The Railway Across the Roof of the World

They said it couldn't be done. The miles-high terrain of the Kunlun Range seemed no place for a railroad, yet the Chinese government forged ahead with plans for a route to the furthest reaches of Tibet. The 48-hour journey from Golmud to Lhasa, along the soon-to-be completed rail line, represents an opportunity for growth as well as a potentially dangerous expansion of China's influence and economic strategies. Though even the most remote outposts in Western China are now hubs for development, Tibetans remain ambivalent. Some see it as a politically charged move that will reignite tensions over control of Tibet; others praise the increased connectivity to China and other lands in East Asia. The railroad may modernize Tibet's rural, semi-isolated culture and agrarian economy; however, Tibet's longtime environmental, cultural, and political ideals may prove unfortunate casualties of this progress. Such is the dilemma surrounding China's economic rise, writes Jonathan Watt: The nation's developmental ambition produces undeniable feats of engineering, but often at a steep price. –YaleGlobal

The Railway Across the Roof of the World

Jonathan Watts
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

'Aren't we Chinese great? They said it couldn't be done. And yet, we've not only done it, we've done it ahead of plan. No other country in the world could do this. Chinese people are so clever." We are two hours, several beers and half a roasted duck into a journey on the overnight express from Xining, travelling along the completed half of what will soon be part of the world's highest railroad - the 1,900km line from Xining across the Qinghai Plateau to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But my patriotic conversation partner, Wang Qiang, is just warming up on his favourite subject: China's engineering prowess.

"The new track follows the highway built by our soldiers in the 1950s. The terrain is so harsh that three of them died for every kilometre of road. You have to admire their spirit. But now, we've built the railway without the loss of a single life. Isn't China great?"

Wang, a stout and ruddy power factory worker from Hunan, is in the bunk two below mine. He is as keen to demonstrate the conviviality of China as he is to wax lyrical about the country's strength. As well as cracking open a bottle of beer and sharing his food, he offers a packet of Dongfanghong cigarettes - "I smoke these because it was Mao's favourite brand" - and travel advice: "Actually, there isn't much in Qinghai. It's full of police and soldiers, but we have very good public order."

Wang is one of about 60 passengers squeezed into a "hard sleeper" carriage as our overnight train rattles towards the sunset, passing a half-formed rainbow, the world's largest saltwater lake, hillsides quilted with yellow rape seed and the occasional white Tibetan yurt.

With a couple of hours left until lights out, my fellow travellers are looking for ways to kill time and forget the cramped and smoky conditions. Some play cards, others sing with their children, a curious few chat with a Tibetan monk. And when that entertainment runs out, several attempt to talk to me.

They are engagingly friendly. A family from Xining pours a pot of instant noodles and offers sightseeing tips. Two young sightseers from Hong Kong share their herbal remedies for altitude sickness and talk enviously about the mainland.

"There is an amazing can-do spirit in China these days," says Susan Hong, a maths teacher. "We used to have a bit of that in Hong Kong. But now we are so conservative compared to the mainland. Anything seems possible in China these days. It's very exciting."

As I get ready to turn in, Wang qualifies the level of his friendliness. "I am happy to share food and drink with you. We are friends with all countries now. Except Japan. If you were Japanese I would not share my food with you. And I would not let you sleep in the bunk above me."

Perhaps it is the lack of oxygen here at 3,000m above sea level or the frequent patrols by ticket inspectors, but I have trouble getting to sleep. Instead, my mind races across the day's contrasting impressions: the warmth of my fellow passengers, the sometimes scary nationalism of Wang, the can-do spirit.

China is a nation on the move. But should its economic growth be cause for alarm? Other nations have risen fast - Britain during the industrial revolution, the US at the turn of the century, and Japan during and after the 1960s. However, it took Britain 100 years to rise; 60 for the US and 30 for Japan. It seems China will be transformed in just a couple of decades. And it is not just the speed of change that is turning heads, but the scale.

China has the world's biggest population: 1.3 billion. Now those billions are travelling, earning and consuming more than ever before, and pessimists fear the world will be overrun by an eastern horde. Others, however, view China as the nation most capable of extending the limits of human civilisation in centuries to come. This is where development is progressing fastest. This is where the biggest risks are taken, where the impossible seems possible.

The railway to Tibet is one of the greatest symbols of that spirit. Since it was built in 1984, the route from Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province, to Golmud, the garrison town in China's wild west, has been the train to nowhere. No one, it was believed, could build a line any further across the Qinghai plateau, certainly not one all the way to Tibet. It was too bleak, too cold, too high, too oxygen-starved. Even the best Swiss tunnelling engineers concluded that it was impossible to bore through the rock and ice of the Kunlun mountain range.

If that were not enough, even the flats were filled with perils. A metre or so below the surface was a thick layer of permafrost; above this, a layer of ice that melts and refreezes with the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. How could anyone build a track on that? And how could a regular service be run in an area plagued by sandstorms in the summer and blizzards in the winter?

As the great train traveller Paul Theroux wrote in Riding the Red Rooster, these challenges are why the former Himalayan kingdom of Tibet - on the other side of the plateau - has remained unspoilt and so un-Chinese for so long. "The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa. That is probably a good thing. I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realised that I liked wilderness much more."

But that guarantee no longer applies. Next month - three years ahead of schedule - Chinese engineers will lay the final section of track on a line stretching to Lhasa, across the roof of the world. Test runs will begin on the new line next July and commercial services are scheduled to begin within two years.

Lhasa (3,650m above sea level)

The Tibetan capital is the obvious starting point if you want to understand what the railway will mean - for the Chinese and for the Tibetans. Just as in the US 100 years ago, the tracks are at the heart of a plan to consolidate central control over a wild west. The settlers are from China's Han ethnic majority rather than Europeans, and the natives are Tibetans rather than Cherokee, but Beijing's policy is just as much about the imposition of the dominant culture as it is about economic development.

Two years ago I joined a government-organised tour of this ancient city in the clouds, the home of Tibetan Buddhism. Lhasa was already starting to look like any other town in China, with broad roads, huge white-tiled buildings and multi-coloured street lamps in the shape of palm trees. It was a garish clash of two cultures - the modern materialism of China and the medieval spiritualism of Tibet. The railway, then two years into construction, looked certain to intensify this clash.

Tibetans seemed divided. For independence activists, the railway would open the biggest channel yet for the influx of soldiers, traders and other sources of materialist Han pollution. Tenzin Metok Sither, a spokeswoman for the Free Tibet Campaign, said it would add to the already tense political situation. "This is a highly strategic project that seeks to tighten Beijing's control over Tibet and will serve to further marginalise Tibetans economically and culturally."

Others, however, grudgingly acknowledge the good that the trains might bring. I was surprised to find a living Buddha make one of the strongest arguments in favour of the railway. "We've been too backward, too isolated for too long," said the lama, who asked that his name not be used. "The rest of the world is in the 21st century. We are still in the middle ages." A more predictable advocate was the governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Jampa Pahtsok. "It is unimaginable to have a high growth rate without a railroad."

Among the four or five unscheduled meetings I had with Tibetans, most were looking forward to the economic benefits the line is expected to bring: 2.5m tonnes of cargo and 1m tourists and business people. However, monks and worshippers expressed their worries that the environment and traditional spiritualism of the Tibetan minority were under threat.

The issues of two years ago are very much the issues of today. With the first train services now less than two years away, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader is increasingly worried about its impact.

"Some kind of cultural genocide is taking place," the Dalai Lama said earlier this month. "In general, a railway link is very useful in order to develop, but not when politically motivated to bring about demographic change."

The Tibetan dilemma is increasingly shared by other countries as the world tries to come to terms with China's rise. Everyone wants Beijing's money and goods; no one wants its ideas.

Economically, China's expansion is a storming success, with 9% growth for each of the past 25 years, lifting hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty, making a fortune for foreign manufacturers who exploit low-cost labour, pushing down supermarket prices across the globe, and boosting trade with other developing nations.

Environmentally and spiritually, however, it is a disaster. China's rivers are drying up, its cities are choked with pollution, the rural health-care system has collapsed and the cities are seeing record levels of suicide and stress. China is showing all the symptoms of modernity - only on a bigger scale and at a faster rate than the world has ever seen.

Xining (2,275m)

This summer, when I renewed my relationship with the railway across the roof of the world, my first stop was Xining, the first Chinese provincial capital that will be linked to Lhasa when the railway opens. This city is a garrison for the tens of thousands of troops and police needed to maintain order around this often troubled edge of the Chinese empire. Since the communists came to power in 1949, it has also served as a black hole, where the government buries its political and military secrets.

Xining is the headquarters for the network of penal camps spread throughout the province, where millions of criminals, dissidents and political opponents of the leadership have been "re-educated through labour". The Qinghai plateau's remoteness has also made the town an ideal development and testing ground for the military. Among the few tourist sights is a memorial to the factory that made China's first nuclear bomb.

For soldiers, Xining is a hardship posting. It sits in a bleak valley 2km above sea level, an altitude at which the brain and body start to struggle. On several occasions, Chinese troops based here have been sent to put down unrest in Tibet or to skirmish with Indian troops over the disputed area of Sikkim. But this is a time of unprecedented peace and development. Twenty years ago, there were almost no hotels or restaurants. Now there are dozens catering to an increasing number of business travellers, visiting officials and foreign tourists en route to Lhasa. While the main beneficiaries among the 270,000 population seem to be Han officials and businessmen, extra income is trickling down to Hui and Sala muslim restaurants selling lamb kebabs and mianpian noodles, and to the peddlers of Tibetan trinkets and medicine.

One of the beneficiaries of the boom is Buddhism. This was evident from the mix of materialism, spiritualism and political cheek at the Ta'er Si, one of the great Tibetan monasteries. Set in rolling green hills just south of Xining and famed as the home of living buddhas since the 16th century, it is attracting an ever-growing number of Han tourists. Their chatter and mobile phones disturb monks as they chant tantric scriptures ("During the peak season, there are almost as many tour guides as monks," complained one acolyte), but, as with the railway, the linking of materialism and spiritualism is not a one-way track.

Outside the monastery, the streets are filled with Buddhist wholesale shops (often run by Muslims) who offer bulk sales of robes, incense sticks, prayer wheels and beads. The customers are not tourists but monks, stocking up on paraphernalia to establish more monasteries. "This is a boom time for Buddhism in China," says Glen Mullin, the author of several books on the Dalai Lama. "Many of the monasteries that were shut down and destroyed during the cultural revolution are being rebuilt, along with new ones."

The thrice-daily service west from Xining to Golmud is as close to the roof of the world as a passenger can get on China's rail network. But when the new Qinghai-Tibet railway opens, this 800km-long line will be the penultimate leg on the 48-hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa.

Luxury trains are being built for the new track. They feature pressurised carriages to minimise the risk of altitude sickness and tinted windows to protect from strong ultra-violet rays. Canada's Bombardier has won the US$280m contract to build 361 cars, some of which will have deluxe sleeping compartments with individual showers, glass-walled sides to provide panoramic views, entertainment centres and gourmet dining areas, and toilets with sewage and waste-treatment systems. The cars will be pulled by diesel engines capable of maintaining an average speed of 100 kph, even at above 4,000m, when the thinness of the air can cut power by almost half.

The new train will be a world away from the crowded, smelly, smoke-filled carriage we boarded at Xining. The passengers were on narrow beds that climbed in three-tiers almost all the way to the ceiling. There was no dining car, only trolleys selling instant noodles that could be served from giant steel flasks provided for each set of six beds.

Golmud (2,800m)

We arrive in Golmud just after dawn. My Lonely Planet guidebook warns of a "forlorn outpost in the oblivion end of China". But that book was published five years ago. Today, development seems to be everywhere. Many of the roads and buildings look new, and there is a plethora of cranes and construction sites. The newest addition to this city of 200,000 people is a giant two-storey TV screen blaring out advertisements for cosmetics and electrical goods, such as would be seen in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai. The city has become more hospitable, too. There are four-star hotels that accept foreigners, along with neon-lit streets of restaurants, pink-lit "massage parlours" and gaudy karaoke bars.

With a few hours to kill, we visit the closest thing the city has to a museum. It is the former home of General Mu Shengzhong, who oversaw the construction of the Golmud-to-Lhasa road in the early 1950s to consolidate China's control over Tibet. When we arrive at the house, it is locked and all we can see through a window is a huge bust of General Mu in two otherwise empty rooms.

More profitably, we spend time with Zha Xi, a burly Tibetan from the Wild Yak Brigade. This rag-tag patrol of two dozen men was formed to fight off poachers threatening endangered species. Having at least temporarily won the battle against the poachers, they are now turning their focus to the development of eco-tourism on the Qinghai Plateau.

Over a bowl of noodles, Zha admits to mixed feelings about the rate of change in the area. "Overall, I think it is a good thing because this area is poor and isolated so people need more economic development. But it is bad for the environment. The railway is being built through the habitat of the Tibetan antelope. They are very timid animals and they have been scared off by the construction work."

Xidatan service station (4,350m)

It is no longer possible to ride the train. We are now ahead of the operational tracks. Engines are ferrying equipment up and down the route and we have to be content with a jeep ride along General Mu's bumpy highway. It is soon evident why so many people died during the construction of the road.

Soon after leaving Golmud, we hit the start of the Kunlun range. The craggy slopes on either side are so steep and barren that it is like driving through an alien planet. This is where engineers started blasting and building the first of the seven tunnels and 286 bridges on the 1,110km-long stretch of new line. At its maximum altitude in the Tanggula pass, the track runs 5,072m above sea level - higher than Europe's greatest peak, Mont Blanc, and more than 200m higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes, which was previously the world's most elevated track. The longest tunnel - at Yangbajin - stretches 3.3km. The longest bridge spans 11.7km over the Qingsui river.

Such awesome statistics are the scripture of China's materialism, evidence of the powerful gospel of scientific development. So is the speed at which the track has been laid, three years ahead of the original seven-year schedule. For the disciples of the economic miracle, this is further proof of how China is overtaking the US to become the country of bigger, higher, faster.

This ambition is apparent across the country, where Chinese engineers are building the world's biggest dam, the longest bridge and the tallest building. Two years ago, China joined the US and Russia as the only countries to put a man in space. Another will go up next month, and in 2007, the country plans to launch its first moon probe. But the railway across the top of the world is arguably the greatest example of the achievements and risks of this can-do spirit.

After driving for four hours, we stop to talk to some of the pioneers who have conquered the terrain at Xidatan, the first servicing station on the new line. Just completed, the small, brilliant-white building waits forlornly for passengers in the midst of a vast dirty grey plain of dust and stones. The nearest habitation is an exhaust-filled, rubbish-strewn strip of a dozen restaurants and a few petrol pumps. Perhaps the station's function is strategic - the plain is also home to an encampment of hundreds of green PLA tents, trucks and artillery pieces.

The station's current residents, however, are railway engineers who are looking forward to leaving. With the work almost complete, they are in good spirits, but they have faced treacherous conditions over the past four years. When Zhao Jianjun arrived from his native Shaanxi province, he needed oxygen to breathe. Working mainly on viaducts, he helped to push the work forward at the rate of a kilometre of track a day. But for five months every winter, work became impossible in temperatures that fell to -30C. Even in the warmer seasons, there were often snowfalls or hailstorms.

According to the Xinhua news agency and my patriotic friend Wang, no one has died of altitude sickness, but Zhao says the work has claimed several lives. It is something we hear on several occasions, though no one knows how many of the 38,000 workers on the project have perished from accidents or illness.

Kunlun Pass (4,776m)

From Xidatan, the railway climbs steadily towards Kunlun Pass. This is one of the great doorways to the top of the world. It is also the northern shore of a vast sea of permafrost that stretches more than 600km across the plateau towards Tibet and the Himalayas, prompting some to describe this area as the third pole of the world.

This barrier of ice and rock had been considered impassable, but China's scientists believe they have overcome the challenge. Their big technological breakthrough has been to insulate the track from the top level of ice, which thaws every summer day and freezes by night. On a normal line this would buckle the rails, collapse bridges and cave in tunnels. But for the new railway, engineers have pumped cooling agents into the ground so that the earth around the most vulnerable tunnels and pillars remains frozen and stable. It is not cheap. Largely because so much of the line has been built on viaducts rather than the semi-frozen surface, the budget for the railway is 26.2bn yuan (£1.8bn).

But even this ingenious and expensive solution may not be enough to protect the track from the worst hazard affecting the plateau: global warming. If current trends continue, Chinese climatologists forecast a 3.4C rise over the next half century, which would lead to a shrinking of the ice by more than 30%.

At the pass, we meet two Hui-minority railway construction workers who tell us the project is still bedevilled by the difficulty of securing firm foundations. "We have had to rebuild some of the stations because of permafrost damage," say the labourers. "The construction bureau is now discussing how to solve the problem."

If true, this would challenge official boasts that the most important technical challenge of the railway has been overcome. I was unable to confirm what damage had occurred. But there is more evidence that the railway's engineers are struggling to keep pace with the environmental damage wrought by global warming.

Temperatures in Qinghai Plateau are rising twice as quickly as in the rest of China. Luo Yong, deputy director of the National Climate Centre, estimates that the volume of ice on either side of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway has retreated by 12% since the 1960s. "By 2050, the safe operation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway will be affected if temperatures keep rising steadily as observed over the past decades," Luo warned at a recent symposium.

To get a sense of the environmental changes, we take our 4x4 vehicle off the road to see one of the biggest glaciers on the route - the wall of ice wedged between two peaks near Dongdatan. It is a hard drive across broken rock and rivers, then a short climb to the foot of the glacier. The bright sun has me sweating. But this is nothing compared with the deep rivulets that the heat has cut into the ice. As we draw closer, each crease in the ice proves to be a torrent of gushing water that has been locked solid for hundreds - possibly thousands - of years. The glacier is retreating.

There were signs of landslides too, both on the slopes and back on the road, where subsidence caused by melting foundations had brought down bridges and cracked and potted several stretches of the road. Global warming was not the only cause. Near Kunlun Pass is a monument marking the huge earthquake that struck the area four years ago. It measured 8.1 on the Richter scale - ripping a 7km crack through the earth. This railway is going to be even harder to maintain than it has been to build.

Wudaoliang (4,500m)

The climb to the glacier is beginning to take its toll. I should have known better. Throughout the journey, the effects of the altitude had become increasingly apparent. On day one, as soon we stepped off the plane in Xining, crisp packets burst and a bottle of suntan lotion splurged its contents into my bag. A few hours later, I could feel a faint muzziness behind the temples. The next day in Golmud, 700m higher, my pen started leaking over my notes. Even at Xidatan, I quickly ran out of breath even after a slow walk.

But with the help of medicine - western Diamox and Chinese Hongjingtian - I convince myself I have mastered the elements, so I rush up the last 100m to the foot of the glacier. At more than 5,000m - where the air contains less than half of the oxygen at sea level - I realise it is a stupid thing to do. I am soon paying the price. Back in the car, my head starts pounding, then the nausea sets it. Two hours later in Wudaoliang, I am throwing up by the side of the road. I recover only after squeezing a bag of oxygen through a tube into my nostrils. Adding insult to injury, just as I am retching, several elderly Chinese tourists trundle by serenely on bicycles en route from Golmud to Lhasa. Slow and steady, they show the alpine terrain the respect it is due.

But the fragile environment is also suffering. The further we progress alongside the track, the more obvious is the damage.

The roof of the world is leaking. Overgrazing has stripped off its thin grassy cover and global warming has burned through its liquid insulation. Between the rail and the road are puddles and pools of melted permafrost. On either side, herds of cows and sheep munch on blotchy patches of grassland and man-made barriers attempt to keep the encroaching sand dunes at bay.

Settlement and modernisation have brought the problem of non-degradable rubbish. Behind each cluster of buildings on the route - such as the small village-garrison of Wudaoliang - is a stinking pile of rotting bags, empty tins, plastic bottles and petrol cans. When I ask our driver how the refuse is disposed of, he laughs. "We leave that job to the wind and the rain and the dogs." Half of this region belongs to China's largest nature reserve.

This is the dark and dirty side of China's development. Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the environment, says the Qinghai Plateau and the western region of China are so ecologically stressed that they can no longer support their current populations. Because there is not enough space for them all to be resettled quickly, he estimates that the country will soon have more than 150 million environmental refugees.

The problems are evident throughout the country. When the railway is finished, travellers on the train from Beijing to Lhasa will pass through some of the most polluted cities and over-exploited farmlands in the world. Acid rain now falls on a third of the Chinese landmass. According to the World Bank, 16 of the planet's 20 worst polluted cities are in China.

Tuotuohe (4,200m)

Just downstream from that glacier, and far across an endlessly bleak plain, is our destination: the station at Tuotuohe, the biggest town between Golmud and the Tibetan border. It is the ultimate frontier community: a narrow strip of grubby buildings populated by a few hundred railway workers, soldiers, truck drivers and the providers of the services they seek - garages, restaurants, open-air pool tables, rough beds and a brothel. An endless stream of lorries roars through on the road that General Mu built.

We stay overnight in a grimy truckers' lodge. Over dinner at the Chengdu First Class Restaurant, I am too tired to even chat. We have reached the place where China's can-do spirit pushes people and the environment to the limit.

Just across the river, migrant labourers are rushing to finish the construction of a railway station. They are doing their part to achieve China's engineering miracle, but there is no pride, only relief. "I'm too tired to feel glad," says a welder from Xining who lives in a tent on the building site. "I have been here four months and I'm still not used to the altitude."

This is the end of the line for me. Ahead is another vast barren plain then the towering peaks of the Tanggula range, which mark the border with Tibet. The railway stretches forward, but I have seen its destination. It is time to head home.

On the way back, the clouds - seemingly close enough to touch - break in a fury, and the storm makes the stony, blotchy plains darker, damper and bleaker. The landscape looks as exhausted as the workers.

As the rain lashed down, I wondered who was to blame for the environmental disaster of the Qinghai Plateau. Certainly not only China. Global warming is a legacy of two centuries of industrial development in Europe, the US and Japan. But in doing the same thing on a bigger scale and at a faster speed, China has the capacity to make things much worse, much more quickly.

If railway tracks can spread the tools of modern technology and education to Tibet, the lifestyles of some of the poorest people in the world could be dramatically improved. If ideas are allowed to flow freely in both directions along the track, the meeting of Chinese materialism and Tibetan spiritualism could fill a gap at both ends of the line. And if, as some suggest, the tracks are extended further south to the border with Nepal and then on through the Himalayas to India, it could transform relations between the world's two most populous and fastest-growing economies.

Present trends, however, suggest a much bleaker future. Fifty years ago, when Qinghai Plateau was part of Tibet, it was a scantly populated wilderness. Now, under Beijing's control, it has become a land conquered and settled by Han engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. There are few grimmer examples of what Chinese-style development can mean for ethnic minorities and the environment.

In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005