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Qinghai-Tibet Railway part two

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Last week we left our train travellers in Golmud, but we will recap their journey so far.

Since the formation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the early 1950s, the Chinese government has wanted a railway connecting Tibet to the rest of China. Shortage of technology and money prevented the project from starting, but now it is a reality, with a line running into the heart of Lhasa, Tibet's largest city. Trains run from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xining and Lanzhou.

The section between Golmud and Lhasa was inaugurated in July 2006, at last connecting China proper with the Tibet Autonomous Region. Carriages on that section are either deep green/yellow or deep red/yellow. Signs are in Tibetan, simplified Chinese and English.

The railway runs from Qinghai to Tibet and is the world's highest. Trains were specially built to handle the altitude. Tanggula Pass is the world's highest rail track at 5072 metres. The 1338-metre Fenghuoshan Tunnel is 4905 metres above sea level and the Yangbajing Tunnel is a little lower at 4264 metres. More than 960 kilometres — over 80 percent — is at an altitude of more than 4000 metres and there are 675 bridges along the route.

Operational speed is 120kmh, slowing to 100kmh in sections laid on permafrost.

The journey from Beijing to Lhasa takes 47.5 hours and covers 4064 kilometres. The cheapest option is a hard seat, the next is a lower hard sleeper, a bunk in a basic sleeping car or, the most comfortable, a lower soft sleeper, a bunk in a more luxurious sleeping car. There is an extra charge for forward-facing seats and berths.

The train is equipped with two oxygen sources. One is released throughout the cabins upon reaching Golmud and heading into Tibet and there are personal oxygen canisters in case passengers feel lightheaded. These are available between Golmund and Lhasa.

Now we continue to Lhasa in Tibet. Around 255,000 people live here and at 3650 metres, it is one of the highest cities in the world. Meaning 'Place of the Gods', Lhasa is a dream destination for adventurers. It has changed more over the past 20 years than in the thousand years before. In 2004 it welcomed just over one million visitors and it is estimated that by 2020 that number will grow to around 10 million.

The ancient sprawling city, settled around 1300 years ago, is in a mountain-fringed valley. The best time to visit is between March and October and visitors should prepare for the high altitude.

Lhasa has three concentric paths used by pilgrims to circumambulate the sacred Johkhang Temple. Many make full or partial prostrations to gain spiritual merit. The innermost, the Nangkor, is contained within the temple and surrounds the sanctuary of the Jowo Shakyamuni, the most sacred statue in Tibetan Buddhism.

The centre circumambulatory, the Barkhor, passes through the old town and surrounds the temple and other buildings. Barkhor Street has many Tibetan people chanting and singing. It is also a commercial street with a lot of artworks and souvenirs.

The outer Lingkor encircles the entire traditional city of Lhasa.

The Shoton Festival, one of Tibet's biggest traditional festivals, is held in Lhasa each August. It has been an event since the 7th century.

Lhasa's monasteries should be on your list of things to see. Sera Monastery is in the north of the city. Its attraction is lamas debating Buddhist doctrine every weekday afternoon.

Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet and lies in the west of Lhasa. The unveiling ceremony of the giant Thangka of the Buddha is held in Drepung Monastery on the first day of the annual Shoton Festival.

Perched on Marpo Ri hill, 130 metres above the Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace rises a further 170 metres and is Tibet's greatest monumental structure. Legends date to a sacred cave on the site in the 7th century AD and in 637, Songsten Gampo built a palace on the hill. It stood until the 17th century, when it was incorporated into the foundations of the greater buildings still standing.

It was only slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising against the invading Chinese in 1959 and unlike most other Tibetan religious structures, was not sacked by the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s. The personal intervention of Chou En Lai has been credited with this, resulting in the chapels and artefacts being well preserved.

The Potala Palace is an immense structure with an interior space in excess of 130,000 square meters, with 999 rooms. It should be explored in a clockwise direction, as Tibetans believe it to be sinful and bad luck to go in the other direction.

Other attractions are the Ramoche Monastery, Tibet Museum, the Tibetan Traditional Hospital and the Lhasa Carpet Factory. All offer insights into the fascinating history, culture and life of the Tibetan people.

Most sights are within easy and inexpensive access by rickshaw.


Travel Directors operates the Himalayan Express 19-day tour, including the Qinghai Tibet Rail Journey. Packages start at $7447 per person twin-share and include return airfares from Australia, transfers, accommodation and most meals. Departures are scheduled in September and October 2007 and April, May, September and October 2008. Contact Travel Directors for information on other tours.

Prices quoted are correct at July 19, 2007.


China to Tibet.

For further information

Travel Directors
177 Oxford Street
Leederville 6007
Ph: (08) 9242 4200 1800 641 236
Fax: (08) 9242 5366

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