Taking the High Road

Luxury train journeys across the Roof of the World

By: Gary Bowerman

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Guangxi Province
Sitting at an altitude of 16,628 feet, the Tangula platform is the world’s highest railway station. The name is inspired by Tangula Mountain, dedicated to Thang Lha a powerful grassland deity who is believed to watch over and protect the spectacular Tangula Pass. The station is also one of the world’s most picturesque, affording magnificent views of the snow-capped peaks, frozen lakes and geological splendor of the vast Tibetan plateau.

Beginning summer 2008, Tangula will have an added significance for travelers in China. Tangula Railtours is the name of a new luxury train service, which will operate on two routes across inland China from next year.

The rail company was started in 2002 by two ex-McKinsey consultants, who identified a need for cultural and scenically interesting tourism experiences through China’s largely unexplored hinterland. But providing rail trips from Beijing to both Lhasa in Tibet (2,525 miles), and Lijiang in Yunnan province (2,433 miles), wasn’t sufficient: the Tangula dream was to offer once-in-a- lifetime train adventures combined with luxe accommodations and five-star onboard services.

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Footbridge over Rongshui River, Guangxi.
After receiving official approval from the Chinese Ministry of Railways to operate the two routes, Tangula signed a deal earlier this year with Kempinski Hotels to manage both the Beijing-Lhasa and Beijing-Lijiang train journeys. Five-day, four-night outward journeys departing from Beijing will be offered to both Lhasa and Lijiang, with four-day, three-night return trips also available. Each train will be purpose-built in China by Canada-based Bombardier and will carry a maximum of 96 passengers.

On board, passengers will be able to enjoy deluxe en-suite cabin accommodations, high-tech, in-room entertainment systems, butler service, oxygen-enriched air supply to counter the high altitude and five-star dining. Off-train cultural and scenic sightseeing tours will also be included.

The Beijing-Lhasa journey passes across the mesmerizing Qinghai-Lhasa section of the China-Tibet railway, which was officially opened last year. Crossing the Tibetan plateau at an average elevation of more than 13,000 feet, the railway is cut through the perma-frozen soil of one of the world’s least-visited natural wildernesses, a logistical feat many scientists believed impossible. The Beijing-Lijiang route traverses some of southern China’s most picturesque and colorful scenery, wending through the river gorges, limestone karsts and alpine mountains of Guangxi and Yunnan provinces, and including visits to ethnic minority villages.

“Tangula expects three types of travelers,” said Ivor Warburton, vice president of operations for Tangula Railtours and a fluent Mandarin speaker, “those who purchase the trip only; those who buy it as part of a travel package, including hotels and air travel; and those who include the journey as part of a complete tour of China.”

Warburton adds that clients are expected to come from “regions where the concept of luxury is already well established,” such as North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. “However, as knowledge and understanding of the product grows, we anticipate more travelers from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan,” he said.

Pricing details for both journeys will be announced shortly, and ticket bookings are scheduled to start later this year.