Riding the High Iron Line

This week, I just did a very non-backpacker thing to do: I enlisted the help of a travel agency to secure a “hard sleeper” train ticket from Xining, Qinghai to Lhasa, Tibet. (To learn more about different train types and tickets, check out one of my older posts about transportation.) With all of my travel experience in China, I’ll admit to feeling pretty ashamed about needing help, but you see, this is no ordinary train ticket. This is a ticket for the world’s highest train: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway!

If you don’t know, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is high up in the world, not because of architectural feats, but simply because of altitude. This train will go across the Tibetan Plateau and will wend its way into the Himalayas. It will depart from Xining, Qinghai, which is already at a staggering altitude of 7,464 feet above sea level (2,275 meters, for those of you who use the metric system), and will end in Lhasa, which is at an altitude of 11,995 feet above sea level (3,656 meters). There’s a reason that Lhasa is sometimes called “The Rooftop of the World.” And once in Tibet, there are a lot of “World’s highest’s” to be had. (Including the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel, which I intend to ride).

It’s honestly mind-boggling for me to think about such heights (which you can see on this topographical map here). Reading through this article warning train passengers from Beijing not to get too cocky about altitude adjustment, I’m stunned to learn about some special features for this mountain-fording train. Essentially, since the train will be going through areas higher than Lhasa (by about 2,000 meters!) the train is especially equipped with controlled air supply, to at least mimic altitude no higher than Lhasa. That, plus other oxygen tanks, will probably make this one of the more unique train experiences in my life.

(And for those of you *coughmomcough* worrying about my safety, realize that there are 5-6 trains that do this trip EVERY DAY and that it’s the same technique used in airplanes).

So, why is this route so popular? Well, for starters, the scenery. I haven’t looked up many pictures of Tibet just yet, because I want to be surprised by what I see out of my window. Suffice it to say, however, that the mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rolling plateau make this a feast for the eyes.

The other reason is actually a lot more straightforward: altitude adjustment. While Lhasa definitely has an airport, most travel agencies don’t recommend flying in, simply because it’s more of a shock to the system, and it’s better to let your body adjust to altitude changes slowly. So, most people planning on going to Tibet usually fly into Xining, spend a day or two there, and then train it to Lhasa.

My trip is a little different, because I’ll actually BE in Qinghai to travel for about 10 days. I’ll have more than enough time to adjust to the altitude, and will also get to see Tibetan places with lower traffic. But, in the end, I’m still fighting for the same train ticket as those just milling about Xining for a couple of days.

Hence why I needed help getting the ticket.

I tried to use my own smarts to get the ticket, really. I wanted a hard sleeper because 1) one of the side effects of altitude sickness is sleeplessness, so if you start off a trip with little sleep, that can’t be good, and 2) I’ve gotten a bit pickier about comfort these past few years of travel, and whereas I used to get a hard seat “just for the story” I now fight for a bed because, sleep.

The tickets were available to buy at 3 pm last week. I was ready, finger on the button.

3 pm. All sold out. Immediately.

In my panic, I still booked a hard seat, for fear that nothing would be left at all, but then I remembered that I was buddying up with a travel agency in Tibet, and that they probably had *ways* of getting the coveted sleeper tickets.

I contacted the agency, and they hooked me up with a friend. I asked her how she would be able to get a ticket for a train that was totally sold out. (I believe my words in cobbled Chinese were “Are you Harry Potter or something? Wave of the wand and tickets appear?”)

The person said “We have ways, and I can 95% guarantee you a ticket.”

“Why 95%?” I said.

“Well, that’s just a bit stupid to say 100%, plus we did fail once.” (This “once” was when a group of people all wanted sleeper tickets, all wanted to be in the same compartment, and all wanted it within a week).

I returned my hard seat and left it to the agency (while grumbling about my “failure” to get it by myself, because no one is judgier about methods and tricks of the trail as travelers are). Then I went about my days noodling around our new apartment.

About a week later: “Good news! We got the train you wanted. AND it’s a bottom bed.” (A much-coveted spot where the bed both doubles as a seat and a bed, with your own little bedside table).


So there! I guess I don’t need to worry about that anymore, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness (hear that, brain?) While there’s a lot of amazing stuff in Tibet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this train ride was one of the biggest draws for me. I’ve done all classes of trains, I’ve been just about everywhere in China via train, and I’ve even kicked back with some train conductors. It’s only fitting that this be the way I enter Tibet: not on a crooked road, not on a plane, and not on foot. I’ll arrive on the iron line that has led me to so many new places — the iron line that stitches China together.


Travel Sneak-Peak: Tibet and Qinghai

Now that my roommate and I are at last all moved into our new apartment, I can start to think about my next big trip, starting in July. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I only have 4 more provinces to travel to in China before I’ve been to them all! So with that in mind, July is when I’ll be tackling another piece of China’s Wild West by visiting Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

My map of past trips and remaining places.

I’ve been asked before how I travel, or how I plan my trips. Everyone does it differently, but I tend to think more in terms of directions/overall shape. For example, I know what the spots I’d like to reach, but in terms of exact day to day planning, it’s more up in the air. I know what general direction I’m heading and how to get back, but that’s it.

For this trip, my “general shape” is that I’ll start at a magazine launch in Shanghai where one of my poetry translations has been published. Then, I’ll board a train to get out to Qinghai, then TAR! From Lhasa, a 48-hour train (they have beds) all the way across China to see the landscape fold together. It should be an exciting trip, especially since I’ll get to experience the highest altitude in the world and see mountains well beyond my imagination.

Here’s a breakdown of the trip.


Well, I’m no stranger to Shanghai, given that Hangzhou is only one hour’s train ride away. I’ve gone there to meet friends during international flight layovers, I’ve gone for the literary festival, I’ve gone for a bachelorette party, and I’ve gone to just straight up travel of course.

This time I’ll definitely have a pretty clear goal, which is to attend a magazine (“The Shanghai Literary Review”) launch, and hopefully meet some other interesting writers and editors. I’ll be fancy, I’ll be (hopefully) charming. In other words, I will be the exact opposite of what I’ll be like traveling in the following weeks when my clothes get rumpled from the washed-in-a-sink routine.

While in Shanghai, I may call up some friends, or I might just scuttle into a nice western restaurant to enjoy a good meal before boarding the train.


First off, to get to Qinghai, I’ve figured out a train system that will get me there. First, I’ll be doing an overnight train to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, and then a short 1-hour train to Qinghai’s capital city, Xining. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually not so bad, especially considering that I’m basically crossing the entire country.

Since Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, is home to Tibetan people, and is historically Tibet, much of what I want to do in this province is related to Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t have many specifics nailed down for the 10 days or so that I’ll be here, but there are three things I want to do: Find the salt lakes, go to a Tibetan village, and go hiking. From what I’ve read online, all of this is extremely doable. There’s the Chaka Salt Lake, which is just to the North/Northwest of Qinghai Lake (the huge one), and there are national parks, and there are several Tibetan villages, including Tongren, to name just one.

This part of the trip is travel like I’m used to — the kind in which I’m a leaf on the wind, and enjoying whatever experiences come my way.

Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

To get to Lhasa, I’ll be taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has been dubbed “The World’s Highest Railroad,” because of the altitude. While there are flights going into Lhasa, it’s better to go in slowly because 1) the scenery is amazing, and 2) it helps you adjust better to the high altitude.

As for my time in TAR, I will be on a much clearer schedule, because I’ll be going with a small group tour.

Oh yes, I’m not a huge fan of group tours, and yes yes, it’s more rewarding to travel alone, but that’s simply not the best idea when budget traveling in TAR. This is because all foreign travelers in Tibet must have a guide and a driver, since we are not allowed to take pubic transportation outside of Lhasa. Likewise, there are areas that foreigners are discouraged from visiting. Because having a guide and a driver can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, I’m joining a group to make it more affordable. That being said, the two companies I’m considering (Budget Tibet Tours, and Tibet Highland Tours), seem to have good itineraries in mind.

(By the way, if you want to know a lot more about traveling in Tibet, check out this website. The writer is very friendly and actually responded to my questions!)

The trip I want to take will be an 8-day journey from Lhasa (where we will see the Potala Palace, which in itself is entralling) all the way to the Mount Everest Base Camp. (“OMG you’re climbing Mt. Everest??” NOOOOO I’m not a mountaineer and would need many years of training to even think of that — this is a “poking the base of the mountain” trip). The journey will take us past glaciers, the world’s highest monastery, and I assume more gorgeous scenery.

Oh, and while I’m in Lhasa, I also plan on riding the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel. (Again, because of the altitude.) It’s barely mentioned online, but it’s just odd enough to attract my attention.

Anyway, I’m getting pumped for my trip, and will share details as they come/I hit the road. As for now, that’s just a glimpse of where I’ll be in less than a month!