Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Railway in the Clouds

By Richard Spencer in Kunlun Mountains
The Daily Telegraphy; London, 30 June 2006

When Locomotive T27 shuffles out of Beijing's West Station tomorrow on a 2,500-mile journey to the roof of the world, China's 50 year-long colonisation of Tibet will be complete.

Rolling across the snow-lined grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, T27 will inaugurate the world's highest and most ambitious railway, the latest triumph of the Communist Party's use of giant engineering projects to transform China's economy and make its mark on the world.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway: the world's highest.

At a cost of £2.3 billion, it will join Tibet to the rest of China by rail for the first time, and that may not be the end of it. The government is proposing to extend the line to the Indian border, and even, possibly, to extend it over the Himalayas, connecting to the world a place that was once a byword for remoteness.

The party says that with the trains will come development for the Tibetan people, the country's poorest.

Many Tibetans welcome this, but also fear that it will speed up an influx of ethnic Chinese, drowning their valued but fragile culture.

"Many people protest this project," said Tsering, 28, a Tibetan student. "How can people preserve their culture when the railway is bringing so many people in?"

"In education already you have to speak Chinese, to get a job you have to speak Chinese, to study you use Chinese. We Tibetans are like a bird in a cage."

Demonstrations are planned outside Chinese embassies around the world over the weekend. But there will be little trouble in Tibet, with reports of a heavy army and paramilitary presence in the capital, Lhasa.

The new stretch of the railway begins in Qinghai, a separate Chinese province that was once a part of Tibet, with the existing track extending all the way back to the Chinese capital, Beijing, a 48-hour journey from Lhasa.

First proposed in 1950, even as the People's Liberation Army was sweeping through the Dalai Lama's feudal territory and bringing it under Communist power, the line reached Golmud, western Qinghai, in 1984.

But taking it through the 20,000ft Kunlun Mountains of the plateau, over its 16,000ft passes, and across its permafrosted grasslands was seen as just too difficult.

That was until 2001.

With the first stage of the Three Gorges Dam nearly complete, the engineers who play such a prominent role in Chinese political life set their sights on a new target.

And just as the Americans tamed the Wild West with railways and settlers (and brothels), so the railway is bringing China's Tibet into its cultural mainstream. Lhasa is already full of Chinese, with Chinese-style buildings, businesses, and entertainment.

The railway's technical achievement, assuming it works, is staggering.

Engineers have built 50 miles of bridges and tunnels, nearly all above 13,000ft. The highest pass is at 16,640ft.

The train cars, manufactured by Canada's Bombardier Inc, had double-paned windows with ultraviolet filters to protect people from the sun's glare and were designed to regulate oxygen levels as the altitude changes, said Zhang Jianwei, Bombardier's China representative.

Mr Zhang said passengers who experienced breathing difficulties at high altitudes could breathe air with richer oxygen content provided at various locations in the coaches.

There was some dispute over whether or not passengers would be allowed to smoke in the oxygen-enriched trains.

Much of the land has a layer of permafrost under the surface, and is particularly subject to global warming. To equalise temperatures, the railway is relying on a system of metal posts half buried in the soil, which will rise and fall and channel heat to the surface.

It has come at a cost.

The government says that none of the 40,000 workers died of altitude sickness, but locals say at least 100, maybe many more, were killed in accidents.

"A dozen or more people died here in 2004," said a worker named Ma at one of the clinics lining the road across the plateau.

The railway has military as well as economic benefits. Tibet has become China's most overtly militarised region, as could be seen from the convoys of up to 80 army trucks travelling this week across the plateau, fresh from resupplying the garrisons.

This is partly to ensure security -- there have been major uprisings against Chinese rule, the last, in the late 1980s, ending with a declaration of martial law by Tibet's then party secretary, Hu Jintao.

Mr Hu rose to become party leader and is expected to declare the new railway open tomorrow, on the 85th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has backed the railway, but with reservations. "Cultural genocide is taking place," he said last year. "In general, a railway link is very useful in order to develop, but not when politically motivated to bring about demographic change."