The much anticipated train to Lhasa opened to the public on July 1, 2006. China had spent many years and many billions of dollars building this railway over the frozen northern Tibetan Plateau. Originally, it wasn't to be opened until sometime in 2007, but China had tens of thousands of workers from the eastern provinces come in to speed up the process (there were very few Tibetans working on the construction of the railway to Tibet). The new section of train line extends from Golmud in western Qinghai Province to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The distance between Golmud and Lhasa is just under 1150km / 719 miles. It is now possible to take the train all the way across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa to Xining. The distance from Lhasa to Xining is 1972km / 1233 miles.
I wanted to be among the first people to take this new train line, but I ended up being quite busy when the train began on July 1st. I tried to take the train in mid-July, but the tickets were all sold out for the next 10 days. After looking at the train schedule, I decided to take the bus down to Lhasa and then train back to Xining. Most of the trains going down to Lhasa arrive late at night. Some of the best scenery is between the small town of Amdo and Lhasa, but you are unable to see it because it is dark. So I took the train from Xining to Golmud and then took the bus down to Lhasa as I have done many times before.
I arrived in Lhasa on July 31st. Four thousand people per day were arriving in Lhasa on the trains which were originating in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Lanzhou and Xining (trains from Shanghai and Guangzhou have since been added). I have been to Lhasa many, many times, but have never seen it quite like this. Tourists were everywhere! Walking around the Barkhor one could see more tourists (both foreign and Chinese) than Tibetans. I went to 6 different hotels before I found one with an empty room. Lhasa was known as the "Forbidden City" for centuries. It was a top destination for many adventure explorers in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Many went out hoping to make it to Lhasa, but few did. Lhasa is anything but a Forbidden City now. It is now one of the top tourist destinations in China and in Asia.
As soon as I got checked into a hotel (the Gang Gyan Hotel on Beijing Lu), I made my way over to the new Lhasa train station. The train station is beautiful and is built in Tibetan design. The train station lies 14km from downtown, but a new bridge over the Kyi River will shorten the distance to about 8km. I walked into the ticket hall and was shocked. There were 14 lines all with at least 40 people waiting to buy train tickets! I couldn't believe how many people there were. I toughed it out waiting in line and bought a ticket from Lhasa to Xining. I finally had my train ticket in hand!
I spent about 10 days in Lhasa with some of my best Tibetan friends. My friends Lhamo Dhondrup and Namlu made time in their busy schedules to hang out with me everyday. We spent a lot of time playing pool at one of the many local pool halls in Lhasa.
At the end of my time in Lhasa I said goodbye to my friends and made my way to the train station. All of the trains going to Lhasa are new. A Canadian company built all of them and they are very nice. They are slightly different than the rest of Chinese trains. A popular rumor about the trains is that they are pressurized like an airplane. That is not true. But, the train is equipped with oxygen outlets in all of the sleeping berths and under every seat. The stewardesses pass out oxygen lines to everyone who wants them and you are free to use the oxygen at no additional cost. Oxygen is available between Lhasa and Golmud and vice-versa. While oxygen is in use, there is no smoking at all on the trains. Train cars in China are supposed to be smoke free, but many people pay no attention to the signs and smoke anyway. I noticed that while the oxygen was in use, the train officials enforced the no smoking rule.
The train departed Lhasa at 8am. I couldn't get tickets on the train to Xining (train N918) so I had to settle for tickets on train T28 to Beijing. All the trains stop in Xining so it didn't really matter what train I took. I took a seat next to the window to enjoy the scenery. Even though I had taken this route many times by bus, it was quite different from the train (and much more comfortable!!). There is a reader board in each car that tells you how fast you are going, what the outside temperature is and what the next destination is. Soon after leaving Lhasa, you go through some farming areas. I saw many Tibetans working in their fields. Further north, there were some nomads in yak hair tents grazing their herds. The train passed by a couple of beautiful high elevation lakes and several high mountain passes. The scenery in this area of Tibet is amazing.
The train made a couple stops along the way to Xining. The first stop was in the Kham Tibetan town of Nagchu. Nagchu sits at 4500m / 14,760 feet. The only Tibetans I saw on the train got off here. After a 6 or 7 minute stop in Nagchu, we were back on our way. A few hours later we crossed over the Tang Gu La mountain pass. The train pass is about 5082m which is a little lower than the pass the road takes (5231m). I didn't use any oxygen, but many other people were. After crossing the Tang Gu La we went through the vast high altitude grasslands of Kekexili where most of Tibet's Tibetan Antelope live. I saw several large herds of antelope as well as herds of gazelle. A little after 10pm we arrived in Golmud (elevation 2800m / 9184 feet). Almost all of the Chinese tourists got off the train in Golmud and took pictures standing in front of the train station sign. After leaving Golmud, I got settled and slept through the night. The next morning at 9:45 I arrived in Xining. I had taken the new train across the Tibetan Plateau. It was the most comfortable way I had ever traveled to or from Lhasa.
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This map is from Wikipedia