Time to read: 9 minutes
Discover everything you need to know about travelling on the world’s highest railway; the Xining to Lhasa Train, one of China’s top landmarks.
The Qinghai Tibet Railway, also known as the Qinghai Express connects the Chinese city of Xining with Lhasa in Tibet. The railway covers a distance of 1,215 miles (1,956 km) and reaches a giddy height of 5,069 metres above sea level. The line was completed in 2006 and sees five trains pass along the Tibetan plateau every day.
I took the Qinghai Tibet Line in 2021 when visiting Tibet and Mount Everest. To say it’s an epic train journey would be something of an understatement. The views as you travel across the plain and up into the Himalayas are phenomenal.
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Update March 2023: From 15th March China and Tibet are now open for tourism once more. All borders are open and tourist visas are being issued for the first time in three years.
A World Record – Tanggula Railway Station
At 5,069 metres Tanggula railway station has entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest railway station in the world. Trains to Lhasa usually only stop here for a few minutes but it’s possible to get out and stretch your legs briefly.
Why take the Train to Lhasa?
Here at thetripgoeson, we are all about overland travel. Not only is it ecological and economical, but in this case, it’s preferable to flying as it helps acclimatization (though only very marginally). If you fly from sea-level straight to Lhasa you are at higher risk of developing acute mountain sickness because your body hasn’t had time to adjust.
The Qinghai Express from Xining to Lhasa is one of the 15 most scenic railway journeys in the world!
Know Before You Go – Tibet Travel Permit
To visit Tibet you will need to book a tour as independent travel is not possible in the region. I used Experience Tibet and was very happy with their service. The Tibet tour was reasonably priced and the guides were knowledgeable, helpful and friendly.
All tour packages will include a Tibet Travel Permit and you will need this to board the train (copies are accepted but if you fly you will need the original).
As the Xining to Lhasa train travels along passes that exceed 5,000m (16,000ft) it is almost inevitable that you will feel some of the effects of altitude sickness. Oxygen is pumped into the carriages and there is an additional supply for those that suffer the effects more.
You will find yourself short of breath and possibly groggy and with a headache. Taking Diamox can help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. I took aspirin before bed and each morning and found this helped a lot. Drinking alcohol is not advised at altitude and although I usually enjoy a beer or two on most train journeys, this time I stuck to water.
Should you be worried about your symptoms on the train to Lhasa then speak to the carriage attendant who can summon the onboard doctor that is attached to each train.
You will need to sign a Passenger Health Declaration Form once on the train. The form gives the following information for those travelling on the train to Lhasa, which I have copied verbatim from the English language form:
Plateau Travel Instructions
“1. According to the sanitarian department and doctors, the passengers can travel to the plateau only after finishing their physical examination and approved by the doctors. Passengers are not suitably travel to the plateau area where above 3,000 meters when they have one of the following diseases:
a) each kind of nature heart disease, apparent heart heats abnormal or the heats are above 100 times per minute, the hypertension II, blood disease and brain vein diseases.
b) chronlcity respiratory system disease, moderate above blocking lung disease including bronchia tube asthma, bronchiectasis, pulmonary emphysema, activity pulmonary tuberculosis, dust pulmonary tuberculosis etc.
c) diabetes out of control, the hysteria, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
d) all the symptoms including catching the heavy sickness cold, upper respiratory tract infection, the body temperature above 38c or the body temperature is below 38c but the symptoms of the whole body and respiratory is obvious and should postpone to enter the plateau area until recovered.
e) once diagnosed has contracted the plateau pulmonary edema, plateau hydrocephalus, a noticeable rise of blood pressure of plateau hypertension sickness, the plateau heart disease and plateau red blood cell increasing.
f) highly dangerous pregnant women.
2. Please be aware of protecting plateau ecological environment.”
More information about safety in China can be found in my article, is China safe to visit?
How long does the Tibet train take?
The Xining to Lhasa train takes around 22 hours. It’s possible to take the train from Shanghai to Lhasa (44 hours) but you will change trains in Xining and board the specialist oxygenated train.
Standing – Standing in the aisle
Don’t even bother. If you can stand for 22 hours with 65% of the usual oxygen then you are clearly very brave or insane.
Hard Seat – upright seats in rows of 3 and 2
Unless you are on a real budget (unlikely if visiting Tibet in the first place) or travelling last minute, a hard seat is not going to help you arrive feeling refreshed and best avoided for long distances such as this.
Hard Sleeper – open plan carriage with rows of 3 beds
Good option and great value. I travelled from Xining to Lhasa by hard sleeper and the bed was perfectly comfortable (save for the obvious altitude discomfort).
Soft Sleeper – 4 bed coupe
If you want to travel in a little bit of luxury with more privacy then a soft sleeper is a great option but pricier (but still great value compared to train travel in Europe and the USA).
Facilities on Board the Train to Lhasa
The trains that run in this route are specially designed to provide a supply of oxygen to each carriage and additionally for each passenger. In addition to this there is a doctor on board every train. If you are feeling sever discomfort you can ask the carriage attendant for an oxygen tube which can be plugged into places by each seat, bed and along the corridors.
There is a restaurant car with kitchen supplying freshly cooked meals. Although pricey, the quality is excellent. I paid ¥95 for a meat dish (huigourou), vegetable dish and rice which is way more than you would usually pay but it was delicious!
Each carriage has two toilets (one squat and one “western”) at each end of the carriage. There is also a washroom with sinks in each sleeper carriage.
There are trolleys selling a variety of snacks like dried noodles, fresh fruit and drinks and hot drinking water is provided at the end of each carriage.
How to buy tickets for the Xining to Lhasa Train
You can buy a ticket at any station or ticket booking agency in China. The easiest way however is to book online with Trip.com who sell tickets for all Chinese trains on their English language website. A fee of ¥30 per ticket is applicable. Read my guide on how to buy train tickets in China for more info.
How much does the Train to Lhasa Cost?
|Standing||Hard Seat||Hard Sleeper||Soft Sleeper|
|¥224 ($32)||¥224 ($32)||¥521 ($75)||¥808 ($115)|
2023 Xining to Lhasa Train Timetable
Outward – Xining to Lhasa
|Train Number||Depart Xining||Arrive Lhasa|
Return – Lhasa to Xining
|Train Number||Depart Lhasa||Arrive Xining|
What’s it like to travel on the Xining to Lhasa Train?
I took this trip in January 2020. Although I have traveled much of the world by rail and seen some incredible scenery along the way, nothing compares to crossing the Tibetan Plateau. I took a hard sleeper (Z165) to Lhasa and opted for the soft sleeper (Z166) on the way back. Both were perfectly comfortable.
The railway line is surrounded by snowy mountains, lakes and glaciers. At some points looking out the window feels as if you are on another planet as the vast whiteness seems neverending. Yaks, eagles and other wildlife can also be spotted from the train, so keep your eyes peeled!
After passing Golmud as the scenery grew more spectacular, unfortunately the effects of the altitude became more uncomfortable. I was short of breath just standing up and my head was throbbing. I didn’t use the supplemental oxygen and just sat it out as doing so would not help with acclimatization.
Arrival in Lhasa
It was still light as we approached Lhasa and the city opened up below. It is possible to see the Potala Palace from the train, but I missed this. Upon arrival at Lhasa Railway Station I was escorted by a policewoman to a building where they checked my Tibet Travel Permit and photocopied my passport before letting me on my way.
You can see some of my photographs of Lhasa, the Potala Palace, Everest and more in my post Pictures of Tibet!
Frequently Asked Questions
The Qinghai Tibet Line runs from Xining in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet.
The Xining to Lhasa train reaches an altitude of 16,640 feet (5,069 metres) above sea level.
The Qinghai Tibet railway is 1,215 mils (1,956 kilometres) long.
The journey takes between 20 and 22 hours.
Fares range from ¥224 ($34.65) for a seat to ¥898.50 ($139.00) for a soft sleeper.
You can buy tickets online at Trip.com or purchase from any railway station in China.
More Eipc Journeys
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲