20 September 2005


The railway across the roof of the world

An extract from the Guardian on 16th September (DAY 3 OF OUR ACTION)

They said it was impossible to build a railway to Tibet. There were 5,000m-high mountains to climb, 12km-wide valleys to bridge, hundreds of kilometres of ice and slush that could never support tracks and trains. How could anyone tunnel through rock at -30C, or lay rails when the least exertion sends you reaching for the oxygen bottle? But that's the sort of challenge today's China relishes. Next month, three years ahead of schedule, more than 1,000km of fresh track will link the garrison town of Golmud in China's 'wild west' and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, strengthening the regime's grip on this troublesome corner of the empire and confirming its status as a technological superpower. Jonathan Watts travelled the route to create a snapshot of a nation on the move.

'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.

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