On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World
Monday, 27 October 2008, 1:26 p.m.
An Illustrated Guide to the Highest Railway
Even after less than a handful of hours of sound sleep, I awoke with a start just before my alarm sounded. Suddenly, the vents began to emit a steady woosh—oxygen being piped in to assist our breathing at some 2700 meters above sea level. When I looked down from my bunk bleary-eyed, the T27 train from Beijing to Lhasa was still rolling through black night. I had awoken for the sunset, but then realized my mistake. Tibet, like all parts of China, was on Beijing time, but we were far from the capital — and from everything, it seemed. As I lay awake waiting for a sunrise still hours away, I pondered the symbolism: out here, Beijing controlled even the clocks.
To many the world’s most daring railway is a blessing for Tibet — or for those who want to behold or perhaps control its remote landscape. But it is also a curse, some say, for the place it’s meant to serve. As we barreled into the mysterious region, half a year after capital Lhasa was beset by deadly political turmoil, I wondered how the train was changing Tibet.
Photos by Alice Liu and Alex Pasternack
Beijing’s West Railway Station, where the 47-hour journey begins
China’s – and the world’s – reach to the highest plateau on earth grew in summer 2006 with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Qingzang Tielu çà²øìúâ·). An engineering marvel that China itself once ruled impossible, the $4.2 billion line traverses an region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.
Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost, a feat that required a system that keeps the ground frozen year-round to prevent the rails from sliding. Engineers also had to anticipate the long-term effects of global warming, which are melting Tibet’s glaciers at an alarming rate. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called the railway “an unprecedented project in the history of mankind,” a typical unvarnished government boast that for once, wasn’t hyperbole.
But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world’s longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags.
For me and my three travel companions, China train veterans with whom I shared a $150-per-bed soft sleeper cabin, this was no average rail ride. At times, its impact can be breathtaking — literally.
Although she had been preparing for the elevated trek by taking altitude-sickness pills, one friend sunk into her bunk at the whim of pounding headaches. Her bags of snacks, inflated to the verge of bursting, registered the lower air pressure while the flow of oxygen provided a calming, steady background noise.
Still, while everyone had warned us about the nasty effects of a sudden rise in altitude — and a handful of people curled up in the cheap hard seat section looked like they were feeling it — I barely felt any effects. Perhaps I was distracted by the stunning view.
There wasn’t much else to draw our attention inside “the Tibetan limited.” The LCD TVs set into the wall at the foot of every bed weren’t working, at least not in my cabin, which was probably a good thing if the snatches of cheesy music over the hallway loudspeakers were any indication. The dining car offered up costly, unremarkable food (about $2.50 for a set lunch). The bathrooms were thankfully not dirty, as they are wont to be on a 2-day train ride, but most were of the squat, not sit, variety. There were no showers, and no luxury sightseeing car, though a $1,000-per-person train, now postponed, is meant to include both of those things. (The cheapest seat on the current train is about $50.)
Perhaps the biggest attraction inside? Our friendly and charming attendant, who flirted with one of our group and told us his friends called him “the Chinese Obama.” The resemblance was actually uncanny.
There were of course other, more serious politics on board too.
|Grazing the landscape|
At night, entertainment came by book (I tried to get a copy of The Snow Leopard, but Midnight’s Children would do) and laptop (there’s a standard Chinese outlet in each soft sleeper cabin and along the hallways of each car). One night we watched Kekexili, a hypnotic 2004 film by Lu Chuan that tells the true story of a ragtag militia that protected the endangered Tibetan antelope from vicious poachers.
Conservationists have warned that the train would pose an even greater threat to this and other treasured species. The film’s title refers to the region in the historically Tibetan province of Qinghai where the antelope give birth—and where the railroad threatens to keep them from going.
But as voices in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) frequently reassured us over the public address system, authorities have gone to great lengths to mitigate the train’s impact on the fragile environment, at a cost of around $192 million.
Wildlife researchers helped engineers install over 30 passageways that would allow the migrating antelope and other animals to pass beneath the train (see one on Google Earth). Despite an uneasy start and a scandal over a faked 2006 photograph (see below) that purports to show antelope and train in harmony, some Chinese researchers say that the animals have actually adapted to their new steel neighbor. In a letter to the journal Nature detailing their findings, the Beijing-based researchers with the government-sponsored Academy of Sciences say that 98% of the antelopes have managed to migrate in spite of the train.
|Photoshop to the rescue|
Other successful precautions include the introduction of dozens of man-made swamps to replace swampland and endemic plants destroyed by the train, and the storage of waste onboard until the train reaches collection points, rather than leaving waste on the tracks. A US Embassy report tells of workers halting work to accommodate migrating antelope.
But embassy officials recorded no instances of rolling up and preserving grass, as authorities promised. Meanwhile, nomads and herders who live near the tracks have complained that they received minimal compensation for their ruined farmland.
|The trucks are moving in too|
Some point out that the train was intended as much for transporting people as for carrying valuable natural resources from Tibet to the rest of resource-hungry China, much as the United States’ Transcontinental Railroad did in the second half of the 19th century. The resource riches of Tibet’s pristine landscape alone seem reason enough for China’s leadership to be interested in building more links to the region.
One survey on the Tibetan Plateau found found that the area contains more than 10 billion tons of oil, and preliminary estimates show the plateau has reserves of 30 million to 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc and billions of tons of iron, according to the China Geological Survey Bureau. The rich-iron find could alleviate China’s massive dependence on iron-ore imports, which it needs to build factories and cars, while the copper lode in the environmentally sensitive Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge could turn it into the country’s largest copper mine.
|Dere’s metal in dem hills|
Last year, Zhang Hongtao, deputy director of the bureau, told the Xinhua News Agency that a new discovery of minerals on the plateau, potentially worth $128 billion, was “significant to regional economic development but China will give priority to protection over exploitation of these mineral resources.”
Still, the Gold Rush cannot be good for the land. The landscape outside the train often looked immaculate, but occasionally I saw evidence of new factories or mines growing along the route. And as Fortune reported last year, while “a fresh set of satellite images on Google shows a large increase in road construction branching off the new railway route, education and health care spending in Tibet continue to lag far behind the rest of China, provoking the ire of human rights advocates.”
One Tibetan I spoke to said that the authorities had promised the train would make goods cheaper — food, for instance, is considerably more expensive in Tibet than in the rest of China. But due in part to recent inflation across the country, he said the price of goods has actually grown since the train began service. Migration
Soldiers in hard seats
Indeed, despite the train’s many precautions for the environment, it is the people of Tibet who are being railroaded fastest by the train’s promise of modernity. Critics have noted that the train greatly helps Beijing’s efforts to resettle millions of ethnic Han Chinese to Lhasa and other Tibetan cities, exerting even more control over a region it has ruled since a violent 1959 “liberation.”
Though China says that as of 2000 Lhasa was 81.6 percent Tibetan, locals I spoke to estimated that Chinese now make up half of the region’s population. As I wandered through the train, amidst the usual, wonderful throng of Chinese humanity, I conducted my own casual survey. It looked like between 5-10 percent of the passengers were Tibetan, while about the same number were dressed in official uniform, either police or military.
|Guarding the railway–but what about the other way around?|
From Beijing’s perspective, these soldiers are badly needed in a place where tensions between Chinese and Tibetans run higher than ever. The deadly protests that swept through Lhasa last March, killing between 19 and 80, depending on who you believe, are referred to throughout China by the simple date “3.14.” But one Tibetan I spoke to noted that the protests actually began on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. The military campaign that China waged in response resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama’s flight to exile in India.
This land is (also) our land
Since then, Tibet has undergone what Tibet’s spiritual leader calls “cultural genocide,” its people as vulnerable as the Native Americans were to European and American expansion. Besides tourists and soldiers, the railway is ferrying in hordes of Chinese workers who are encouraged by tax breaks and other incentives to participate in and contribute to Tibet’s runaway growth.
I was told that to take out a bank loan or conduct most business, citizens must speak Mandarin, which has already replaced Tibetan as the required language at Lhasa schools, and dominates nearly every sign in the capital. Monasteries are under varying levels of ideological control. Even Lhasa’s grand railway station carries a symbolism that’s hard to shake: it bears a striking resemblance to and is larger than the city’s Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s majestic home.
Meanwhile, the drive to extract natural resources is also having a powerful impact on Tibetan culture, which, like Native American tribal culture, venerates the land for more than economic or political reasons. As I noted after the March protests, Lhasa’s anger was deeply rooted in environmental concerns too.
GE’s sky locomotive
Despite sanguine government reports suggesting otherwise, tourism is also having a significant impact on the region’s long-cloistered culture. To be sure, tourists have become a lynchpin of the Tibetan economy, one that Beijing is and should be eager to support. Even before the train launched, tourism to the Tibetan Plateau had grown to 1.22 million in 2004, up from just 1,059 in 1980, when 95 percent of visitors came from abroad. In 2004, 92 percent were Chinese tourists. But last year, Tibet received 4 million tourists from both home and abroad, up 60 percent from 2006.
(Due to the protests — or the subsequent closure of Tibet to foreign visitors until June this year — tourism is down this year as much as 70 percent, according to state media. A new program to cut admission fees is meant to help boost tourism during the winter, a season which I’m told, despite rumors to the contrary, is a great time to see Tibet.)
But the hordes of tourists that will make the pilgrimage to Tibet over the next months and years will carry with them baggage more complex than state ideology or mythical impressions of this long-estranged land: like the train itself, they’ll be helping ferry Tibet into a globalized modernity. Given that, and putting aside the political issues — politics quickly fade away in the face of the region’s awesome natural wonders — a trip on the train to Tibet is one of the world’s most powerful lessons in responsible, or irresponsible, tourism.
For the government and tourists like us, the ride is impressive and captivating. But for Tibet, it will also be bumpier and less pretty than it looks from a train window.