The controversial train line linking Xining to Lhasa opened in July 2006. The train line from Xining to Golmud was completed in 1984, but the goal was always to have the train extend all the way to Lhasa. In 2001, the construction work commenced. Over 100,000 workers were brought to the Tibetan Plateau to work on the railway. The railway was finished 2 years earlier than the projected 2008 date. The first few months after the new train line opened, it was extremely difficult to get tickets. I was very fortunate that I was able to get tickets for the new train only a few weeks after it began. Since then, I have taken the train many times across the Tibetan Plateau.
The official starting point of the Tibetan Railway is the city of Xining in the traditional Tibetan province of Amdo. However, there are also trains to Lhasa beginning in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Lanzhou. Contrary to popular belief, there is no train to Lhasa originating in Golmud. All trains to Lhasa pass through Golmud, but there is no train originating in the central Qinghai city. It is possible to get train tickets to Lhasa in Golmud, but since there is no train originating in Golmud there is only a very limited amount of tickets available which quickly sell out. Plus, the travel agencies in Golmud that arrange permits for foreigners to go to Lhasa tend to charge far too much for their tours. Prices for permits and tours to Lhasa are much cheaper in Xining or Chengdu. Only arrange your permit and tour in Golmud if you don't mind being ripped off. There also is no train to Lhasa originating in Xi'an. The trains from eastern China pass through Xi'an enroute to Lhasa, but no train begins operating in Xi'an that goes to Lhasa. For this reason, Xi'an is not the best choice in trying to get tickets to Lhasa. Since the train only passes through Xi'an, there is a very limited amount of tickets for Lhasa and they quickly sell out. If possible, try and begin your train journey to Lhasa from Xining, Chengdu or even Beijing. It will be much easier and cheaper to arrange your permit and tour in these cities.
From eastern China, the train to Lhasa passes through endless farming villages. The scenery is good, but becomes quite monotonous, especially by the end of the second day. Beginning early on the third day from Beijing or second day from Xining and Lanzhou, the scenery has drastically changed. The train is now on the northern Tibetan Plateau heading south from Golmud. Gone are the farmlands and what you see instead are endless grasslands inhabited by yaks, sheep, Tibetan antelope and other wildlife native to the Tibetan Plateau. High snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance. Around 120kms south of Golmud, the train passes the 6178m/20,270 feet Mt. Yuzhu, the highest mountain in the eastern Kunlun Range. On a clear day, the view of the mountain from the train is amazing.
Around 400kms south of Golmud you pass through the small village of Tuotuo He. Tuotuo He is located near the headwaters of the Yangtze River, known as the Dza Chu in Tibetan. Though Tuotuo He is listed as a destination along the Tibetan Railway, it actually is not possible to get off there. A couple of hours south of Tuotuo He you will enter the Kekexili Nature Preserve. This nature preserve located in far southwestern Qinghai and the far northern Tibet Autonomous Region is home to most of Tibet's remaining antelope, wild yaks and snow leopards. This protected area is basically uninhabited and is often covered in snow even during the summer. You should be able to see several herds of antelope from the train as you pass through this area.
If taking the train from Xining or Lanzhou, you will cross the Tanggu La Pass, the highest point on the Tibetan Railway at 5072m, at around 3pm. This is the highest railway pass in the world and forms the border between Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). At around 3:50pm (from Xining or Lanzhou) you reach Amdo, the first town inside the TAR. This is the first stop from Golmud where pasengers are allowed to get off the train. Lying at 4702m, Amdo is one of only a handful of towns located on Tibet's northern Changtang region. This area is home to nomad Tibetans who live in black yak wool tents.
One and a half hours south of Amdo is the town of Nagchu sitting at 4500m. Nagchu has one of the largest horse festivals in Tibet each year in August. Nomads from across the Changtang arrive in town for the festival. Few foreigners stay in Nagchu, but it is actually a pretty nice place to check out for a day or two. After Nagchu the train continues heading south. About 2 hours after leaving Nagchu you arrive in Damshung which is near Nam Tso. Two hours after Damshung and a little over 14 hours past Golmud, you arrive in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The railway from Beijing to Lhasa is 4064kms long. From Guangzhou Lhasa is 4980kms away and from Xining it is 1972kms. Over 960kms of the railway lies above 4000m with 550kms being on permafrost. During the busy summer tourist season, over 8500 people arrive in each day in Lhasa on the train. The only way foreigners can take the train to Lhasa is to have a Tibet Travel Permit, which can only be arranged by a travel agency, and to book a tour. Permits are usually checked before boarding the train. If you don't have a permit and are checked, you will not be allowed to board the train.