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Train from Xian to Lhasa in early October?

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A friend of mine just realized they needed one more to make a group to get into Tibet, so invited me to tag along. They've obviously done a lot of research to decide what they want to do, but now I'm here with an invite to a location or two or three that I know nothing about. There is an obvious lure to Tibet, but I really know nothing about it. I understand you must travel from mainland China to get there, and their plan is to take a train from Xian which they say takes 2-3 days. That seems like a long time, and they couldn't give me any info on what fills those three days.

From looking around on the web I see some info on that train, but a lot of horror stories about getting tickets. That said, that info all seemed to be 5+ years old, so I am hoping to get some up to date information, especially based on the new train that was supposedly built on that line. Does it make the trip faster? Are there stops in interesting places? Oh, is there cell service en-route? 3 days without at least email access might be painful!

Then there's Tibet - the kind of travel I've done all my life is very brief and shallow - go to a place for 2-3 days, see the great sites, but never 5+ days. 3 days seemed plenty to me in Hong Kong, in Bangkok, in Amsterdam, in Paris... do I really need 5 days in Tibet? I hear horror stories about 3 meals of Yak every day.... How's the food in Tibet?

In short, I'm hoping that this great community can fill in the gaps that my friends are too busy to fill in for me. That or they don't know - really they're going for 2 months all around Asia so it's not like they're flying 20+ hours and spending the money just for this one place, so for them there's less question about whether it's "worth" the 10 days out of their 60.

Finally, it looks like I may get a round trip from DC to Beijing. A one way ticket to Xian, and then the train to Lhasa. We apparently will leave Lhasa by car to the border near Kathmandu. Maybe a few more days there and then a flight back to Beijing? Thoughts (I know, that's not a question.... but I'm still early in this process!).

Thanks 1,000,000! :)

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    First, some facts. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway opend in 2006. The route and service has remained basically the same. No new train sets, no speed increase. Number of trains may have increased a bit over the years, but not vastly so.

    Now, the long distance trains may originate from Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu and may take up to 48 hours; BUT the first portion from wherever the train originates to Xining in Qinghai Province is on existing rail and it's just like other trains one can take before 2006. It's the last 24 hours or so from Xining to Lhasa where you finally get what you're riding these trains for.

    If you're riding the train from Xian, you're catching a train that originates from Shanghai, Guangzhou or Chongqing; and it's only 34 hours from Xian to Lhasa. You board in the morning, going through the plains for the first day. When you get up next morning, you'll already been climbing onto the Tibetan plateau, and have amazing scenery for all of Day 2, until you get to Lhasa late afternoon or early evening.

    These trains make only 4-5 stops between Xian and Lhasa, at the larger cities of Lanzhou, Xining; then Golmud and Naqu. You'll have time to get down to the platform and take a picture. The stop at Golmud may be longer as they switch to the special locomotives there, but still you only have time to have a stroll, and that stop is in the middle of the night. You are not riding these trains for the stops.

    Cellular availability will generally be avaialable till Xining, and then extremely spotty for the remainder. And you'll need a 3G plan signed up before hand. No wifi on these trains.

    Tibet is a huge place, so you can spend 5 YEARS (or 7) there. 5 days is enough for Lhasa and perhaps one day-trip out of there. And don't forget you need to take it very easy for the first 24 hours after arrival, EVEN IF you're taking the train there.

    In short, it's NOT WORTH IT to go to Tibet for less than 5 days.

    Now, you said you'll leave by road to Nepal. Keep in mind that it's a TWO-DAY trip on the road for most just to get from Lhasa to the border, with the first night spent in Shigatse. IF you're only spending 5 days total in Tibet, you don't even have time to see most of the sights in and around Lhasa.

    Then you ask about food. Lhasa is a big modern city. You can get hamburgers and fried chicken and whatever you feel like there. It's when you get out of the cities where food may be an issue. But you don't have to drink yak tea if you don't want to. Pepsi is available everywhere, and I've even found Coke Zero in a smaller town once. Most of the eateries along the highways are run by Sichuanese or other lowlanders, serving regular Han Chinese food, and not Tibetan.

    In fact, in places like Lhasa, many tourists have to look hard to find a Tibetan restaurant, since real Tibetans just eat their own tsampa (milled grain) for breakfast, lunch and dinner; they don't go to restaurants.

    And most Tibetans eat hardly any meat. They drink yak tea all day, but they seldom eat their meat.

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    Thanks for the great info! Is there any way out of Tibet that will not take forever? I guess I could fly somewhere? Surely there is an airport there, it's just inadvisable to fly IN because of the acclimation?

    Your post brings up an interesting question about the internet... how much can I expect to still work when I'm in the country? I do have an unlocked cell phone, so I do plan to get 3G service. Probably in Beijing of course. Any hint on what provider I should lean towards as far as nationwide (as it were) coverage and speed?

    Does China block sites like Logmein and Gotomypc? I use both of these to remote back to my computer at home, and lacking that I would be unhappy. Also do services like gmail, and email service on my own domain work as normal?

    Is there a "best" place to catch the train to Lhasa? I read elsewhere that there were some other places instead of Xian where more trains stopped on the route to Lhasa than they do in Xian.

    Thanks again!

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    1. It's a myth that taking the train is better for acclimation. From what I've read, and my own experience (flying in, training out) as well as theories from tour operators, it's better to fly in and train out. You fly in, rest for 24 hours, and then you're good to go. Taking the train IS NO BETTER with acclimation, as you still climb a lot of altitude in a short time. At the same time, you won't feel very comfortable on the train, which for many IS the main highlight of the trip.

    The best way is to go in by road, slowly. If you have the time, of course.

    Daily flights into Lhasa from Beijing, Chongqing and multiple from Chengdu. Maybe from other cities too.

    2. Wired ethernet is available at most hotels and guesthouses. Free. That's the best way to communicate with the outside world, along with a prepaid 2G SIM card if you need to have voice while not in the hotel. You can do some search, but 3G data plan often requires registration.

    3. Use a VPN, or download to the free program Freegate onto your laptop before you arrive in China. All sites are avialable.

    4. Look at a map of the Chinese train system and you'll understand where you can catch a train to Lhasa.

    Each day, there are FIVE trains that go to Lhasa (not counting freights or some very slow locals):

    a. Daily Xining.
    b. Alternate days from Lanzhou or Xining. Lanzhou train will pass through Xining.
    c. Daily Beijing, via Lanzhou and Xining.
    d. Alternate days from Shanghai or Guangzhou. Both will stop at Xian, Lanzhou and Xining.
    e. Alternate days from Chengdu or Chongqing. Chongqing train will stop at Xian, Lanzhou and Xining. Chengdu train will NOT stop at Xian; only Lanzhou and Xining.

    So, in short, Xining has all 5 trains a day. Lanzhou has 3 or 4. Xian has 1 or 2.

    Problem with Xining is that the station is known to be highly corrupted and you can't get any ticket from Xining to Lhasa without some "processing fees" via an agent, which can be extremely high during high season. Which is probably one reason your party is taking it from Xian - which sees the trains from Chongqing, Shanghai or Guangzhou; but not the ones from Beijing or Chengdu.

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