Qinghai Tibet train, is famous for its high elevation.
For 10 hours of the journey we would be traveling above 10,000 feet. The highest point of this is the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) above sea level, is the world’s highest point on a railway. Not ever since the Huayhuash Trek in Peru was I ever been that high.
Some people think that taking the train would acclimatize you for traveling in Tibet. I have my doubts. I don’t think we spend enough time in elevation during the train ride to make any difference. Not to mention that the key to acclimatization is to go slow. The train whisks us to high elevation in a manner that’s the opposite of slow.
Pro tip: If you want to avoid altitude sickness, your best option is to go to Xining and spend a few days there before jumping on the train.
Most of our group took Diamox, an altitude sickness prevention medicine. Unfortunately some people experience side effects when taking Diamox. Ironically the side effect is nausea and headache, the same symptoms as altitude sickness.
I chose not to take Diamox and oh man, I had it rough. After the first night, I felt this intense pressure behind my eyeballs. It wasn’t super painful, but it was always there like a shadowy presence you can’t shake off and it got worse and worse as we kept climbing in elevation higher and higher. It got so bad, I wanted to claw my face off to release the pressure.
Why didn’t I take Diamox? Well, in general I don’t like taking drugs if I don’t have to, especially if it’s to prevent something that I know could go away on its own, however annoying it is. I guess I’m a little of a masochist that way. I also wanted to know if I were one of those people who can naturally tolerate being at high elevation (nope, not of one of them).
Then things got worse. The morning after the second night I woke up with my index finger TWICE its normal size. Somehow I must have tossed and turned so violently during the night I managed to sprain a finger when sleeping. I stared at my throbbing, swollen finger in frustration.
Why is this happening?
How does one sprain a finger sleeping?
Other than dealing with altitude sickness, what else is there to do on the Beijing – Lhasa train?
Well, not much. You sleep, you read, you chat with your cabin mates, you play charades, and you look forward to mealtimes. Mealtimes become our way to tell how far the day has gone. During mealtime you can opt to go to the dining room, or buy a boxed meal from a guy who pushes a cart up and down the train. The meals were simple and except for breakfast, were not vegetarian friendly. It didn’t matter too much for me anyway. Because of altitude sickness I didn’t have any appetite.
(I actually lost weight in China. THIS NEVER HAPPENED ON A TRIP BEFORE!)
Between the sleeping, reading, and chatting, there was a lot of staring out of the windows.
Let’s talk about the view. The view on the Beijing – Lhasa train was supposed to be INCREDIBLE.
But if I have to be honest, it’s just ‘meh’. There’s hours and hours of flat plains with snow-capped mountains far the background, but I can see that in California, my home state. Yeah sure, I got excited the first 2 times we saw a herd of yaks, or a hut with prayer flags, if only because it was a change in scenery. Then after awhile I didn’t even bother to look up. We passed what’s supposed to be Tibet’s largest lake, but it’s kind of hard to appreciate when you’re so far away from it.
Amenities wise, the train was actually quite comfortable.
Each carriage has 2 toilets: a squatting toilet and a Western-style toilet. Both constantly smelled of cigarette smoke, but they actually managed to keep them relatively clean. I was so relieved. On my overnight train in Vietnam, the toilet clogged and urine was flooding out of the bathroom into the sleeping cabins. It was one of my more traumatizing travel experiences and it made me dread train toilet ever since.
The beds are hard, but not uncomfortable with clean blanket and sheets. There are 4 bunks per cabin in first class coach. Second class cabin has 6. It’s hard enough sharing such tiny space with 3 people, I can’t imagine sharing it with 5 other. The other difference is that the first-class cabin has a door that locks.
There’s an electrical outlet in the cabin, and there are more along the hallway so we were able to keep our phones charged. I bought a Chinese SIM card in Shanghai and managed to get signal whenever the train stopped at a city.
You’re allowed to go on the platforms when the train stops, a good opportunity to stretch your legs and breathe fresh air. But since I never knew how long the stop is, I didn’t venture far.
All in all, if you were going to be stuck inside a metal container for a 40 hour journey, it could’ve been worse.
We’ve arrived in Tibet!
Finally, around 10am on the 2nd morning we pulled in into Lhasa train station. We lined up in the narrow hall, bags on our back, bouncing eagerly on our feet, watching, waiting for the door to open.
Tibet is just on the other side of that door and I couldn’t wait to explore Tibet in the next 8 days – swollen finger and all!
In retrospect, all is well that ends well. If I were traveling by myself, knowing me, I’d be deadly bored and I might’ve jumped out midway and took a bus or fly the rest of the way to Lhasa. So I’m thankful I had friends to share the experience with. It was a great bonding experience.
The right amount of misery has a way to bring people together. Maybe if we send our world leaders on a multi-day train journey with no press and no Internet connection, they could sort out their differences and solve world problems?
Should you take the high speed train to Tibet?
Do it with friends. Unless you have a high tolerance of being alone for a long time with your thoughts, or you’re one of those train enthusiasts, doing the train journey with a raucous group of friends would make it tolerable.
Don’t do it to get acclimatize You don’t spend that much time at high elevation on the Qing Hai Tibet train ride to make any difference. It still took me over 48 hours in Lhasa to finally feel whole again.
Don’t do it to save time or money. Beijing – Lhasa train ticket actually costs about the same as a flight. I have always preferred taking a car, or a bus, or a plane, but this time I wanted to to take a train, because I wanted something different. And I got different 🙂 It all depends on what you want to get out of your traveling experience.
My time on the high speed train to Tibet becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences (I’ve had a few of those). Something I feel happy to have experienced, but not one I’d care to do again.
Next time I’m going to Tibet? I’ll be flying. (I just read about driving across China to Tibet – this sounds amazing and I’d definitely consider this over flying or taking the train).
Photo credit: Brian and WildJunket
Beijing-Lhasa train info
Packing/shopping list for the train ride:
– Toilet paper
– Wet napkins
– Fresh fruit, fresh food
– Diamox (if you decide to take it)
– Keep your toiletries handy in a separate bag
– Small towel
Buying your Beijing-Lhasa train ticket:
We used an agency to help buy ours. I used China DIY Travel to pre-purchase all of the ther train tickets and have been very happy with their service.
Where to stay in Beijing (budget)
There are a lot of modern clean hostels throughout Beijing. I stayed in 2 different hostels: Peking Station and Peking Youth Hostel. They’re both clean, friendly, and super cute but I prefer the latter because of its location, right in the middle of a pedestrianized alley in an old neighborhood. Find more places to stay in Beijing.
Hi , Vistet here , obsessive traveller in the Himalayas since the 80s. Nice read , but some points on acclimatization & altitude sickness :
As you describe yourself the only way to find out that you need it is to try without . To be really effective one needs to take it 24 hours in advance. This also gives you the chance to sort out side effects ( rare , with right dosage ) and altitude sickness in spite of the medication. The optimal run is flying in to Xining , spending a night or two there and next taking the train in. The advantages of the train are threefold : 1) the time between 2000-3000 meters ( before Xining and to Golmud ) 2) more time at same effective altitude as Lhasa , with guaranteed rest 3 ) access to more supplemental oxygen from the O2 outlets at every bunk , seat etc .
The train reaches 5000+ meters only on the map – everyone breathes 25% O2 after Golmud.
People do get altitude sickness coming both ways , but more people get more severe forms of it when flying in -see the link on my blog.
Wonderful post. I love reading about experiences like this one. The memory is the essence of what traveling is all about.
I had a chance to visit Lhasa and altitude sickness. So I can relate. No fun at the time, but a memory none the less.
The memory is the essence of what traveling is all about. <-- you nailed it.
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Haha – brilliant. Read it again! I love travelling by train and welcomed 2011 onboard a moving Vietnamese train, in second class : ) It was fairly traumatising, albeit only took 19 hours : )
I like the honesty of this post. I traveled in China for 3 months and some of those trains were definitely not for the faint of heart.