From Beijing to Lhasa, with some brief stops at stations in between.
In fact: this trip is billed at 48 hours, but it was really closer to 44. I would have welcomed the extra hours, because it is a beautiful journey.
There are three classes of travel: soft sleeper, the best; hard sleeper, where we were; and hard seats, which would be, well, hard. The bathrooms are variable, the dining carriage is perfectly ok, and there are no showers or easy amenities, so whichever class you’re in, here are my top tips for an easy journey:
- You’ll want a small backpack or bag with all your essentials for the trip, and otherwise keep everything else locked away under your seat/bed.
- Essentials will include: toothpaste and toothbrush, a face cloth and soap, snacks, pyjamas and clean underwear (clean clothes can wait!), a couple of warm layers, reading material and/or music device, a camera, and very little else. Your own cigarettes if you’re into that kind of thing (one thing that can’t be purchased on the train), altitude medication, and drinking water (though you can buy it, it would be cheaper to bring). Perhaps something to write with, or your computer if you’re carrying it.
- The bedding provided in hard and soft sleepers is adequate, but if you’re fussy about cleanliness, bring your own sleeping bag liner.
- The altitude was mostly ok, and they do provide oxygen in the cabins, but it’s very easy to go from feeling quite ok to suddenly being very much not ok. Take oxygen if you need it, be prepared with diamox in case, and make sure you drink plenty of water. If you’re not feeling well don’t assume it will pass – talk to your travelling companions or seek help if you need it.
- Be prepared to take your time and chill out. You’ll spend a lot of time sleeping, gazing out the window, and reading or listening to music. Expect this, and make the most of it!
- Hard sleeper carriages don’t have curtains for beds, or doors, so it might also be handy to have a large scarf or sarong to tuck into the bed overhead for some privacy and darkness at night. I’m a solid sleeper, but my travelling companion swears by her earplugs and sleeping mask, so these are recommended if ambient light and noise will bother you.
- There is still a heavy military and police presence in Tibet, and word on the street is that spies still surveil the train, especially foreign travellers. Cover your Tibet reading materials (yes, even just travel guides) in plain paper, and be careful about engaging in political or religious discussions. Best to leave these until you know you have privacy.
- There are very few English speakers on the train (staff or travellers), so any Mandarin you know will come in very handy!
- Most of all, enjoy this amazing train ride – it’s a unique journey through some breathtaking landscapes, and when you reach Lhasa at the other end – well, that’s another world entirely…about 1 year ago