We chose to travel on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway as we made our way to Tibet. This special railway extends 1,956 km’s across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and connects, Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. What an experience this 21 hour train journey provided us!
The railway itself is an engineering marvel. For starters, the line holds the title of the world’s highest railway, peaking at 5,072m above sea level as it runs through the Tanggula Pass.
About 960 km of the route sits at more than 4,000m, which provided a few unique challenges to the designers and engineers. The three major challenges faced were the fragile ecosystem, the lack of oxygen at this high altitude, and building such infrastructure in the permafrost. About 550 km of the line is laid on permafrost, and across the entire route, there are 675 bridges (160 km in total length). The line opened in 2006.
There are 3 classes of “seats” on the train, hard seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. No prize for guessing that we purchased the soft sleeper seats, which comprised a 4 berth cabin with 2 bunk beds, a small table between the bunks, and a locking door. Quite cosy really.
Our train departed Xining Station at 5pm, and we shared the cabin with a Chinese businesswomen and her secretary. The secretary could speak a small amount of English, and through her, we learned that their business was growing and selling Goji Berries. They were only travelling as far as Delingha, 4 hrs from Xining, so for the remaining 17hrs of the trip, we had the cabin to ourselves – YAY!
All the reviews we read about the trip suggested that passengers should purchase their own food and drinks, and not rely on the services onboard. That was good advice. We had a little outing to the supermarket before we boarded the train and stocked up on instant noodles and rice, fruit, and tea bags – there was an endless supply of boiling water on the train. Preparing our dinner was an experience – I had chosen “self heating steamed rice with braised beef and brown sauce”. The instructions on the pack were all in Chinese, but thankfully there were pictures too. I must say, I was very impressed with the self heating system. I poured the special liquid over a small pouch of secret chemicals, placed the rice over the liquid mix and sealed it with a lid. Almost immediately, steam commenced emitting through a small hole in the top. 10 minutes later I had myself a surprisingly hot and tasty meal.
As we had the cabin to ourselves, we both chose the bottom bunks for sleeping, and arranged our luggage and food supplies on the top. It could have got a little crowed if all 4 bunks were full. The beds were “firm” but sufficient. A pillow, bottom sheet and quilt were provided, and at around 11pm, we settled in for sleep, lulled into slumber by the clickety clack of the wheels on the track.
I was soon to discover that it was not just the engineers on the railway who had to deal with the lack of oxygen at high altitude. Anne and I both experienced some breathlessness in Xining, but it was nothing like I felt when I awoke in a lather of sweat and severe shortness of breath at 3.15am. I should point out that I am asthmatic, so my condition was exacerbated by the lack of oxygen. Fortunately, each berth has an oxygen outlet, with extra outlets in the narrow aisles outside the cabins. I spent the next hour standing in the aisle with my nose and mouth as close as I could get to the oxygen outlet, breathing in the enriched supply. Thankfully, it gave me a huge amount of relief. I could not get back to sleep, as each time I lay down, the breathlessness started again, so I sat up for the remainder of the night, breathing in air from the outlet by my bunk.
It wasn’t just the lack of oxygen at high altitude that was breathtaking, it was also the scenery. Passing our cabin window were open grass plains, yak, sheep, Tibetan herders, tents, snow capped mountains, lakes, frozen rivers, snow fields, a rainbow, mud brick houses, dark rain filled clouds and plenty of power lines criss crossing the plateau.
We pulled in to Lhasa station right on time, after an onboard breakfast of cornflakes and mushy strawberries, accompanied by a banana and an instant cappuccino, made in our fabulous new thermal mugs, gifted to us for our travels by cousin Karin. I must say, the thermal mugs got a big workout throughout the entire 21 hour journey.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway journey will remain a highlight of our adventure, literally taking my breath away.