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Unforgettable rail journeys in China

To truly feel and understand the massiveness of China, take the train. To roll by scenic landscapes and experience the change in faces, architecture, and languages, take the train. As China races ahead with its high-speed rail network, as a traveller, you can deliberately slow down with regular train services that add more hours to your journey, along with quirky local experiences and breathtaking views.

Planning a trip to China? Here are some of the most unforgettable rail journeys in the country to add to your itinerary.

Qinghai-Lhasa

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

This China-Tibet train tide is truly breathtaking in every sense of the word. As the highest railway in the world, it’s opening in 2006 marked a brand new way to enter the majestic and mystical land of Tibet. Its construction itself was seen as an engineering feat that was once thought impossible. At 4,000 metres above sea-level, altitude-sickness is alleviated with trains that pump air with a higher concentration of oxygen.  

As the train climbs upwards towards the roof of the world, the sights are truly remarkable. You’d want to beat the sleepiness when you go past snow-capped mountains, sky blue lakes, and grasslands that stretch into the horizon.

Entering Tibet with the Qinghai-Lhasa railway is not only a visual feast, but also a good way to acclimatize to the altitude. This is especially so if you spend a couple of days in Xining, Qinghai to get used to the thin air. 

Trip time: About 22 hours

Urumqi-Kashgar

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Image Credit: Panoramio

The Urumqi to Kashgar train journey takes you on an adventure in the far West of China, where in your groggy state of mind, you may occasionally wonder if you’re in China or somewhere completely remote in Central Asia. 

The train passes through Turpan, an ancient wonder that’s also the second lowest depression in the world and the hottest (literally) spot in China. Rolling by in the summer means you’d be in over 40-degree heat. Thereafter, the train continues on its journey, passing the majestic Tianshan Mountains, where you will see snowcapped peaks, streams, and then an expansive desert before arriving in Kashgar.

While you contemplate about the mysteries of life on this long train ride, just imagine yourself as a merchant travelling through the ancient Silk Road between Turkey and China.

Trip time: About 25 hours

Beijing-Mongolia

Slow travel your way from the capital of China to the open grasslands of Mongolia in Ulaan B. Shortly after you depart Beijing, you may just catch glimpses of the Great Wall on the mountain ranges. As the train chugs on, mountains give way to farmland and rice fields before you arrive Erlian for a border crossing that may be a tad too long and uncomfortable as the trains get their wheels changed from Chinese to Mongolian.

After a painfully long wait, you will probably go right back to sleep, but try to awake at sunrise, for you’d be passing the Gobi desert and you wouldn’t really want to miss that. And before you know it, the train will leave the desert behind and pull into green steppes dotted with yurts. That’s when you know that you’re officially in Ulaan Baatar.

Trip Time: About 35 hours 

Nanning-Guilin

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Image Credit: Wikimedia


Guangxi is no doubt one of the most scenic regions in China, and that says a lot.  If you aren’t in a rush to explore this Southern China gem, then it certainly is worthwhile to take a train from Nanning to Guilin, two popular cities in the region.

Nanning is a transport gateway and is often a stop for travellers coming in from Vietnam, while Guilin is a un-missable stop in Guangxi with its famous Li River and Longxi Rice Terraces. The journey from Nanning To Guilin will take you past rocky hills that are unique to the region, as well as expansive paddy fields and fields of flowers.

Beijing-Shanghai

What better way to travel between the two most important cities in China than to go by rail?  You can choose to cover the 1,318 kilometres journey in 5 hours with the impressive High-Speed Railway, or go the slow and possibly more interesting way in 12 hours.

There isn’t any particularly jaw-dropping scenery along this route, but if your travels in China only allow you limited time between major cities, this journey allows you to experience local travel with a mix of urban and rural landscapes along the way. 


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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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