Train to Lhasa

Print edition : July 28, 2006

The Qinghai-Tibet railway is an engineering marvel and the Chinese government hopes it will bring about an economic renaissance in Tibet.


At the Lhasa railway station, the train before it made its first journey to Beijing.-AP

FOR centuries Tibet has been the embodiment of an exotic fantasy. A Buddhist Shangri-La, mysterious and remote, locked away within high mountains from the frenetic modernity of the outside world. But, on July 1, as the first ever train pulled up into Lhasa station, having hurtled across frozen tundra for over 1,000 kilometres, a new chapter in Tibet's history began.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway has unlocked the gate to the roof of the world and unleashed with it a torrent of admiration and criticism. It is the world's longest and highest highland railway, an engineering marvel that the Chinese government says will bring about an economic renaissance in a region that has thus far remained poor and underdeveloped. Critics have, however, raised the alarm regarding the destructive potential of the railway for Tibet's pristine environment and unique culture.

This correspondent was on board the first Beijing-Lhasa Express that rolled out of Beijing West station at 9:30 p.m. on July 1. Cameras flashed both inside and outside of the train, passengers and onlookers alike hungry to record the moment for posterity.

Journalists, of whom there were 150 on board, were housed in the hard sleeper class, tickets for which cost just over $100. Hard sleeper is similar to the Indian three-tier, with six passengers to a compartment. For an additional $50 a soft sleeper ticket buys more space with four to a cabin as well as a television set, and for $50 less a hard seat ticket gets the passenger a chair to sit on and not much else.

But the excitement of being part of history in the making formed a uniting bond and hard/soft distinctions melted away with passengers scurrying between compartments, striking up conversations and unusually for the normally reticent Chinese, voicing opinions volubly.

It was thus barely 6:00 in the morning when Li Dan, a 27-year-old student from Jilin University, began to expound her views on the railway controversy. "Tibet can't remain shut off from the world forever. It's not healthy for any culture and change is not in itself bad," she said energetically.

But more than any other topic it was the potential for developing altitude sickness once in Tibet that the first-time tourists seemed to be obsessed with. Lhasa is situated at 3,600 metres above sea level and much of the route from Golmud onwards is over 4,000 metres above sea level.

Recorded announcements on the public address system replayed constantly warnings to contact rail staff in case any passenger began to feel uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to swear by a Tibetan concoction called Hong Jing Tian, which unblocks the user's "Qi" with ostensibly wholesome results.

Day one of the almost 48-hour trip saw the train winding its way south to Hebei and Shanxi provinces and then west to the home of the Gobi desert - Gansu. The journey's most stunning scenery, however, was reserved for day two when the Golmud-Lhasa stretch took the 850-odd passengers through the highest point on the trip: the 5,072-metre-high Tanggula pass.

At the Beijing railway station, as the train leaves for Lhasa.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

The pass is part of the formidable Kunlun range of mountains, for long considered impenetrable. The range forms the northern flank of a huge area of permafrost that stretches for hundreds of kilometres across the Tibetan plateau towards the Himalayas. Above the permafrost is a layer of ice that melts and refreezes daily with the rising and setting of the sun. Laying railroads through such terrain was thought to be impossible until China took up the challenge five years ago.

Chinese engineers solved the problem by developing a technique that enabled them to freeze permanently the top level of the ice and prevent its daily melting and refreezing. Coolants are pumped into the earth ensuring that the ground near the tunnels and pillars remains frozen.

There has been a certain amount of international scepticism regarding the sustainability of this solution and some have even predicted that the railroad will collapse within 10 years. The Chinese authorities, however, maintain that they are confident of the technology.

"The Qinghai-Lhasa railway is the realisation of a 100-year-old Chinese dream," said an announcement on the public address system as the train sped along the route. The mood on board was consequently self-congratulatory. "We Chinese can achieve anything," a China Central Television journalist boasted.

It took over 100,000 workers to lay the rail tracks and build other related constructions since work on the railway started in 2001. The altitudes at which they had to work were so high that crew-members often had to be outfitted with oxygen supplies strapped to their backs. On board the train Zhu Zheng Sheng, Vice-Director of the Ministry of Railways, called the fact that no one died of altitude sickness during the construction process "a miracle".

From Golmud onwards extra Oxygen began to be pumped into the train and attendants demonstrated the use of special oxygen sockets that were situated throughout the carriages.

Through the window the beauty of the landscape packed an almost physical punch. There was a collective gasp as a 50-strong herd of Tibetan antelope or Chiru ran alongside the railway tracks for a few minutes. Wild donkeys and horses could be spotted in the distance and the hulking shapes of yaks were framed dramatically by snow-topped mountains. We were passing through the grasslands of Kekexili, a 45,000 sq km area at the foot of the Kunlun range and China's largest area of uninhabited land.

Kekexili is the natural habitat of the Tibetan antelope. To protect these endangered animals from potential railway-related accidents, thirty-three wildlife "passageways", mostly trestle bridges, have been incorporated into the railway's design at key points along the route, where the antelopes are believed to cross during their seasonal migration to grazing grounds. In all some $192 million have been earmarked by the government for environmental protection projects along the route.

The minutes before we arrived, bang on time at 9:00 p.m. on July 3 at Lhasa were frenetic. Chinese tourists seeking souvenirs of the trip made a mad dash through the carriage trying to collect every passenger's autograph. We alighted onto a spanking new white train station: the very first passengers to have ever come to Tibet from Beijing by train. Official estimates say that by next year as many as 4,000 people will start to arrive by rail to Lhasa every day.

It was a lot to absorb, especially since despite having faithfully ingested copious quantities of Hong Jing Tian, this correspondent had developed a persistent headache, the most common type of high-altitude discomfort. When her first glimpse of the city, driving in from the train station was of a neon, hypodermic syringe-like tower stretching up into the sky from atop a hill, she could not help but wonder if the altitude was inducing hallucinations.

But then the bus turned a corner and the white and ochre splendour of the Potala Palace swam into view. This was the Lhasa of her imagination. Despite being juxtaposed with the bilious TV tower, the palace was an awe-inspiring site, even more so the next morning when it was encircled in a whorl of prayer-wheel-turning pilgrims. A deep abiding faith was palpable as hundreds of Tibetans walked slowly around the palace, a practice that is a daily routine for many Lhasa residents.


Gnarled, toothless old women prostrated themselves again and again on the ground before the Potala. Some of them were supported by children. Others, surprisingly, brought along pet dogs for the walk. The tinkle of silver jewellery mingling with the whirling of prayer wheels made for a strangely stirring spiritual amalgam.

This normally atheistically inclined correspondent hurried inside the palace for an interview with Qiangba Gesang, its director, responsible for its daily running and upkeep. He was surprisingly nervous about the impact of the train on the Potala.

The palace currently restricts visitors to a total of 1,800 persons a day. Tourists are charged 100 yuan ($12) and pilgrims a token one yuan as entry fee. But the influx of tourists that the railway will bring has caused the palace management to plan to admit an additional 500 visitors a day. The price of an entry ticket will however be tripled to scare away the budget-conscious and thus reduce the burden of human weight on the fragile construction.

"I don't care about more visitors or making money. I care about the palace and its protection," said Qiangba. His main concern was that the mud-and-wood structures of the 13-storey palace would collapse under the weight of a tourist influx. "More tourists will be good for Lhasa but not for the palace," he concluded.

Lopsang, a 27-year-old monk who lives in the Potala, shared these concerns. "This palace was not built to have hundreds of people walking through every day," he said.

The monk also worried that the new train would bring in an influx of migrants to Lhasa to the detriment of the local people. "Local Tibetans are poorly educated," he said. Others from outside would be better qualified, so more jobs would go to them.

Lopsang only echoed one of the main arguments that critics of the railway make: that the benefits accruing from the railway will go not to Tibetans as much as to Chinese from other parts of the mainland who are coming to Lhasa in large numbers to set up businesses. These new migrants are better educated and also have access to lines of credit that most Tibetans lack.

The hotel that we were staying in, for example, was owned by a businessman from Sichuan province. A quick survey of the shop owners along the main street revealed that the majority of them were from outside of Tibet.

But the monk also admitted that the railway would enable young Tibetans to get quality education elsewhere in China. "It has its good points," he smiled before switching to an animated monologue on the proceedings of the soccer World Cup.

The Potala was packed with pilgrims. Outside, on the knick-knack-crammed streets of Lhasa's old town, Hindi film music launched an aural assault on passers-by.

The centre of Lhasa had a prosperous look. Its pothole-free roads and swanky shops selling fashionable clothes and cutting-edge electronics gave it a plush air than even the glitzier parts of Delhi or Mumbai. This correspondent marvelled at the thought that this was in fact one of the more backward parts of China. Her wonderment was, however, not shared by everyone. Xiao Yan, an interpreter with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, who accompanied the journalists on the trip, was not impressed. "I'm a bit disappointed by Lhasa. It's so poor," she said with a dismissive toss of the head.

According to official figures, Tibet's annual gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005 reached 25.06 billion yuan ($3.1 billion). Moreover, the past decade has seen annual growth rates of over 10 per cent.

There continues, however, to be a huge difference between the relatively prosperous city folk of Lhasa and the farmers and herdsmen of the vast countryside. North of Lhasa, by Nam-tso Lake, dirty young children begged for food. But even as they devoured the oranges and bread we gave them, they wrinkled their noses at salted eggs and tossed them into the turquoise water: a sure sign that they were far from starving.

WORKERS MAKE LAST-MINUTE inspections on the tracks at the Nanshankou station in Qinghai province on June 30.-AFP

Later we stopped by a family of yak herders who lived 14 to a tent and made ends meet by selling yak milk. A middle-aged woman told us that she was the mother of seven children (China's one-child policy does not apply to Tibet) and that the family eked out a subsistence living. But parked next to the shabby tent was a battered old car along with a motorcycle, both of which belonged to the family. The meaning of subsistence had obviously undergone a transformation here.

The average disposable income in the rural parts of Lhasa is officially calculated to be just over 2,000 yuan ($250). For the cities the figure is around 8,000 yuan ($1,000).

Back in Lhasa, large banners boasting of the golden opportunities the railway would bring festooned the entrance to the city. New hotels encased in scaffolding were going up. Lhasa's first five-star hotel, The Brahamaputra Grand, opened its doors in June. The Grand Hyatt, Intercontinental group and Banyan Tree resorts are all reportedly scouting around for properties. Restaurants were full even at 11:00 p.m.

According to government estimates, Tibet's tourism revenues will double by 2010 as a result of the railway, with half a million more tourists a year expected to pour into the region.

Chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Champa Phuntsok described the railway as a "magical road of heaven". According to him, the new trains would reduce the high price of commodities in Tibet and allow Tibetans to participate in the "national market".

In the hard seat section of the train.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

The railway is expected to reduce the cost of transporting goods into the region by more than half. At the new freight station we are told that two trains with 60 carriages in total have begun to arrive in Lhasa every day and are expected to carry in a cargo of 7.5 million tonnes every year. Champa also stressed that Lhasa would not be the end of the railway. Plans for expanding the tracks to other cities, including border areas, are being discussed, with the hope eventually that Tibet will "change from a sealed off inland region to becoming the frontier of economic exchanges in South Asia".

With the Nathula pass opening for trade just days after the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the potential of the railway for promoting border trade is heightened. This correspondent was reminded of both Kashmir and the northeastern States of India which continue to suffer from lack of infrastructure, the long-talked-of plans to build rail lines Srinagar and Gangtok remaining unrealised.

The ultimate impact of the railroad will be a matter for history to judge and is likely to be complex. Tibetans will probably be economic beneficiaries of the train although this opening up to the outside world will also bring to an end Tibet as we have known it thus far. That the railway will bind the region both economically and politically more closely to the mainland is a fact that supporters and critics of the project agree on. It is on the implications of this new bond that differences of opinion emerge.

This correspondent flew back to Beijing. It was three times the cost of the train journey but took only five hours, compared to the two days spent on the trip on the way in. The plane was packed with foreign and Chinese tourists and there were almost no Tibetans to be seen on board. It will be different on the railway.

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