The train to Lhasa

My husband, Uwe, and I flew into Chengdu, China, on June 17, 2007, intending to board the train to Lhasa the next day.

We had booked a package with Pineapple Tours (Währinger Straße 135, A-1180 Wien; phone +43 1 403 98 83 0, fax 98 83 3,, an Austrian company that supplies German-speaking trips. It was for 14 days door to door, June 15-28, but we would be 10 days in Tibet, traveling about 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles).

The cost was €2,100 (near $2,826) per person and included our round-trip airfare on KLM from Frankfurt to Chengdu via Amsterdam; the train from Chengdu to Lhasa; all hotel transfers; tourist-class hotels, with breakfast; one meal per day; water and fresh fruit for the whole trip, and all entry fees. We were satisfied with the quality of the meals, some of which were taken at very simple restaurants en route.

We were with a group of 17 people (ages 35 to 76), and after arriving in Lhasa we would travel mainly by modern, comfortable 40-seater bus, though we also would use a very “basic” passenger ferry to cross the Brahmaputra plus the odd yak or camel to get the less-able-bodied among us up hills when the going was hard! We returned from Lhasa to Chengdu on Air China, staying overnight before continuing home.

A German-speaking Chinese guide, Fu (who had spent his boyhood in Tibet), accompanied us on the whole trip and was excellent. We also had a German-speaking Tibetan guide, Lhotse, who met us in Lhasa and was a mine of information on anything to do with Tibetan customs and the Buddhist religion. In Chengdu, a city guide was provided.

Well, when we arrived at our hotel in Chengdu, Fu hesitantly told us that the railway company had canceled our train and that our confirmed reservations were null and void. The only way we could travel by train the next day to Lhasa would be to go by bus to Chongqing, a good 4-hour drive away, and board the train there, continuing via Xi’an to Golmud and thence over the new railroad to Lhasa. Since it seemed we had no other real option, we decided to do just that.

Fu and the local guide arranged for a bus to Chongqing, procured the new tickets and even provided our group with a tour of Chongqing by having a taxi driver ride ahead of our bus and lead us to the sights. Fu also supplied a meal en route.

At the station in Chongqing, the fact that some couples in the group had booked and prepaid for 4-berth compartments for their private use also was null and void, and we were told that we had to share. Uwe and I were introduced to two young women who had booked a compartment for two, but we soon decided that we would survive the two days together.

The decision to write this note to ITN was born of the recognition that so many people on the train were so ill prepared for the trip that they suffered major discomfort. It is important to realize that this is by no means a luxury train. Besides, it was filled to capacity in every class.

The first insurmountable problem for many — they had brought huge, heavy, hardtop suitcases, which presented a major hindrance in the tiny compartments on the train. We actually saw some people sitting very uncomfortably with those monstrosities of cases propped on their beds during the 2-day trip!

There was some storage space beneath the lower bunks, but that was almost completely inaccessible, requiring lifting the bed and mattress. There also was some storage space above the door but only for smallish cases, rucksacks or soft baggage.

It is imperative to take a small bag with necessities. This should include reading material, guidebooks, a decent map of Tibet, spectacles, toilet bag, change of T-shirt, earplugs, pen and notepad. A favorite neck pillow is also a boon.

There was one Western toilet and one Chinese-style toilet in each first-class “soft-sleeper” wagon, but since there was no way to control who used those, it was a case of “free for all” and within two hours of leaving Chongqing both toilet floors were very wet and nasty and the small hand basin, fi lthy. This was to remain the case throughout the trip.

It is imperative to use the provided disposable slippers or other suitable, preferably “nonslip” washable shoes for trips to the toilet or any of the three open wash-hand basins. You should have a large supply of disinfectant or eau de cologne wipes with you or, at the very least, a goodly supply of toilet paper. You also should take along a small hand towel and soap.

The food on board was of very basic quality, and meals were rushed due to the limited capacity of the restaurant car and the numbers of people waiting to be served. We were very glad to have the fresh fruit Fu had brought along for us.

Fu also came around with some bottles of “Great Wall” wine the first evening and this (complimentary) nightcap was much appreciated! However, once the train reaches higher altitudes, it is recommended that no alcohol be drunk.

Fu also provided us with fruit, water, orange juice, wet wipes and cotton hand towels. At no time did he ask for payment for any of these articles. Our compartment of four had three bottles of wine. As you can imagine, we took all of this into account when we calculated our tip for Fu.

In each wagon on the train there was a reliable supply of really hot drinking water in a tank near the Western-style toilet. It is an excellent idea to take a suitable cup or flask with you, as well as instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk, if required, plus some tea bags or even small packets of instant soup or typical Chinese instant noodles. Those make enjoyable snacks in between times.

Since there is no way to lock the compartment door while you go to the dining car to take meals, you should keep your valuables on your person. During the night, the door can be locked from the inside.

As the train began the steep ascent to the Tibetan plateau, personnel came around and handed out little packs with plastic tubes which fi t into the nozzles of the emergency oxygen supply. We saw nobody actually use these, but it was good to know that it was available. We felt no discomfort in that respect.

On the whole, we found the trip fascinating and well worth the discomfort involved. If you board the train well prepared, you will be able to enjoy the scenery and the experience without having to endure more hassle than necessary.


Lohr am Main, Germany