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Aboard the Highest Train in the World: China's Railroad to Tibet

October 22, 2008

Alex Pasternack
The Huffington Post
October 21, 2008

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 this
amazing engineering feat is a blessing for Tibet -- or for those who
want to behold or 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.

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 ????). 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. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji
called it "an unprecedented project in the history of mankind," a
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.

All aboard

For me and my three travel companions, with whom I shared a
$150-per-bed soft sleeper cabin, this was certainly unlike any other
transit experience. At times, its impact was physical. 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 as the flow of oxygen provided a
calm, 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. 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 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.

Protecting wildlife

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 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 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.

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.

Resources

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' Western
railway did in 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 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.

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 landscape. The landscape outside the train 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."

Influx of People

Indeed, amidst the many self-congratulatory environmental precautions
of the train, 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 I conducted my
own casual survey. It seemed like between 5-10 percent of the
passengers were Tibetan, while about the same number were dressed in
official uniform, either police or military.

 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.

Cultural Genocide?

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.

Tourism

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. (Due to
the protests -- or the subsequent closure of Tibet to foreign
visitors until June this year -- tourism was down 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, 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: like the train itself, they'll be
helping ferry Tibet into global modernity. Putting aside the
political issues -- and 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.

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