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Will I Suffer from Altitude Sickness When Taking Tibet Train?

Last updated: November,08 2017

One of the biggest questions asked about traveling to Tibet on the train is whether they will suffer from altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Thousands of people travel to Tibet on the trains every year, to experience the rich, unique culture of the region, and visit the many monasteries that abound in Tibet. One of the main considerations of traveling to this high-altitude plateau is the risk of AMS on the journey, and when you get there.

Myths and Legends

One of the biggest myths on the trains to Tibet is that it can help to acclimatize passengers to the high altitudes as it travels up to the plateau. This is a belief that has been borne of the time that the train takes to get to Lhasa. Experts advise that you need at least one to two days to acclimatize at a lower altitude, before traveling up to the altitudes of Lhasa and the plateau. People have wrongly assumed that this can also be achieved by taking the train, as it takes almost a day to get there from Xining, in Qinhai province.

 Qinghai-Tibet railway Qinghai-Tibet railway

When taking the train to Lhasa, the carriages are not climate controlled. There is no hermetical seal to keep you safe from the outside climate, however, after the train passes Golmud, the oxygen system is turned on, and it pumps oxygen into the train compartments, increasing the oxygen levels inside the train to higher than that outside.

Oxygen Content of Air

Air contains the same 20.9% of oxygen at all altitudes, and it is the change in pressure that makes it feel lower, so you have what is known as “effective” oxygen content. However, taking pressure into account, increasing the oxygen content of the air you breathe has the same effect as reducing the pressure of the atmosphere. This means that, on the train, you are breathing air at roughly the same oxygen level as you would if you were outside at an altitude roughly equal to that in Lhasa. This does not help you to acclimatize throughout the journey.

 Oxygen supply outlet on Tibet train Oxygen supply outlet on Tibet train

In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Some travelers stop in Xining for a day or two, and have time to acclimatize at the lower altitude, which experts and doctors recommend. This is definitely beneficial to the next increase to the altitude of Lhasa, but going too high, to well above 4,000 meters, can also have detrimental effects on them. Since the oxygen content is increased to equal that in Lhasa, you are going from a relatively low altitude, often below 1,500 meters, to an altitude equivalent to Lhasa at 3,490 meters, in the space of just a few hours.

Higher Altitude from Golmud to Lhasa

While the section of the track from Xining to Golmud is at ideal altitudes for acclimatization, you do not really spend enough time at those altitudes to acclimatize properly. For the stretch from Golmud to Lhasa, the train is traveling at altitudes above 4,000 meters, although the effective altitude due to increased oxygen content is equal to that of a little under 4,000 meters.

 Xining city (2,275m) Xining city (2,275m)

While oxygen is pumped into the carriages after the increase in altitude, there is still no guarantee that you will not suffer from the milder symptoms of altitude sickness. One of the reasons that people do suffer mild symptoms of AMS is due to the sharp increase in “effective” altitude from the elevation of Golmud to an altitude equivalent to Lhasa. The key to acclimatizing to altitudes is to ascend slowly, and the train is climbing quite fast from Golmud up to the plateau. The main symptoms of mild altitude sickness are:

Headache
Dizziness
Fatigue
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
Nausea
Disturbed sleep
General feeling of malaise

Getting rest and taking extra oxygen can help you to stave off the effects of AMS. Nevertheless, if you get any of the symptoms mentioned, tell the train staff, and if necessary, they will take you to the on-board medical staff for treatment.

In short, there is a chance you could get AMS when traveling on the trains to Tibet. However, this can also depend on your own constitution, and how active you are during the trip. Take the time to sit and read, listen to music, or watch the amazing scenery that passes by outside the windows, and you may not feel any effects at all.

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