The People's Republic of China has realised its long-held dream of extending rail service across "the roof of the world." The landmark Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) Railway crosses the Tibetan Plateau connecting China's cities to Lhasa; the cultural and spiritual heart of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Some fifty years in the making, the railway's first leg, between Xining and Golmud, was completed over twenty years ago. But it has been construction of the final stretch, extending from Golmud to Lahasa, which has presented the project's most daunting challenges.
The "Sky Train" is a marvel of modern engineering. Much of the rail bed crosses fragile perma frost. At altitudes exceeding 3-mi/5-km, Tibet's first railway counts the world's loftiest train depot and highest rail tunnel among its superlatives.
Completion of the 4.2 billion (USD) project has vast implications for the social and economic fabric of northwest China. The new train penetrates geographic barriers that have long impeded access to this remote region. Tourism is chief among targeted growth areas with the number of visitors expected to redouble over several of the coming decades.
Travel aboard the so-called "Lhasa Express" is a rarified experience. The exotic high country route offers captivating panoramas of the snow-capped Kunlun Range, the salt waters of Quinghai and Namtso Lakes and sprawling tundra grasslands where yak and chiru graze and rare snow lotus bloom.
At Lhasa, tourists flock to the red and white palaces of the world-famous Potala and Buddhist pilgrims converge on the great Gelugpa monasteries of Sera and Drepung and on the sacred Jokhang Temple in the heart of the bustling Barkhor District.
Onboard accommodations range from spartan "hard seats" to soft, cushioned sleepers. Amenities range from flat screen TVs in first class to special sightseeing platform cars accessible to all. Advanced oxygen controls counter the sometimes stressful effects of the thin mountain air.
Daily trains to and from Lahasa make same-day connections with Golmud, overnight links with Xining and Xian and provide two-night service between Tibet and Beijing. Passengers must secure Tibet entry permits prior to arriving in China. High-altitude travel waivers are required before boarding.
Meanwhile planners are looking ahead. By 2017, service is anticipated to extend beyond Lahasa, to Linzhi in the East and to Xigatse, Tibet's second city. A new deluxe five-star tour train which will cater to a mere 100 passengers. Among its features wil be unique transparent coaches affording 360° views.