Altitude Change and High Altitude Sickness on the Tibet Train
Thousands of people travel to Tibet every year to experience the unique culture, and visit some of the highest and most remote areas of the world. Whether you are there to see the temples and monasteries or to trek around the high mountains and lakes, one thing you need to consider is the hugely increased altitude on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
Altitude Change from Xining to Lhasa
When traveling from China to Tibet, you are going from an altitude of around sea level (Beijing is at an elevation of just 43 meters) to an elevation in Lhasa of 3,490 meters. Moreover, on the way you will get as high as 5,072 meters above sea level when traveling through the Tanggula Mountain Pass.
If you are traveling from Xining to Lhasa, you will start at an elevation of 2,275 meters in Xining, and rise sharply once the train passes Golmud, which sits at an altitude of 2,809 meters. From there it is a shortjourney of just a few hours before you reach the Kunlun Mountain Pass, which is at an elevation of 4,800 meters. The train ascends very quickly to this high elevation, before leveling out and dropping slightly to continue the journey to the next high point, and the highest on the Qingzang Railway, Tanggula Pass. After Tanggula Pass, the train railway descends slowly on the route to Lhasa, where it ends at an elevation of 3,490 meters.
The trip from Xining to Lhasa covers major changes in altitude along the route, from medium altitudes such as those in Xining, to the extreme altitude of Tanggula Pass. And it is this sharp change in altitude that often causes High Altitude Sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as it is sometimes known.
While Kunlun Mountain Pass may not be the highest point of the Qingzang Railway, it is the end of the sharpest and steepest increase in altitude of the entire trip. Kunlun Mountain Pass sits at an altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, which is 1,891 meters difference from Golmud, where the steep incline started. This may not seem like much, however, when you take into account that experts recommend ascending at no more than 300 meters per day after the first 3,000 meters, this climb from Xining to Kunlun, which takes less than 12 hours, is more than a little extreme. The expert recommendation is that there should be a rest period of at least 24 hours after each ascent of 1,000 meters. However, this is not possible when traveling on the train and with the sharp increase in elevation in the first half-day of the trip, there is a higher likelihood of feeling some mild effects of altitude sickness at this point. This can often lead to a rough night’s sleep because respiration decreases during sleep, which can exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness, and How to Treat it
With a higher chance of altitude sickness from the steep climb to Kunlun Pass, travelers should know how to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness, in case they experience it. Failing to treat mild altitude sickness can make it worse, and can even result in death in some extreme cases. The onset of mild altitude sickness includes:
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
General feeling of malaise
Oxygen is automatically pumped into the train when it reaches the higher altitudes above Golmud, which raises the concentration in the air from 21% to around 25%. This increase in oxygen levels creates a condition equivalent to that of Lhasa during the higher altitude parts of the journey. However, this is still a much higher altitude than that in Xining, where the train started, and where many passengers would have become acclimatized to that elevation.
For those suffering from the mild symptoms of altitude sickness while the train is en route to Lhasa, there are also oxygen tubes available from the train staff, which can be plugged into outlets positioned in the soft sleeper cabins and along the corridors of the train. This extra infusion of oxygen can help to relieve the mild symptoms of altitude sickness for a brief period, but should not be used continuously throughout the trip, as it will make acclimatization much harder once you reach Lhasa.
While there is no way to guarantee that you will not get altitude sickness, there are many ways to protect yourself from the more serious outcomes, which only happen rarely. Knowing the early signs of altitude sickness and being willing to acknowledge that they are present, is half of the battle. Mild altitude sickness is more common than you would think, and is generally not debilitating if taken seriously. Once you have recognized that you or someone in your party has the symptoms, it is important not to ascend to a higher elevation, and it is recommended to descend to an altitude where the symptoms disappear or decline. Since Kunlun is the extreme part of the climb, and the rest of the journey is relatively level, before actually dropping on the route into Lhasa, this can help with the treatment.
Ask for Help from the Train Staff
Make sure that you let someone on the train know that the symptoms are present. All of the staff are well versed in the symptoms of altitude sickness, and all of the trains have medical staff on standby for any occurrences. The medical staff is well trained in treating altitude sickness, and can help to keep the more serious symptoms at bay while your body acclimatizes to the higher altitudes. In any emergency, where the symptoms get worse, seek medical help from the nurses of doctor on board the train. The medical unit is normally situated next to the dining car.
There is no foolproof way to avoid getting altitude sickness, as everyone has a different response to high altitudes. However, the majority of visitors can avoid getting sick by ascending slowly once over 2,500 meters above sea level.
A good way to help prevent altitude sickness when traveling to Tibet by train is to spend a few days at a lower altitude that is not above 2,400 meters. Xining, at 2,275 meters above sea level, is ideal for acclimatization, and as long as you are careful and able to recognize the symptoms if they attack on the train, you should be able to get through with no problems at all.