Beijing to Lhasa by train – choo choo!

After months of planning, visa approval and then another special permit to visit Tibet, we're finally here. 




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Lasa - Beijing Xi train T27. Lhasa to Beijing West train. 

The train journey from Beijing to Lhasa took 44 hours. It was amazing. My mum and I were awake for most of the journey, taking in the ever-changing scenery. 

If you want to do this trip, you'll need to get tickets booked with your travel agent. As you're going to Tibet, you'll need a special visa for Tibet as the general visa to China does not cover this part of the country. This special Tibet visa needs to be arranged by a Chinese/ Tibetan tourist agent.

You then need to pick up your train ticket using the booking number provided by the tour agency. We picked up the tickets at Beijing Railway station, and Thankfully had a local Chinese friend to help us. Just make sure if you're travelling WITH other people that you insist you are in the same cabin. My mum and I were separated but we did manage to move a number of times through the journey (with a number of stops, there were a number of carriage changes) until we finally got into the 1 cabin. All you need to do is ask and the people & officers were friendly enough to help.

Get to the train station early, too - as it can be a little weird to try to find the platform. Most Lhasa trains will depart from Beijing Xi station - this is not the main Beijing station, but Beijing WEST, so take note.

The attendants are formal, but they do do their best. In our case, they allowed us to swap cabins as my mum and I were given separate carriages even though we had 1 booking number (Beijing Railway ticket attendant was useless).
 My mum and I booked the 4 berth cabins, where we had to share with 2 others, and we asked for 1 top and 1 bottom bunk. There's also the choice of the 6-bunk, then the seated compartments.

The food on the train is OK, and they provide an endless supply of hot water. If you're planning this trip, suggest you bring things like plain bread, cup-a-noodles, snacks and fruit. We found that once altitude sickness hit us, plain bread and fruit was all we could stomach.

And luckily too, as the toilets get steadily worse over that period of time.

In between bouts of lethargy, the ever changing scenery was amazing, sometimes making it difficult to sleep, as we didn't want to miss out on anything.

We did have the choice of flying into Lhasa, and the price is pretty much the same. So if you're averse to toilet issues you may want to fly. Fair warning. We knew the toilets were going to be an issue in advance, but we knew the trade-off was the scenery and in the experience.

There've been other posts online about the train being a waste of time and money, and the main point being that it doesn't help with acclimatising or with altitude sickness. I guess all people are different. We've had friends who have flown into Tibet, and my mum did that 8 years ago, but I definitely felt the affects as the train goes to a max. of 5000 metres on the journey. And the cabins aren't really pressurised, as they stop frequently along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. About 14 stops on the way.

OK so here's a quick run down:

What this ISN'T:
 First up: This is not the Orient Express. You're travelling with locals - many tourists from China and some people who actually live in Tibet and are travelling home. So if you are expecting the romantic ideal of train travel, with silver cutlery, your own toilet and shower in your cabin, privacy, and Poirot.... this is not it.

There is one mainstay from that flapper age in my idealised 1920s era - and it's that smoking is allowed in the cabins. Asthma sufferers may not want to take this trip as the smoke got annoying for me, and I'm a smoker.

Having said that, the trains are still modern, but it is a loooong train journey and each carriage has an area with sinks to brush teeth, wash your face - but no showers. There are also 2 toilets per cabin. One western toilet and one squat toilet. So based on the length of the journey and the number of people in carriages who wander up and down the train, you can imagine, toilets are well-used, not just from the people in your carriage.

So - If you're squeamish with squat toilets maybe China isn't the place for you anyway. :) BUT if you made it this far, then read on.
 What it IS:

If you book the 4 soft sleeper cabins, you will have 4 beds in 1 cabin. Each bed will have linen, pillow and a quilt. It was clean. So with 4 beds, my mum and I shared with 2 other people in each cabin. And sometimes these people changed as some got off at stops, and new people got on. Note: the linen & quilt did not change.

As it's a 44 hour trip, suggest you pay for the soft sleeper. I wandered through the other carriages - hard sleeper (6 bunks in 1 cabin) and the seats carriages. It was very cramped. I don't think I could've lasted 44 hours in the other class cabins.

What you will get is a very rare experience to travel with locals, and take in the scenery (and yes, there is lots of it). This aspect of the romantic train journey is quite amazing - you see the industrial Chinese juggernaut slowly change to vast open rocky expanses, change to smaller towns, sides of mountains, open up into vast valleys, lakes, flocks of sheep, wind energy fields...the variety of China/ TIbet's landscape is amazing to take in. I can't emphasise how much I enjoyed the scenery - I was up at night just taking it in from the window, hopefully the attached photos give you an idea of the variety, expanse and scope of the country.
 Service:
 At one stage in the journey, my cabin was freeeeezing, so I wandered the corridors to find an officer, and when I finally found one (it was 3am) I explained this by gestures - by hugging myself and shaking plus I was wearing track pants and a fleecy hooded jumper. Despite my pathetic miming, the officer, nodded, followed me to my cabin and then nodded again and went to the control room and turned off the air conditioning.
 Also, as my mum and I were placed in different cabins, we spoke direct to other passengers, who were happy to swap if they were travelling solo and the officers were ok with that too.
 Tips for the journey:
 - Hot water is free - there's a hot water dispenser near the sinks, so you can always make a cup of tea or a bowl of noodles.
 - Bring your own food - noodles in a bowl, or buy noodles in a packet and a cheap metal cup with lid at any corner store in Beijing. We also brought snacks, fruit, sunflower seeds....and sharing your snacks is a great way to make conversation.
 - Bring your own music/ movies/ entertainment/ cards
 - The power plug for chargers are located in the corridors OR under your table in the cabin with the 4 soft sleepers (in between the 2 lower bunks). Unfortunately, I only found the power plug at the last 6 hours of our journey! HAHHA! Oh well. You gotta have a sense of humour, right? everyone was really happy for us to "take turns" with charging devices.
 - Bring some wet wipes (you can find these in stores) so you can refresh yourself
 - Bring a small towel (I concur with The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it is indispensable in all travels!)
 - Bring your own toilet/ tissue paper/ femme hygiene products
 - Wear comfy and warm clothes - loose clothes and warm layers as it will get colder as you get higher in altitude.
 - Have a change of clothes for bed - I asked fellow passengers whether I could change, and the men were gracious and left the cabin so I could swap pants/ top.
 - Ladies, bring panty liners.
 - There WILL be smokers. This is China. Bring essential oil and dab on tissue. If it gets overwhelming, ask politely if the person smoking can smoke down the carriage (there are smoking sections in every carriage) and cite a health issue. I find being polite and asking often gains amazing results for humans who don't have psychic powers. ;)
 - Toiletries - small bag with toothbrush/ paste, comb, deodorant, essential oils, moisturiser, face cleanser.
 - The food sold on the train looked ok - they come round to carriages with a trolley and you buy straight from that. I wasn't too impressed with the food sold in the restaurant, but it wasn't terrible. We only ate there once. It was nice to have a change in the surroundings. We were glad we brought our own food.
 - There are a number of stops where you can grab some quick food from trolley stalls on the platform - fruit/ boiled eggs/ snacks etc. and the train will stop for about 5-10 mins so you can buy this if you're desperate & want to stretch your legs.
 - PERMITS - make 100% sure you have them your passport, tickets, visa etc. on hand so you can show them to the officers as they do check them. Might be different number of checks for each journey, but you definitely need a permit to enter Tibet, so make lots of copies.
 - Altitude sickness: it can affect you on the train - don't know if it's better to fly or not, but take a gamble. We bought altitude sickness tablets before the train trip and took them when we got on the train. The tablets can be bought at Chinese Chemists. They are safe to take every 3 hours. The locals who lived in Lhasa took them too and said even after the many train trips they've taken home, they still feel tired & out of sorts. So they still take the tablets as a safety/ to lessen the affects. I had some tiredness, but my mum was fine. Everyone's different, so suggest you take tablets as a precaution




I wish I could say it was just like the Hercule Poirot/ Miss Marple era of train travel. It isn't. You share toilets. They are used frequently and by many and there's much to be desired in that front - from the swaying of the train which ruins the aim of most gentlemen passengers, to the lack of understanding of the "flush" function by some others. However, it IS an experience and the scenery is absolutely awesome. I use the word "awesome" a lot, but it is indeed fantastic. 




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You'll get some space to stretch out in the hallway, and there are fold out seats to use, just remember to squish in when people walk past.

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Oh yes, oxygen....and apparently these work, going by the hissing sound when I rotated the valves.

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Day 1, snacks, coffee and tea covered. This was before more people came into the carriage.

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Ruins on the side of a mountain. 

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Temple on the side of a mountain. 

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Grottos on the side of the same mountain - there are ruins/ relics everywhere. 

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Passing by a city - loved the skylines with a combination of mosques and temples.

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There's these snack stalls at every stop (except the 1am one which I didn't check). 

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You get to stretch your feet for a few minutes at every stop. One of our fellow cabin mates did some tai-chi. 

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Very lucky to see the end of a rainbow in a valley. :)

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And a double rainbow! :D

 


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The scenery keeps changing. It's a photographer's dream. My camera was pretty bad at capturing things behind the class of the train, but there others who were taking amazing shots. 

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Orchards, farming land, from tundra and mountains to this in a few hours. 

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Once I saw yaks, it felt like we were definitely on our way.

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And snowcapped mountains around the 5000 metre mark meant we were really on the way to Tibet. 

So...if you're not averse to toilet issues or if you're a woman who wants to build up her inner thigh muscles by "squitting" (a cross between a squat and a sit where one hovers over the toilet bowl, never actually touching any porcelain surface), OR you love photography, I encourage you do to this trip. 

Seriously, if you love photography, trains, and don't mind some of the downsides, then this trip is definitely for you. You get to mingle with the locals, and the scenery is freakishly beautiful. 

 Despite the toilet horrors (you can use your imagination), I have to say, the toilet is just as bad/ good as some tourist locations in China on really busy times (Forbidden City, Summer Palace etc.).

Balancing out the toilet issue for us was the experience of chatting to 3 older gents on a tour to Tibet, learning "Chi" breathing from a guy from Guang Dong, meeting a family who was living in Lhasa, and talking about life, politics and sharing photos of our pet dogs. The scenery, the life experience outweighed the toilet issue/ cramped conditions. Everyone was polite, considerate when they sat on our lower bunks (we were happy to share) and happy to chat about their lives, family, travels. After all, we were all on the same train to Lhasa. :)




 

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