All Aboard the Beijing-Lhasa Express

The writer casts aside concerns about comfort and political correctness to take the rail trip of a lifetime

A view from the train on the way to Tibet
A view from the train on the way to Tibet Feedloader (Clickability)

In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.

Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.

I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.

I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.

In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.

So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.