There are overland routes to Lhasa from the four cardinal directions. The main ones from central China are:
- by road from the north, starting at Golmud, Qinghai
- by rail, also via Golmud using the new Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world’s highest railway line, with oxygen pumped into the cabin
- by road from the east, from Kunming, Yunnan or from Chengdu, Sichuan (The Tibet Tea Road) — see more out-of-the-way places
- overland to Zhongdian, then fly to Lhasa — see a lot without blowing the budget
- This article is an itinerary.
This article does not cover the route from the northwest, from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa; that route involves bad roads through lightly populated areas and is not much travelled. For more on that, and on the routes below, see the Tibet article.
For any route, you need travel permits for each area you visit. The Chinese government restricts access to Tibet; in theory, you can only get a permit as part of an organized tour group. In practice, some tour operators will take your money, get you the permit, and be happy if you go off on your own. Also, some local police stations will happily issue permits for their area, sometimes cheaper than the tour operators. For details, see the Tibet article. Some travelers have gone without the permits, some have gotten away with it, but this is no longer possible or advised. If you are caught you will be detained, fined and sent back at your own expense. Still you can go there as a single traveler, but only “organized”.
For any route, you need to consider the risks of altitude sickness. Lhasa is at 3660 meters (12,000 feet). Most of the passes and some inhabited plateau areas are over 5000 meters (16,500 feet).
- See also: Qinghai–Tibet railway
The Qinghai-Tibet railway connects Xining and Golmud to Lhasa. Golmud is in Qinghai, a Chinese province north of Tibet, also located on the Tibetan plateau, with a large part of the population ethnically Tibetan. Qinghai corresponds approximately with the historical Tibetan province of Amdo and may still be referred to as that by Tibetan speakers.
This is the highest railway on earth, running at over 5000 meters above sea level in many places. The carriages are specially designed to help passengers avoid altitude sickness. Contrary to popular belief, the carriages are not pressurized. It is possible to open the train windows en route and the train stops at many high altitude stations with no pressurization/de-pressurization before the train doors open. The air is oxygen-enriched by outlets in the carriages. If that is not enough, you can plug a nasal catheter into an outlet for a more concentrated dose. Few passengers require these, but they are available if you do.
The train has different classes of travel — soft sleeper (4 berths in one compartment), hard sleeper (6 berths in one compartment) and hard seat (standard railway seating). In each carriage information about the journey is displayed on scrolling LED displays. This contains much information in Chinese and in English. It is possible to find out the current speed, time and date, altitude and next station information.
Each carriage has an attendant who is responsible for the boarding of that carriage and the passengers within it. There is also a restaurant car serving food and drink and frequent trolley services for food and other essentials throughout the train. Every train also carries a doctor and nurse.
One noticeable problem with the sleeper carriages is that there are only two toilets (one Western and one Chinese) in each carriage. These are not only very busy but also get very dirty as the journey progresses. You are advised also to take your own toilet paper. In addition to this there is barely enough room for luggage. Passengers often have to sleep with their suitcases on their beds if they are too large to fit under the beds or in the over-corridor area linked to each compartment.
The railway connects via Golmud to the main Chinese rail system. You can get tickets all the way to Lhasa from major Chinese cities — at least Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Lanzhou and Guangzhou, perhaps others. On the Chongqing route, at least 24 hours of the 48-hour journey are spent traveling north to join the main Beijing to Golmud line.
Line speeds average 100 to 120 km/h, certainly from Golmud to Lhasa, making the journey interesting but also laborious.
On arrival at Lhasa you should have your tickets ready for inspection at the barriers. Also watch out for the taxi drivers who insist on charging a fixed rate per vehicle (despite number of occupants) of ¥100 for the journey into Lhasa center. They can also become quite irate if you do not use their car! It’s best to try and get 4 people together to split the cost (¥25 each) – but its still a rip-off as standard fares in Lhasa start at ¥5 and then ¥1.8 per km. The journey to a central Lhasa hotel should cost no more than ¥20. You could also reach Golmud via routes described in Silk Road and Along the Yellow river.
A train on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
Hard seat interior on the Shanghai-Lhasa train
Hard sleeper berths on the Beijing-Lhasa train
Soft sleeper berths on the Beijing-Lhasa train
Dining car of Lanzhou-Lhasa train