01.-02.06.2014: Qinghai-Tibet Railway: Lhasa to Xi'an

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The Qinghai railway from Golmud to Lhasa was the first railway to connect Tibet with other regions of China and was opened in 2006. The section to Golmud had been built in 1984 but the final 1,142km (710 miles) to Lhasa could not be built until engineers could solve the problems of building a railway line across permafrost with an average elevation of over 4,000m (13,100ft).

The final section was completed by over 20,000 engineers and construction workers in 5 years at a cost of $3.68 billion.

The engineers were dealing with a 550km (340 mile) section that had to be built over permafrost where the ground would melt and re-freeze at various times of the year. A train running over a railway line would create enough heat to melt the permafrost and de-stabilize the track and so various solutions were used.

The main one involved building stone embankments with enough space between the rocks to allow air circulation to keep the ground frozen. In other places, pipes with ammonia in the bottom were sunk 5 metres into the ground. The ammonia becomes gas at low temperatures giving off vapour that draws heat from the bottom of the tube and flushes it out of the top, cooling at the same time.

According to Tibet Train Travel the train line has 9 world records:

1. The highest railway in the world 5,072m (16,640 ft).
2. The longest plateau railway stretching over 1,142km (710 miles).
3. The longest plateau railway crossing the permafrost.
4. The highest train station in the world - Tanggula Station 5,068m (16,627 ft).
5. The most elevated tunnel in the world on permafrost - Fenguoshan Tunnel 4,905m (16,093 ft).
6. The longest tunnel on permafrost - 4,010m (13,123 ft) New Guanjiao Tunnel.
7. Highest track laying base in Anduo County at 4,704m (15,429 ft).
8. The longest rail bridge over the permafrost - Qingshuihe Bridge with a length of 11.7km (7.27 miles).
9. The fastest plateau train at 100km/h on permafrost and 120 km/h on regular soil. (60 mph and 75 mph respectively).

Over 80% of the track is at an elevation of more than 4,000m (13,123 ft), almost half is laid on permafrost (about 550km or 340 miles) and there are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88km (99.34 miles).

All passenger carriages are built with oxygen supplies for each passenger and a Passenger Health Declaration Form must be filled out as the high elevation train goes through an area that has 35% to 40% less oxygen. (According to Wikipedia, the first passenger to die on the train was a 75 year old Hong Kong man in 2006 who insisted on travelling on the train after experiencing heart problems in Lhasa.)

We were really looking forward to getting on the highest train in the world and at least we already had our train tickets but we still had a few misgivings. Would our Tibet permit, which is an A4 size piece of paper separate from our passports, actually get us into mainland China - and back out? Would we end up getting arrested because we have no stamps in our passports for Tibet (and would not even get a stamp for China, either for entering or leaving the country so what would happen when we arrive back in Europe???)

Yikes, those are some pretty big misgivings! We just had to trust our Nepal agent and their contacts in Tibet. At least we managed to get our original passports back after handing them in to our Kathmandu agent a month before we were due to travel to Tibet and having to use copies when we went off trekking in the Annapurna Region of Nepal.

So, with more than a little trepidation, it was finally time to leave Tibet and get on the train. After breakfast we quickly had to fill in an evaluation form about our Tibetan trip on behalf of the whole group even though the others had already left the day before!

We said goodbye to Peldon and gave her a tip and then went through the first security check. The second was an x-ray check for our bags. They confiscated our hair cutting scissors! There is no holding area for luggage on the train as there is on planes, so we have no choice but to take everything with us on board.

Tip from us - don't bother arguing with Chinese security. They have their orders and follow them to the letter - no exceptions! Of course, they didn't bother confiscating our crappy nail scissors that we'd had to buy in Nepal when Kirsten left our good ones behind along the Everest Base Camp trail and took our best ones! I suppose we have to be grateful that they didn't take all our liquids - shampoo, soap, creams etc!

Next up was the hand held detectors for our bodies and then another security check of our papers. We got into a queue to see if we could get on the direct train to Xi'an rather than having to change trains at 10am the following morning. It wasn't possible but at least they fetched someone who spoke English for us.

We were taken to the "Soft Sleeper" waiting room. There are various prices for the train rides and we had asked for the most expensive soft sleeper class as opposed to the "hard sleeper" or seats only.

According to our schedule we would leave on the first train at 12-08pm, arrive at Xining at 10-30am the following day, change trains and depart at 13-45pm and arrive in Xi'an at 01-45am in the early hours of the following day. It would be a 38 hour journey hence we booked the best seats.

After more passport and ticket checks we got on board and the train left on time at 12-08pm! We were in a four bed compartment, 2 bunk beds on either side with a small table. We had a lower and upper bed on one side but our bags didn't fit under the lower bunk. There was a storage area above the compartment door but our large bag was too heavy to get up there so we put it on the lower bunk and the rest in the storage area.

The train was a lot nicer than the trains in India and had a socket for air supplies by each bunk. We met David (not his real Chinese name but the one he uses for work!) who was the other passenger in our compartment and travels once a month on business from Xi'an and Lhasa and back.

We settled in to enjoy the journey up into the hills, over the plateau via the highest train station and the highest lake. It was enough just to look out of the window and watch as we went past snow capped mountains and frozen rivers. Truly majestic!

On the highest train of the world from Lhasa to Xi'an (China)

It was obviously very cold outside but we were warm in our compartment. We had access to free boiling water at a machine in the corridor between cars and also found the altimeter where we could check how high the train was.

We had to swap our tickets for a plastic card and sign a disclaimer form regarding any health problems we may have. We were still acclimatised so we knew we wouldn't have any problems and, in any case, we could get oxygen if we needed it.

We made ourselves tea and Kirsten cheated at Rummy and then we went to the restaurant car for food. This was when we realised, too late, why everyone else had bought large pot noodles with them!! The menu was only in Chinese and one of the waiters used his iPhone to get English translations of the menu. We ended up ordering cabbage and mushrooms with rice. It wasn't particularly good and wouldn't fill us up so thank God we had bought snacks with us!

We watched the magnificent landscape going by until it went dark at 9pm and then made our beds - pillows filled with straw, a bed sheet and quilt. It wasn't as bad as we had thought it would be but we didn't get much sleep. We arrived at Golmud at 02-25 am where lots of people got on and off and a woman took the fourth bed in our compartment.

Security came around at 8-30 am the following morning to give us our tickets back in exchange for the plastic cards. Kirsten couldn't find hers and sent the woman away so she could look for it. She wasn't really awake yet! Anyway, she found it in her camera bag so we were allowed to get off when our train arrived on time at 10-30am in Xining.

We had no idea where to go, and after asking several security people, someone came who spoke English and lead us through the station, up and down various stairs and through a back door to the waiting area so we could avoid having to go through all the security checks again! Now that's more like it - we get to keep the crappy nail scissors!!

We had 3.5 hours to wait so Kirsten went out hunting for food as we'd munched our way through our snacks and came back with some pot noodles and drinks.

Our second train was older than the first and not one used for the high altitude. We had a similar compartment which we had to ourselves for the first 3 hours. We left on time but it wasn't much fun looking out of the window - Xining is a very large city that seemed to be one big construction site.

Train ride from Lhasa to Xi'an - Part 2

We were really tired so we went to bed at 3-30pm. Two ladies came into out compartment and watched some kind of film on their computer. Then one played a game on her iPad with really annoying music. We got up at 6-30pm and went to the train restaurant which was even worse than the first one. We ended up with a plate of onions, a plate of mushrooms and bokchoi plus rice. I didn't eat much of it so I bought a pot noodle even though we'd already had one for lunch!

Unfortunately the hot water boiler I used wasn't working. I only found out after I had put cold water into my pot noodle!! So I tipped the water out and went in search of a boiler that worked. We finished off the last of our chocolate and made tea using up the last of our sugar.

We arrived in Xi'an at 01-30am and got off the train into a sauna!!! So late at night and yet it was extremely hot and humid. Oh boy, 38 hours on a train, it's the middle of the night, we haven't had much sleep and then we had the usual problem of taxi drivers trying to overcharge us for a short ride to our hotel. We eventually found one who would put us on the meter where it cost just over half of the asking price!

We got out of the taxi and went into the wrong building - our hostel was next door!! It was locked! Fortunately the night staff heard us trying to open the door and came to let us in. We checked in, paid for three nights, gave a deposit for the key, dumped our stuff in the room, had showers and collapsed into bed at 2-45am.