Travelling the World’s Highest Railway

A typical scenery of Tibet with the Qinghai-Tibet plateau at the back

It is billed as the world’s highest railway and it certainly feels like it when you gaze out of the train windows to admire the soaring snowcapped mountain vistas.

At the foot of the mountain ranges, shaggy yaks, wild horses and mules were grazing in grassy meadows.

As the train continued its steady climb across the 1,142-km Qinghai-Tibet plateau, dubbed the ‘roof of the world’, the spectacular views became even more dramatic by the minute. And as it got closer to Lhasa, the final destination, Tibetan villages – with houses sporting characteristic flat roofs, strung with prayer flags, and adorned with ornate gateways – came into view.

Ever since its inauguration on July 1, 2006, China’s oxygen-equipped Xining-to-Lhasa train has captured the imagination of travellers clamouring to savour the experience.

It is an experience that will surely appeal to the incentive traveller as well, especially when combined with a tour of Tibet, an autonomous region within China, opened to tourists only in 1987. This former Buddhist kingdom has always held a fascination for the outside world and is, without doubt, a most enthralling destination to visit.

Apart from the romance of rail travel, the journey to Tibet is an adventure with few parallels. Built at a cost of USD2.8 billion dollars over a period of seven years, the railway line opened amid much fanfare. After all, by undertaking its construction, the Chinese scored quite a few ‘firsts’.

For one, it boasts the world’s highest rail track at Tanggula Mountain Pass, 5,072 metres above sea level, superseding the railway altitude of 4,817 metres held previously by Peru’s Cuzco- Macchu Pichu line. It also now has the highest railway station at an altitude of 5,068 metres. Half of the entire length of the railway track was laid on permafrost.

When building the track, construction workers were provided with bottled oxygen to breathe and all the carriages of the train are sealed to help prevent passengers from getting altitude sickness as it crosses the lofty plateau. All the train carriages have large picture windows in the compartments as well as along common corridors to enjoy the passing scenery.

And from the window panels in all the carriages, oxygen is available at the push of a rubber flap. One of the best spots in the train is, of course, the dining car. Open throughout the day, you can indulge in Chinese-style meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner or chill out with beer to enjoy the passing landscape. No wine is available and prices on the Xining-Lhasa train, though reasonable (for example, RMB7 or USD1 for a bottle of Lhasa beer, or RMB25, or USD3.50 for breakfast) are double that on other regular rail sectors such as that on the Chengdu-Xining route.

Incentive organisers can arrange to have their clients travel from five main cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Lanzhou and Chengdu – to Xining to connect with the Tibet train. There are three classes of travel – soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard-seat compartment. The soft sleeper compartments, which have a door to ensure privacy and more luxurious furnishings, feature four berths with thicker mattresses than those of the door-less six-berth hard-sleeper compartments.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa.

As the name implies, hard-seat compartments are simply seats and they are usually full, compared to the hard and soft sleepers, which are rarely sold out. Soft sleeper compartments offer Western-style toilets unlike the squatting variety found in the other two sections.

Tickets for the hard and soft sleepers can be bought at least 10 days in advance at the train station in the city of departure and despite what travel agents may say, soft sleepers are not ‘impossible to get’. The price of a soft sleeper, starting from Chengdu, is RMB1112 (USD139) compared to RMB712 (USD88) for a hard sleeper. Unlike in Europe, upgrades from hard to soft sleepers are not available on board the trains, so it is best to book the appropriate sleepers for your clients in advance.

Bookings open at least 10 days in advance of the date of travel. Cancellations are possible and tickets are refunded at up to 75 per cent of the actual fare, paid on the spot when presented at the station of departure, on or before the travel date.

Another privilege extended to soft sleeper ticket holders is the availability of a VIP lounge at the departing train station, where your clients can enjoy tea while waiting for embarkation.

While the train may not be specially geared to cater to incentive travellers, the journey alone is unforgettable and MICE organisers can add their own touches to make it even more memorable.

For instance, they can book whole compartments to themselves and hold their own parties within, doing their own catering by bringing on board their own supplies of food and drinks.

The train makes regular stops en route, and most passengers take advantage of the 10 to 15 minutes’ waiting time at stations to make purchases from platform kiosks, stocked with a wide variety of snacks and drink, including beer and drinkable Chinese wines.

The entire Chengdu-to Lhasa journey takes 48 hours but it passes very quickly with the many scenic attractions at hand.

From summer, 2008, incentive travellers can enjoy a more luxurious ride on the train to Tibet, by opting for the Beijing to Lhasa journey. New trains, dubbed the Tanggula Express, will run 75 times year-round, offering luxury sleeping cars with double beds, private showers and toilet, restaurant cars and even lounge-observations cars. To be inaugurated as part of a joint venture between China Railways and a Western company, RailPartners, the new Tanggula Express trains will be able to take pride of place among the world’s luxury trains.