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<-Back to WTN Archives China builds railroad on top of world (Chicago Tribune)
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Monday, July 30, 2001

3. China builds railroad on top of world (Chicago Tribune)

>From the Chicago Tribune
By Michael A. Lev, Tribune foreign correspondent
July 30, 2001

ON THE TIBETAN PLAIN ABOVE GOLMUD, China -- This country with a grand history of
politically motivated construction projects, from the ancient Great Wall to the
massive Three Gorges Dam work-in-progress, is challenging its engineers again,
this time at 16,000 feet above sea level.

Here, where the air is so thin that unacclimatized workers risk nose bleeds,
blackouts and death, the government is building the first railroad into Tibet.

It will be the highest and steepest train line in the world, and China's leaders
have dreamed impatiently of it for more than 30 years.

But it is a project so complex, risky and foreboding that teams of medical
specialists will follow every construction crew as they work their way past the
icy cold, uninhabitable peak.

Begun this summer and if completed in 2007 as China promises, the train track
across the top of the world will be a marvel of engineering and provide a
16-hour ride through 695 miles of desolate, beautiful landscape. It also will be
one of the most significant political acts in Beijing's 50-year effort to
control and assimilate Tibet.

Occupied by China in 1951, Tibet has remained protected to some degree from
China's influences because of its isolation. The main route to the capital,
Lhasa, is a 36-hour drive from the Chinese frontier town of Golmud or an
airplane flight too expensive for most Chinese to afford.

But when reachable by railroad, Tibet will become more solidly connected to the
rest of the country.

Tourism is expected to greatly increase; more ethnic Chinese probably will move
to Tibet's capital; business links, including Tibetan mineral mining operations,
will intensify; and Chinese troops can be transported there more easily.

This is China's vision, and this is the concern of some Tibetans, who have
struggled to maintain their ethnic and religious identities while under
communist Chinese control.

With the railroad, warned Tibet's government-in-exile in India, "Tibet itself
will go the way of Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, totally swamped with Chinese
settlers and completely Sino-cized."

China's perspective is slightly different, and some Tibetans, along with some
pro-Tibetan critics of the government, say they foresee enough improvements in
Tibet's standard of living that they support the project, or at least don't feel
they can reject it. After 50 years of Chinese development, Tibet still remains
one of the poorest regions of China.

Beijing estimates that the railroad will carry 5 million metric tons of goods
annually into Tibet, including consumer goods that now cost up to twice the
price of products elsewhere in China. It is expected to bring out 2.7 million
metric tons of cargo, much of it mineral extracts.

Beijing's ambitions

China's government has broad concerns about the lack of development in western
China. Incomes are far below those in the eastern manufacturing belts, and the
political challenges and pressures are far greater.

Much of China's ethnic minority population--about 7 percent of the country's 1.3
billion people--lives in the hardscrabble west. It is in places such as Buddhist
Tibet and Muslim-dominated Xinjiang that China faces the greatest challenges to
its legitimacy from restive indigenous groups such as Xinjiang's Uihgurs.

To improve standards of living and, as the government acknowledges, to
"strengthen ethnic unity," China is spending at least $3 billion on the railroad
and billions more on highways, energy pipelines, factories and other projects.

The government has called the package of heavy-duty development its "Go West
campaign." The slogan is an attempt to add marketing heft to its investment by
conjuring up a positive, evocative image to rally support at home and catch the
eye of foreign investors.

In the railroad project, China has the perfect, Western-friendly symbol for the
taming of its own wild west.

The barren landscape rising out of Golmud, a Chinese frontier boomtown of
200,000 people in obscure Qinghai province, is as flat, brown and dry as Death
Valley. Farther out, along the lower reaches of the Tibetan plateau, are narrow,
sandy mountain spires that bring to mind the desert highlands of Arizona.

Then the going really gets tough in terrain prone to earthquakes and landslides.
Past 10,000 feet, glacial snowpacks appear on distant hilltops and the air thins
dramatically. Most visitors experience shortness of breath, some get dizzy and
stone-footed, and work crew chefs need to use a special military-designed
pressure pot to cook rice.

Beyond, toward the train route's 16,000-feet apex, all is permafrost, and there
is a 50 percent loss of oxygen compared to sea level.

Train construction officials say the engineering challenges in designing,
building and operating the railroad include withstanding the high altitude,
preserving the environment and taming the permafrost, which softens and
undulates in summer, causing track to buckle.

A mighty challenge

One project manager, Zhang Xiu Li, described the Tibet train line as one the
greatest, or perhaps the greatest, design challenge in the history of railroads.

"In Russia, they have built on frozen ground," he said. "In the Andes, they've
built on a plateau. This is both."

After 30 years of study and testing, and still more to come, officials say they
know what they have to do.

To deal with the altitude, workers in good health will work shorter hours,
undergo daily monitoring from doctors, come down off the mountain every few
weeks. They will take a daily dose of Chinese medicine made from mushroom plants
that grow at 13,000, and they are forbidden to smoke cigarettes or drink

Construction will be limited to April-October, and temporary concrete factories
along the line will use a high-pressure manufacturing technique to produce
bridges and tunnels that won't crumble in winter.

Avoiding the permafrost

On the 350 miles of track that are to traverse permafrost, there will be as many
bridges and tunnels as possible to keep rail from touching unstable ground.
Where the tracks do rest on frozen earth, Chinese engineers have devised a
system in which underground piping will draw up cold air like a refrigerator to
prevent the permafrost from melting in summer. It is a system that has been used
on houses but never on train tracks.

Once the track is laid, engineers say, three diesel engines will pull each
train, and pressurized cars will protect passengers from the altitude.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Tibetan exiles vote for new premier (AP)
  2. China Jails 6 Tibetans On "Splittist" Activities (AP)
  3. China builds railroad on top of world (Chicago Tribune)
  4. Seminar on Tibetan Studies Concludes (PD)

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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