Back by popular demand, the China and Tibet Rail Discovery tour combines spectacular Chinese destinations with one of the world’s least known places, Tibet and its mystical capital Lhasa. We have put together a comprehensive guide of the destinations visited on this fascinating journey and some of the most incredible and visually stunning attractions to see along the way.
Known as the ‘Roof of the World’ due to its breath-taking average height of 13,200ft (4,060m) above sea level, Tibet is home to more Himalayan peaks than anywhere else. Mount Everest lies on its border with Nepal and provides a stunning and scenic backdrop to the journey.
Undoubtedly the highlight of this remarkable rail adventure is the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, located in a small basin surrounded by spectacular mountains. Lhasa translates as ‘place of the gods’ and sitting at an altitude of around 11,975ft (3,650m) it is one of the highest cities in the world. The city also has over a thousand years of cultural and spiritual history.
Lhasa is home to the 17th century Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama until he fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. One of the city’s most important landmarks, it has since been turned into a Museum and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
An architectural masterpiece, the Palace dominates the city skyline, standing at 13 storeys and containing over one thousand rooms, including chapels and prayer halls. Construction of the present structure began during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama in 1645 and took more than 50 years to complete. Tourists and Pilgrims flock to this magnificent Palace daily.
Another fascinating Lhasa landmark is the 13th Century Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine and the spiritual home for almost all Tibetans. It is home to the most admired golden Buddha in all of Tibet. The temple was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2000. The original complex included only eight shrines but after multiple renovations, during various dynasty rulings, the complex grew to the scale that exists today.
Another notable landmark is Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, built in the 1740s as a retreat from which to escape the heat of the summer. Meaning either ‘jewel garden’ or ‘precious garden’ it provides a tranquil haven from the noise of the city and is considered to be the largest man-made garden in Tibet. Part of the Potala Palace ensemble, Norbulingka is also recognised by UNESCO and was added to their World Heritage list in 2001.
Tibet was virtually inaccessible by land until the construction of the Golmud to Lhasa railway, more than 600 miles (965kms) of which is at an altitude of over 13,000ft (4,000m) and much of this magnificent line runs over permafrost. With the summit, the Tangula Pass, at 16,640ft (5,072m) it is also the world’s highest railway!
Golmud is the second largest city in the Qinghai Province. Its economy relies heavily on industries involving Salt Lake chemicals, due to the city’s close proximity to Chaerhan Salt Lake, comprising of nine different salt lakes. The 14-hour daylight journey from Golmud to Lhasa is a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed.
Discover Ancient China by private train
Our 12-day adventure commences in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in northwest China. A cultural hub at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains, the city is home to multiple ethnicities and is an important stop along the ancient Silk Road.
Home of the Provincial Museum, famous for housing the artefacts and mummies of Caucasians who lived in the region between 1,500 and 4,000 years ago. There is also a fine collection of silk articles and other artefacts from various eras of history, and written materials in many different languages. Most people visit the Museum to see the mummies and their artefacts as they are unusually well preserved. Until two decades ago, this culture was hardly known to historians and archaeologists, and their history and origins remain much of a mystery.
Boarding our private train, the Shangri-La Express, we travel to Kashgar, a Silk Road city with over 2000 years of history. Located in the westernmost corner of China, Kashgar is actually closer to Tehran and Damascus than to Beijing. One site worth visiting in this city is the Grand Bazaar. Extremely popular with visitors on a Sunday, its very remoteness is what makes the market so extraordinary, plus it is the only real place to shop in an area the size of western Europe. Approximately 100,000 people flock to the market every Sunday, but due to the isolated location of the city, only a small fraction of these visitors are foreigners. There are items such as spices, teas, silk, doppa (traditional Uighur hats) and carpets purchasable at the market.
Following one night here, we visit the city of Turpan, a visually stunning city where the Flaming Mountains create a magnificent backdrop. It is an old city with a long history, dating back over 6000 years. In the Ming Dynasty, Turpan got its name from the Uygur language meaning ‘the lowest place’. Turpan is also the city with the lowest elevation in China.
Just 10km west of Turpan lies Jiaohe Ancient City, one of the best preserved ancient cities in China. The ruins of the buildings are divided into temples, civilian dwellings and government offices, workshops and residential houses and are a must-see if you are travelling to the area. Jiaohe in Chinese means ‘where two rivers meet’ and the ancient city was included in the World Heritage List in 2014.
Our next stop is at the small oasis city of Dunhuang, where we visit the fascination Magao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex. This impressive site contains almost 500 grottoes, carved between 700 and 1,700 years ago. Inside we will see an amazing collection of beautiful sculptures and murals depicting the evolution of Buddhist religious art over 1,000 years. Just 6km south of the city lies the enchanting Crescent Lake, hidden amongst towering sand dunes and has sustained life in this region for millennia. We have a fantastic opportunity to explore this unique area by camel.
Onwards to Jiayuguan, known as the ‘mouth of China’ due to its position at the end of the Great Wall, where it once guarded the western boundary of Ming Dynasty. The Jiayuguan Pass is one of the largest and most intact passes of the Great Wall. It was an important military fortress and a vital traffic fort along the Silk Road, connecting China, Central Asia and Europe.
In close proximity, the Overhanging Great Wall, which was constructed in 1539 and built to support the already existing Jiayuguan Fort, which held a key role in the defence mechanism of the area around Jiayuguan. Parts of the wall are extremely steep and for those who make it to the top, a bird’s eye view of endless Gobi Desert and snow-capped mountains can be enjoyed.
The penultimate stop on our Shangri-La Express journey is the city of Xining, a historic and multi-ethnic region, home to an incredible 37 different nationalities. Located on the eastern edge of Qinghai Province, Xining’s history can be traced back 2,100 years to anquity.
From Xining, you can visit the fascinating Buddist Kumbum Monastery, or ‘Little Tower Temple’ as it is also known. Kumbum was founded in 1583 in a narrow valley close to the village of Lusar in the Tibetan cultural region of Amdo. During its long history, it has gradually become a place of interest for its distinct ethnic colour and native style. It is made up of 9300 rooms across a number of buildings, designed in both Han and Tibetan styles of architecture. The Monastery is surrounded by mountains, providing stunning and picturesque scenery.
Close by lies the Shuijingxiang Market. The entrance is found at two intersecting alleys, each more than 1,100 metres long with more than 3,000 fixed stalls. The market has everything from food and drink, including seafood from the coast, to articles for daily use.
Finally, our train arrives in Golmud ahead of the extraordinary and unforgettable 14-hour daylight journey to Lhasa on the Qinghai–Tibet railway. The high-altitude train crests the 16,640ft (5,072m) Tangula Pass on the 1,142km ‘Roof of the World’ line to Lhasa. This is the world’s highest railway pass, reaching an unbelievable 3 miles (5km) above sea level. Due to the high altitude, supplementary oxygen is pumped in through the ventilation system. Personal oxygen masks are available if required. This is a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed.
For any further information on our fascinating Tibet & China rail discovery tour, please click here.