1. The adventure actually starts in Beijing
Most of our travellers to Tibet opt to start in the Chinese capital Beijing, flying direct with British Airways. Beijing is the cultural, political and historical heart of China, the city where we can best trace the country's ancient Confucius, Buddhist and Taoist roots, its centuries of Imperial rule and the communist regime that swept away this history for a generation. China is now embracing its heritage and adding an extra layer of intrigue with the rise of capitalism in society and the growing influence of western culture.
We explore the timeless hutong alleyways, rise early to see locals gathering to exercise, sing and socialise in the parkland surrounding the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace and hike along a wild section of the Great Wall of China, away from the crowds.
2. The journey from Xining is an epic 20 hour voyage...
From Beijing most choose to fly to the city of Xining in Qinghai Province, enjoying a night of luxury indulgence at the Sofitel, before boarding the train the next day. From here it is a 20-22 hour journey, with a night spent on board. Another interesting option though is to ride the high speed Bullet Train from the capital to the ancient city of Xi'an to explore the thriving Muslim Quarter, walk on the city walls and come face-to-face with the iconic Terracotta Army. From Xi'an the journey to the Roof of the World is around 32 hours.
The journey time allows ample opportunities for you to gaze out of the window at the changing landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau and ponder everything that you have experienced to date in Beijing and on the Great Wall (and perhaps in Xi'an). There is obviously a complex and controversial relationship between the government in Beijing and the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the train journey is the perfect time to read more about the situation to provide greater context for your visit ahead and perhaps formulate some questions and perspectives.
3. ...So its best to go armed with supplies
We would best describe the food offering on the train as 'adequate', especially if you are inclined towards vegetarianism. So it's best to go shopping in Xining to stock up on snacks and supplies for the voyage ahead, taking a trip to one of the large supermarkets in the morning before your departure. Your local guide can assist you with this, providing directions to the nearest shops upon arrival and perhaps assisting you en route to the station if you arrange to leave a little earlier for your transfer on the next day.
Boiled water is freely available on tap at the end of the carriages and you can buy a rather curious coffee on-board and use the cup to make your own drinks. It is therefore a good idea to bring teabags and coffee along with you, perhaps from your hotel selection.
4. It soon passes China's biggest saltwater lake...
One of the early highlights of the journey is Qinghai Lake, a stunning splash of turquoise which punctuates the landscape. Behind it rise snow-covered mountains and undulating sand dunes, whilst herds of yak and sheep graze the grassland of the foreground. Smoke escapes the chimneys of small nomadic yurts and prayer flags flutter in the wind alongside low-rise abodes.
5. ...and truly stunning landscapes
As you advance onto the Tibetan Plateau the scenery becomes more rugged, with dramatic rusty mountains sprinkled with snow, their slopes adorned with groups of verdant trees. The other-worldly rock formations become increasingly dramatic, most of which would not look out of place in Chile's Atacama Desert. Flocks of sheep, cows and yaks and the odd horse graze in the foreground in expansive grass and scrubland.
Everywhere you look there is a little detail to be noticed; a small fox camouflaged against the brown scrub, a lonely gathering of prayer flags perched on a distant hilltop and the occasional Chinese lettering etched into the landscape. The next morning you'll wake up to glorious snow-capped mountain peaks and rivers which snake into view and run side-by-side with the tracks.
6. The Cabins are cozy...
Passengers sleep in cabins of four, with two bunk beds either side of the large panoramic window. Though the cabins are small, rest assured they are far from claustrophobic, with plenty of space to store your luggage and spread out during the day. The beds are long and comfortable and there is a handy power point under the table to charge your devices. The dining carriage is a good place to sit and watch the scenery roll by and there are spaces in the aisle to watch the landscape on the other side of the track should you wish.
7. ...And the bottom beds are best
We always endeavour to book our travellers the bottom bunks on the train to Lhasa, as these have a number of advantages. The main benefit is that you get a much better view down below, with a large panoramic window through which to gaze out at Tibet. From the top bunks this view is greatly obscured, though you could instead spend your time in the dining carriage. There is also a small table for those in the bottom bunks to share and more room to spread out and the aforementioned power point. For those with reduced mobility, it could also be a little difficult mounting and dismounting from the top bunk each time.
In the past, some travellers have preferred to book out an entire cabin to ensure greater privacy and more space, though this does potentially deprive locals of two valuable berths on what is ostensibly a train to facilitate movement of Chinese and Tibetan citizens as much as tourists. For groups travelling together there is plenty of room for four people to comfortably sit on the bottom bunks during the day.
8. You'll wake up to scenes of rural Tibetan life
Having hopefully enjoyed a good night's sleep and having raided your food supplies for a makeshift breakfast you will be in the heart of Tibet the next morning. From your vantage point you will able to enjoy genuinely fascinating insights as you catch glimpses of Tibetan's going about their daily lives. There will be scenes little-changed from the past decades and centuries as nomads herd small groups of yaks from their humble yurts and houses, whilst elsewhere you'll find evidence of the state-funded communities which are popping up across Tibet.
These represent the government's attempts to collectivise Tibetan's into small villages, built sympathetically in traditional styles but with Chinese flags fluttering atop them. Whilst they provide far greater comfort and protection from the elements than the rudimentary homes of the yak herders, these villages are the result of concerted efforts to disrupt a traditional way of life and are thought to mainly benefit Han Chinese settlers. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it is for you to experience Tibet first hand and come to your own conclusions.
9. It's a great way to adjust to the altitude
Tibet sits on a high plateau, high above sea level. Anyone who has travelled with us to Peru and Bolivia in particular will be familiar with the potential effects of us sea dwellers arriving at such high altitudes. Lhasa sits at an altitude of 3,600 metres, which is roughly the same as La Paz in Bolivia and slightly higher than Cusco in Peru.
A major benefit of the train is that you will have time to adjust to the rising altitudes over the course of the journey, with oxygen piped in throughout for your comfort. Upon arrival in Lhasa you will likely enjoy a gentle walk around the Dalai Lama's former Summer Palace and have a brief introduction to the old town, with time to relax and adjust to the altitude in the late afternoon and evening.
10. You should come with an adventurous spirit
Let's be clear that the Xining to Lhasa train is not intended to be a luxury experience. Instead it is an adventure that affords intrepid travellers rare views of the landscapes of the northern Tibetan Plateau, glimpses of rural Tibetan ways of life and the chance to consider your experiences in Beijing and ponder the days ahead in Tibet.
Though it might not be luxurious, we have always found the train to be highly efficient, clean, comfortable and quiet. The toilets are generally Chinese-style (though we did find a Western-style WC near the dining carriage) and the decor can best be described as 'modest', but overall we have always had great feedback from travellers who have embraced the spirit of this epic journey.
From Lhasa you can continue your journey south all the way to Everest Base Camp on the border with Nepal. En route visit the sacred Yamdrok Lake, admire the impressive Karola Glacier and visit historic monasteries before waking up to views of the world's most fabled peak.
Make it happen
Take this journey yourself on our Yak tour to Tibet and Everest Base Camp - hike the Great Wall, explore Beijing's Imperial wonders and see adorable baby pandas and the Giant Buddha of Leshan up close.