‘The landscape looked like the moon.’
That’s how traveller Joe Russo described the breathtaking scenery he saw from the train he rode with his wife, Kait, along the world’s highest railway from Xining in China to Lhasa in Tibet, which has a peak elevation of 16,627ft (5,067 metres).
It’s a unique journey – so high that oxygen is pumped into the carriages to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness – and the YouTube video the Russos posted that documented their experience of it has garnered over 870,000 views.
Scroll down to see the Russos’ video
Joe and Kait Russo filmed a trip along the highest railway in the world in Tibet – but the first railway leg was a bullet train from Beijing. This still from their video shows Kait looking for their seats on it
Kait Russo, pictured, describes the bullet train business class section as ‘so fancy’
Joe, pictured, was extremely impressed with the Beijing bullet train. ‘The train was extremely smooth and we had a very comfortable trip during this leg,’ he told MailOnline Travel
This still from the Russos’ YouTube video shows the meal served on the bullet train, which was included in the price of the ticket
The Russos’ railway adventure covered a distance of around 2,250 miles, from the Chinese capital to lofty Lhasa
Joe, from Los Angeles, and Kait, from Beijing, boarded the train in Xining, but their rail journey began in Beijing – and that’s where the video begins.
It shows the couple checking into the business lounge and then boarding a 186mph (300kph) bullet train to Lanzhou, eight hours and 900 miles away.
They had business-class tickets, which meant lie-flat seats.
Joe told MailOnline Travel: ‘We decided to upgrade to business class for this leg of the trip and were very happy we did so. We started early in the morning, so it was nice to have seats that recline flat in order to relax and take naps along the way. The train was extremely smooth and we had a very comfortable trip during this leg. Drinks, snacks and a meal were also included with our ticket.’
Xining station, where Joe and Kait boarded a train to Lhasa, around 1,200 miles away
Joe in his four-bed soft sleeper compartment during the 20-hour journey from Xining to Lhasa
After that leg was a ride on another bullet train – to Xining, 150 miles away.
Joe continued: ‘After an hour-long layover in Lanzhou we boarded another high-speed train to Xining. This leg was two-and-a-half hours and while we weren’t in business class, the first-class seats were also very comfortable.
‘They didn’t serve food on this leg of the trip, but there is always hot water available on the trains in China so many passengers will bring instant noodle soups to eat on the train.
‘It was very interesting to see the countryside of China but what was very surprising to us was rather than seeing many small rural towns along the way, high-rise apartment-style buildings dominated the landscape. It was incredible to see because in some places there would be dozens of identical buildings – and many of these “cities” appeared to be empty.’
Joe said that he suffered from altitude sickness on the train to Lhasa, which trundles over a vast plateau that has, on average, an elevation of 13,123ft (4,000m)
Out of this world: The scenery on the journey to Tibet was like a moonscape, Joe said
Joe said: ‘During the night, we could begin to feel the effects of the elevation as the train climbed over various passes. You could also hear the oxygen being pumped into the train cars’
Next came the ‘highest railway leg’ from Xining to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, sitting at an altitude of 3,656m (11,994ft), 1,200 miles away.
And here Joe noticed a change in the demographics.
He said: ‘When we arrived in Xining, the demographics changed quite a bit and I was surprised to find that there were very few other Westerners. The station is quite big so we had a chance to walk around and stretch our legs, which was nice, because the next leg of the journey to Lhasa would be just over 20 hours long.’
The journey is astonishingly lofty, with the train passing through Tanggula Railway Station – which at an elevation of 16,640ft is the highest station in the world – the Fenghuoshan Tunnel, which at 16,093ft above sea level is the highest tunnel in the world, and along a vast plateau region that is on average 13,123ft (4,000m) high.
The train to Lhasa passes through Tanggula Railway Station – which at an elevation of 16,640ft is the highest station in the world – and the Fenghuoshan Tunnel, which at 16,093ft above sea level is the highest railway tunnel in the world
The rail trip was part of an eight-day tour of Tibet in 2018, which also included a visit to the Everest tourist base camp, on the Chinese side
Joe said: ‘The snow gave way to grassy plains where we saw yaks being herded by the nomadic people’
Passengers, as the Russos discovered, can suffer as a result.
Joe explains on the video that he gets altitude sickness above five or six thousand feet and during the journey he ‘could feel pressure in his nasal passages and felt like passing out for a few hours’ and started to get a ‘really bad’ headache.
He added: ‘During the night, we could begin to feel the effects of the elevation as the train climbed over various passes. You could also hear the oxygen being pumped into the train cars at different times throughout the ride to help passengers combat altitude sickness.’
The bathroom facilities on the train were a mixture of Chinese (pictured) and Western styles
THE RUSSOS’ CRUCIAL TRAVEL ITEMS
‘We always carry a water purifying bottle so we can fill up anywhere and not worry about trying to find or buy bottled water. Toilet paper is a must because we’ve encountered many facilities that don’t provide (or had run out of) toilet paper throughout our travels. Finally, a good carry-on size roller bag and backpacks. We travel very light so we always have one shared roller bag and we each have a backpack. This setup works whether we’re on a one-week adventure or a month-long journey. ‘
When the Russos woke up, though, their jaws dropped.
Joe said: ‘When we boarded the night train out of Xining, it was late, so we went straight to our soft sleeper compartment – each compartment had four beds – and crawled into bed once the train left the station.
‘It was too dark to see the scenery and we were exhausted after the day’s journey.
‘In the morning, we woke up to a landscape that looked like the moon. It was covered in snow and looked completely desolate. We were in awe throughout the day as we watched the scenery change from one type of landscape to another.
‘The snow gave way to grassy plains where we saw yaks being herded by the nomadic people. At various times throughout the trip, there would be pre-recorded messages (in English and Chinese) played through the speakers to provide interesting information about what we could see from the windows.
‘There is also a paved road that follows the railroad mainly trafficked by large trucks carrying cargo to Lhasa.
‘While most of the landscape was covered by snow or grass, at different times, we would pass through small towns. For most of the journey, our eyes were glued to the scenery outside.’
The train made brief stops at various stations, but the doors were never opened to allow passengers off for a stretch of the legs, which Joe said was a bit of a surprise.
Lhasa station (altitude 3,656m, 11,994ft), the final stop for digital nomads Joe and Kait Russo
The train made brief stops at various stations, but the doors were never opened to allow passengers off for a stretch of the legs, which Joe said was a bit of a surprise
THE NEXT ‘HIGHEST RAILWAY’…
India’s Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line will reach a height of 5,359 metres (17,582ft) when it’s completed in 2022.
He was also surprised by the ‘well-stocked dining car’, which had a ‘good selection of Chinese dishes on the menu’.
What’s more, fresh vegetables were growing in pots and cut to order for each dish.
‘We enjoyed all the dishes, especially the vegetable stir-fries,’ said Joe.
The rail trip was part of an eight-day tour of Tibet in 2018, which also included a visit to the Everest tourist base camp, on the Chinese side.
And it came three years after the Russos adopted a ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle and launched their ‘We’re The Russos’ brand.
Tanggula – a breathtaking station in more ways than one. This picture was taken by Bharat Vohra and posted to Flickr
Joe has written two books about his RV lifestyle
Joe explained: ‘In 2015 we decided to leave our corporate careers behind, sell our house and many of our belongings to hit the road full-time with our two dogs in a motorhome.
‘It was supposed to be a one-year adventure with an end date and plans to go back to work and settle down again.
‘However, we quickly embraced the freedom and flexibility of the lifestyle and decided to keep going indefinitely.
‘Since we only saved up enough money to travel for one year, we had to figure out a way to earn a living while travelling. That’s when we started our own content creation company producing videos for our YouTube channel, articles for our website and I have self-published two books so far.
‘The first book, Take Risks, documents everything we went through from coming up with this idea to hitting the road and the second book, Tales From the Open Road, details our first year and a half on the road.
‘In sharing our journey and experiences, we hope to inspire others to live the life that they want.’