Tibet Train

The Biggest Misunderstanding about Taking Tibet Train to Lhasa

The Tibet Train is known to the world because of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway starts in Xining and ends in Lhasa. It is the highest altitude railway with the longest railway in the world. For the purpose of adapting to the altitude, it is a better choice to go to Lhasa by train than to go to Lhasa by plane. But do you know? There is a common misunderstanding about the Qinghai-Tibet train: tourists to Tibet believe that taking a train from mainland China to Lhasa is a good way to gradually adapt to the rise of altitude, and there will be no high altitude sickness. This is not entirely correct. Although a little help by taking a train to Lhasa, it is not as much as tourists imagine. Misunderstanding this fact puts many travelers at risk of altitude sickness. In this article, I will present the facts and provide you with a lower risk and healthier option.

1. It is easy to misunderstand the benefits of Tibet Train

If you are going to travel to Tibet, taking a train seems to be a good way to adapt to the altitude. If you depart from Beijing at nearly zero altitude and arrive in Lhasa two days later, the altitude of Lhasa at 11975 feet / 3650 meters. It seems that you will slowly adapt all the way. Unfortunately, this is not correct. But why?

2. In order to adapt to the elevation, your body needs an intermediate process

Traveling by Tibet train missed a key process, which is the key to getting you safely to a high-altitude area like Lhasa. You need to ascend slowly to high altitude, which means you need to sleep at "middle altitude" so that it is the best. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once said: "It takes 3-5 days to adapt to the high altitude of the plateau. Therefore, it is ideal to adapt to the altitude of 8000-9000 feet for a few days and then go to the higher altitude area." Even if you can sleep on the Tibet train, you will not spend too much time sleeping at any "middle height".

3. The Tibet train keeps running at a low altitude for a long time, and then suddenly rises very high

In order to adapt to high altitude, it would be good if the train could travel a lot of time at an altitude of about 9,000 feet. Unfortunately, Tibet train travel is nothing like that.In short, on the train to Lhasa, you will spend most of your time at the very low and very high altitudes listed on the Tibetan Plateau, which will not help you adapt to the height of 11975 feet / 3650 meters in Lhasa.
Station Altitude (meters) Altitude (feet) Time on board (hours)
Beijing 43 143 0
Lanzhou 1600 5250 17
Xining 2275 7464 20
Golmud 2809 9216 30
Tanggula Pass 5072 16640 35
Naqu 4436 14639 40
Lhasa 3650 11975 44
Yellow: low altitude, unuseful to adapt to high altitude Green: helpful to adapt to high altitude Red: the altitude is too high. Even if there is oxygen supply on the train, it is not useful to adapt to the high altitude Here is a graph showing the height trajectory of Tibet train journey. Please note that within 9000 feet there is little time to adapt: ​

(1) The actual altitude of the Tibet train journey

In the 24 hours before the train from Beijing to Lhasa, more than two-thirds of the time was spent below 1524 meters / 5000 feet, which is not useful for adapting to high altitudes. 20 hours after the train journey from Beijing to Lhasa, the train slowly climbed up. This is passing through Xining, at 7464 feet / 2275 meters. You will arrive in Golmud from Xining in the next 10 hours (9216 feet / 2809 meters). And this part of train journey is almost the only helpful part to adapt to high altitude. Unfortunately, most of the remaining train journeys are at a higher altitude than Lhasa’s! This is the main point: In terms of adapting to high altitudes, "the main time is taking the Qinghai-Tibet train from Xining to Golmud". The whole journey takes about 10 hours. Therefore, in the approximately 44-hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa, you spend almost a whole day at a place with low altitude, about 10 hours of beneficial adaptation, and the rest of the time at a high-altitude location . Does this mean that I should not take a train from Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu to Lhasa? No, not at all. In fact, I do recommend to go to Lhasa by Tibet train instead of by plane, because getting into Tibet by plane will make it worse to adapt to altitude. Within 2-3 hours, the altitude rises straight from a few hundred meters to 3650 meters. A small percentage of people are actually at risk of pulmonary edema.

(2) The altitude of the Tibet train running is too high and too fast

From Golmud to Lhasa, more than 80% of the altitude is above 4000 meters / 13,123 feet. The highest point is located at Tangula Pass, with an elevation of 5072 meters / 16640 feet. The key of adapting to high altitude is to rise slowly. Unfortunately, the Tibet train climbs too high and too fast. Rick Curtis, in the Princeton University Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses, suggests that you should “ascend at a rate of no more than 1000 feet per day after the first 10,000 feet” and “rest for an entire day each time when you ascend 3000 feet.” Obviously, not only does the Tibet train ascend much faster than this, but some trains passes the highest point of the journey at the next night. According to Curtis, passengers who are more susceptible to altitude sickness may have a difficult night on the train, because when milder altitude sickness occurs, "there is less breathing during sleep and the symptoms worsen", "headaches, dizziness, Fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, restless sleep, and general discomfort. "

4. Is there any extra oxygen injected into the Tibet train?

The train compartment of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is indeed equipped with two types of oxygen delivery. One is that when the train reaches a higher altitude, oxygen should be pumped in. In addition, there is oxygen outlets in the train compartment and passengers can insert a tube equipped with a nasal mask to absorb oxygen. But you should know a few things ... On the plateau, the oxygen outlet on the train may not work properly. During my one-time ride on the Tibet train, only one of the four oxygen outlets in our car was working properly. To be honest, it makes me wonder whether the system that delivers oxygen to the car will work well. We just want to let you know that entering Tibet by the Qinghai-Tibet train is not a panacea for adapting to high altitudes. You may need to consider further strategies to help you adapt.

5. In order to adapt to high altitude, what are my recommendations?

Option one (recommended): Taking a plane to Xining, stay overnight in Xining, and then take a Tibet train to Lhasa. Xining's altitude is high enough to help you adapt to the altitude, but not too high, which will make most people uncomfortable. If you stay in Xining for 2-3 days before leaving for Lhasa, it will be more conducive to helping you adapt to the high altitude. When you are in Xining, you can go to see some amazing Tibetan cultural sites and natural sites, such as Qinghai Lake and Chaka Salt Lake. Another main reason to take the Tibet train is to see the scenery along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Everyone thinks that the scenery between Golmud and Lhasa is the most beautiful. If you take the right train from Xining, you can see the best scenery during the day time. (If possible, it is recommended to take the Tibet train departing from Xining after 7pm.) By the way, although Golmud's 2809 meters (9216 feet) is a bit higher than Xining's altitude, it is not recommended to make another step of adaptation in Golmud. The first is that Golmud doesn't sound like the place most people want to go to, perhaps because local conditions do not allow it or it is impossible at all. According to online reports, it is almost impossible to get off the train in Golmud and then buy a train ticket from Golmud to Lhasa. Option two: Enter Tibet by flying to Lhasa; leave Tibet by taking a Tibet train You should be aware that for a very small number of people, the risk of flying directly from low altitude to Lhasa can cause pulmonary edema, which can be fatal. But it is impossible for us to know who will have altitude sickness and who may have pulmonary edema. If you really decide to fly to Lhasa, ensure to talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking diamox, a drug that helps prevent altitude sickness. There are also Hongjintian and Gaoyuanan, which are also very useful for preventing altitude sickness. In any case, it is easier to book a train ticket to leave Tibet than to book a train ticket to Tibet (although these two methods are difficult in major festivals in China). In the high season (from late May to early October), due to the large demand for train tickets to Lhasa, the purchase surcharge may become so high that it is cheaper to fly. If you depart from Lhasa by train in the morning, you will have the opportunity to see the best scenery on the Tibet train journey, especially in the section from Lhasa to Tanggula.

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