Train To Tibet

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Update: The Tangula Train has been delayed.

Traveling to Tibet is about to get a little more comfortable… for the rich that is. Tangula Luxury Trains will be offering luxury train journeys from Beijing to both Tibet’s capital of Lhasa, as well as to the southern destination of Lijiang.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway route, boasting world’s highest line with a maximum elevation of 5,068 meters, began in 2001 and opened in July 2006 at a cost of $4.5 billion US. An estimated 1.5 million travelers took this route in its first year alone, not to mention their first death (a 75 year old Hong Kong man)! Before the complete rail, travelers to Tibet could only take train as far as Golmud (completed in 1984) and then continue on an unpleasant 48-hour bus journey to Lhasa.

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The luxury route is an addition to the regular service started in 2006 and was originally scheduled to open late 2007. The service is now set to open September 2008, with reservations starting soon.

Luxury has its price. The cost to Lhasa over 5 days/4 nights (twice as long as ordinary service) will reportedly cost around $5,000 per passenger. What do get for your money? Each carriage sweet consists of 4 private guestrooms, holding 2 people each, plus a 24-hour on-call butler! The trains come decked out with high-speed Wi-Fi internet access, MP3/video docking stations (complete with a sound system), and 10 meter2 rooms with double beds, living room and bathing facilities. Each train can carry 96 passengers at a time.

The journey to Lhasa is one of unprecedented beauty, crossing “grasslands, desert plains, and snow-capped mountains” according to Tanglua’s website.

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Tangula Express is a foreign invested venture between Qinghai Tibet Rail Corp (51% stake) and RailPartners (49% stake), a Canadian company. The company plans to take advantage of a market gap in China’s higher-class leisure and hospitality industry.

The name Tangula is derived from a grassland deity named Thang Lha. The deity is said to watch over the Tangula mountain range and the Tangula Pass, the highest point on the line.

Regular Service Information

The luxury service certainly excludes most travelers. If you find yourself on this journey, chances are you will be taking regular service trains.

The ordinary service (from Beijing) takes 47 hours and 28 minutes over 4,064 meters. The luxury service is longer because it stops for photo opportunities and during sleeping hours so passengers don’t miss any scenery.

Costs are roughly $54 US / 389 Yuan (¥) for hard seat, $113 / ¥813 for Hard Sleeper, and $176 / ¥1,262 for soft sleeper.

The Man in Seat 61, the go-to source for trains on the internet, provides timetables.

Travelers need, in addition to a Chinese visa, a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) for about $97 / ¥700. For arrival by train, many people have reported that this “required” piece of paper is rarely checked and is easily done without. For those arriving by plane, it is always checked. The best place to attempt entering without a permit appears to be via Beijing, though it is a risk to attempt. See Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for up to date information. A further permit is needed to venture outside of Lhasa.

Images can also be found of the train interiors and the journey’s scenery.

Controversy

China’s iron fisted rule of Tibet began in the 1950’s with Chinese politicians promising economic stability and support, but smiles soon gave way to religious intolerance and violence.

Traditional Tibetan ways of life have changed radically from influence from China and Western culture. Chinese government-imported immigrants of the Han ethnic group, representing 94% of China’s makeup, have been given economic support to resettle in Tibet, officially known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. This attempt to dilute Tibet has largely been successful and made it difficult for Tibetans to compete for work.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is seen by advocates for a free Tibet as another way to facilitate military mobilization and Han migration. One such group calls the railway “a tool Beijing will use to overwhelm the Tibetan population, exploit Tibet’s resources, dilute Tibetan culture and devastate the Tibetan environment.”

For an interesting look at Tibet under Chinese rule, watch Dispatches: Undercover in Tibet.

Other Sources

Note: The top image is by flickr user Henry Chen.



2 Comments

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