This intriguing rail journey through China begins in one of the world’s least known places: Lhasa, the mystical capital city of Tibet.
In the shadow of the Himalayas and known as the ‘Roof of the World’ due to its breathtaking average height of 13,200ft (4,060m) above sea level, Tibet is home to more Himalayan peaks than anywhere else in the world.
Mount Everest lies on its border with Nepal. As befits such a remarkable land, Lhasa is home to an amazing UNESCO collection of spectacular palaces and temples.
Tibet has been virtually inaccessible by land. That changed with the opening of the Golmud to Lhasa railway in 2006. More than 600 miles (965kms) is at an altitude of over 13,000ft (4,000m) and much of this magnificent line runs over permafrost.
With the summit, the Tanggula Pass, at 16,640ft (5,072m) it is also the world’s highest railway. To travel on this line is a true pioneering adventure, an experience as unique as the destination itself.
The Shangri-La Express, the best passenger rail experience in China, has been newly outfitted for the 2017 season with en-suite cabins. Read more about the Shangri-La Express here.
Day 1: Lhasa, Tibet
Guests are met upon arrival in Lhasa and are transferred to the centrally-located and luxurious five-star St Regis Lhasa Resort for a three-night stay. Located in the eastern part of Lhasa, The St. Regis Lhasa Resort is this unique city’s most coveted address and is conveniently situated in the famed Barkhor area. The sweeping landscapes surrounding this exclusive resort provide a timeless, inviting setting for contemplation as well as exploration.
The St. Regis Lhasa Resort faces the Potala Palace, famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and once the chief residence of the Dalai Lama. A mere six minutes by car from the resort, the palace has been converted into a museum. Jokhang Temple, another iconic structure, and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former Summer Palace, are also close by. A welcome dinner will be served in the hotel this evening.
Day 2: Lhasa, Tibet
Lhasa is located in a small basin surrounded by mountains, and it literally means “place of the gods”. At an altitude of around 11,975ft (3,650m), it is one of the highest cities in the world; it is also the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama and the holiest centre of Tibet with over a thousand years of cultural and spiritual history.
Today we visit Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace. It was built in the 1740s as a retreat from which to escape the heat of the summer. Meaning either ‘jewel garden’ or ‘precious garden,’ it is still a tranquil haven from the noise of the city and a wonderful place to explore.
There will also be free time to wander through Lhasa and soak up the atmosphere of this picturesque city or to take an optional drive 30 minutes outside Lhasa to visit a local village and see the life of farmers there. Lunch will be served in a local restaurant and dinner will be in the hotel.
Day 3: Lhasa, Tibet
On our second full day here, we visit the 13th century Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine and the spiritual home for almost all Tibetans. Next we explore the adjacent Barkhor market, the oldest market in the capital and a well-trodden route for the many pilgrims who make their way to the temple. A local lunch is accompanied by traditional folk music.
This afternoon, we visit the 17th century Potala Palace, former seat of the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama’s winter residence before he fled to India in 1959. It contains thousands of rooms and dominates the city skyline. Perched upon Marpo Ri Hill, 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, the Potala Palace rises a further 170 meters and is the greatest monumental structure in Tibet and one of the architectural wonders of the world.
Day 4: Lhasa – Golmud
At Lhasa we board the high altitude train (where we have reserved seats) that will take us on an extraordinary and unforgettable 14-hour daylight journey along the 1,142km ‘Roof of the World’ line to Golmud, cresting the 16,640 ft (5,072m) Tangula Pass along the way. 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. At Golmud, we transfer to our waiting Chinese private train, the Shangri-La Express. There is plenty of time to settle into your private cabin as we continue our rail journey to Xining.
Day 5: Xining, China
Today we explore this historic and multi-ethnic region which is 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. Here we will experience some of the distinctive traditions and customs of this region.
We set out from our train this morning stopping first at the Buddhist Kumbum (Ta’er) Monastery. Kumbum was founded in 1583 in a narrow valley close to the village of Lusar in the Tibetan cultural region of Amdo. In the afternoon we will visit the Shuijingxiang Market. At the entrance of two intersecting alleys, each more than 1,100 metres long, are more than 3,000 fixed stalls. The market has everything from food and drink to articles for daily use. You can not only find lotus roots and wild rice stems, which are products of Southern China but also seafood from the coast.
Day 6: Jiayuguan, China
Today in Jiayugaun we visit the first pass at the west end of the Great Wall of China, the Jiayuguan Pass. Along with Shanhaiguan, it is one of the largest and most intact passes of the Great Wall. It was an important military fortress and also a vital traffic fort along the Silk Road, the world’s oldest trading route, connecting China with Central Asia and Europe. Standing in the endless desert with rolling mountains as its backdrop, this isolated pass will take you back to the desolation and loneliness of frontier life in ancient times.
After lunch we head for the Overhanging Great Wall, which was constructed in the year of 1539 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The wall was built in order 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 steep. Those who make it to the top will enjoy a bird’s eye view of the endless Gobi Desert, sparsely sprinkled with a few oases, and snow-capped mountains in the far distance.
Day 7: Dunhuang, China
This morning we will explorer the vast natural beauty of the Sand Dunes by camel, where we will discover Crescent Lake, hidden amidst the towering sand dunes. It has sustained life in this region for millennia.
In the small oasis city of Dunhuang, we will visit the fascinating 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.
Day 8: Turpan, China
The Flaming Mountains create a magnificent backdrop for the city of Turpan. First, we will visit the Ancient City of Jiaohe, which is one of the best preserved in China. The ruins of the buildings are divided into temples, civilian dwellings and government offices. Workshops and residential houses in the streets are also still visible. Time here is time spent in a world long disappeared.
In the afternoon, we take a fascinating tour to the world-famous ancient underground irrigation system at Karez that has successfully fed the surrounding orchards and vineyards for centuries. The system is considered one of the three great projects to survive from Imperial China, with the other two being the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.
Then we will visit a Uygur family, where we will enjoy the traditional Uygur ethnic dancing and local snacks, experiencing the real life and culture of the local area.
Day 9: Kashgar, China
Today we will visit the Old City of Kashgar, with a history of more than 2,000 years. Uygur people have lived here for generations, carving out a splendid society in the process. Kashgar Old City was the renowned centre at the crossroads of the Southern and Middle Silk Roads in the past. Today, Kashgar Old City is still a cradle of culture, a burning torch to the memories of the past and is without doubt a step back into the past in which you are a living part. Tonight we stay for one night at the five-star Radisson Blu Hotel Kashgar.
Day 10: Kashgar, China
Today’s special tour arrangements begin with the Kashgar Sunday Bazaar. Its very remoteness is what makes the market so extraordinary, partly due to the exoticism of the produce for sale, partly because it is the only real place to shop in an area the size of western Europe.
The population of Kashgar reputedly swells by 100,000 every Sunday for this market, but due to the isolated location of the city, only a small fraction of these visitors are foreigners and therefore offers a very unique experience on our journey.
Back on board our private train, we depart late afternoon from Kashgar and travel through fascinating scenery en-route to our final destination of Urumqi.
Day 11: Urumqi, China
Following a lunchtime arrival into our final destination this afternoon, we visit the renowned Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Museum in Urumqi, famous for having artifacts and mummies of Caucasians who lived in this region between 1,500 and 4,000 years ago. There is also a fine collection of silk articles and other artifacts from various eras of history, as well as written materials in different languages. Until two decades ago, this culture was hardly known to historians and archaeologists, and their history and origins remain much of a mystery.
This evening, we stay at the Hilton Urumqi hotel, where we will enjoy a farewell dinner in a local restaurant on our final evening in China.
Day 12: Urumqi, China
This morning, we will have breakfast in the hotel before our onward departures.
2017 Dates:October 6-17
Prices are per person.
A Chinese visa and a special permit for travel into the Tibet Autonomous Region are both required for this journey (for U.S. citizens).
Travelers should be aware that journey involves high altitudes. Oxygen is available on the Lhasa-Golmud line but some travelers may still experience symptoms of altitude sickness.
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