With much publicity and drum-beating in local media, China announced last month
the completion of one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in its
history: the Qinghai-Tibet (or Qingzang) Railway (see map below), which
connects enclosed, remote
Tibet with the rest of China via the city of Golmud, in
The actual tracks have all been laid, officials said, although there will be
another 15 months of experiments and checks before the line opens to commercial
traffic in 2007.
A rail line linking Tibet with lowland China has long been an ambition of the
Chinese Communist Party, but the project faced
many hurdles, including technical, financial and political obstacles, and has
been delayed again and again over the past 30 years. Railway engineers from
Switzerland checked the terrain during the 1990s and declared the line "mission
impossible", but in 2001, Beijing
embarked on the project again, with the assistance of Russian scientists, and
began laying the tracks,
which are expected to dramatically change the face of Tibet.
A few statistics show the staggering scale of the project: The new line runs
1,142 kilometers, mostly through almost uninhabitable wilderness at more than
4,000 meters above sea level, with 30 kilometers of tunnels and 286 bridges.
The highest mountain pass en-route is over 5,000 meters above sea level. Over
70,000 workers, mainly Han Chinese from inland areas, were recruited for the
project, laying rail through some of the world's highest, most difficult
terrain - encompassing mountain ranges afflicted by dust and thunderstorms,
heavy snowfalls, earthquakes and landslides, and covered in a thick layer of
permafrost. It's little wonder, then, that
Beijing depicts the US$3.1 billion railway as one of the country's
greatest-ever engineering achievements.
The thick ice
But all is not quiet on the western front. This jaw-dropping accomplishment
raises many questions about the economic, political and environmental future of
Tibet, as well as doubts about the long-term feasibility of operating a railway
on such inhospitable terrain. The main technical challenge for China's railway
engineers was permafrost (earth which remains frozen year round). About half
the length of the railway was built over permafrost zones, in which the
uppermost layer (called seasonal frost) thaws in summer. The many bridges with
foundations sunk deep into the ice are meant to overcome this problem by
keeping the rail line stable throughout the seasons and changes in ground
Another technique, invented specifically for the Qingzang project, is the
"slab-stone ventilation system" developed by Chinese scientist Zhang Luxin, in
which parts of the line are built on large slabs intended to allow cool air to
circulate and thus prevent the upper layer of permafrost from thawing. "The
technique sounds like a logical way to deal with permafrost," says Norwegian
Railway museum researcher Hans Schaefer, who's been taking repeated trips to
China to research the Chinese rail system, "but it [has] never [been] done
before and we'll just have to wait and see whether it works".
Other railways were built on ice in Siberia and Scandinavia, Schaefer explains,
but due to the southern location and high altitude of Tibet, the scorching
summer sun causes a much greater amount of the seasonal frost to thaw than is
the case in these northern areas, which can bring changes of up to 2 meters in
ground level. Even with all the technological efforts, it has been reported
that the railway is already unstable, and will require a continuous and
enormously costly maintenance effort to remain open.
Environmentalists have expressed unease with the railway and its manner of
dealing with permafrost. Tibet is one of the regions most affected by global
warming. With or without a railway, the plateau is melting away, as a recent
Greenpeace report put it, which will make the railway even harder to maintain
by exacerbating the seasonal melting problem.
Admittedly, the Chinese government has been paying much attention to the
environmental issues, for example, by planting vegetation on the barren land to
cool the ground and prevent the permafrost receding, and also taking care to
build underpasses under the railroad to allow animals to migrate across the
track. The main fear of environmentalists, however, is the influx of people and
goods the railway is expecting to bring into Tibet, a tide that may place heavy
socioeconomic pressure on the roof of the world.
Taming the wild
The rail link between China and Tibet will bring with it many economic and
cultural changes: welcomed by some, and feared by others. Lhasa, the capital
city of Tibet and once the sacred seat of the Dalai Lamas, now contains more
shops, high-rises, roads, and Han people - the ethnic Chinese who, despite
Beijing's denials, are now estimated to constitute an absolute majority in the
city. There is no denying that Lhasa's economic situation has improved greatly
during the past few years: more businesses are being opened, greater numbers of
tourists pass through and more money is flowing in, especially in government
The question is, to whom is all the money going? Government statistics from
2003 show Tibet to be the second-ranking province in China when it comes to
wages of state workers. This includes cadres in the local government, and also
the railway workers, both skilled and unskilled.
These workers are mainly Han Chinese. Despite government efforts to qualify
more Tibetans, about 80% of ethnic Tibetans still live in the countryside, and
an additional quarter are still nomads. For these people, argue Tibetan human
rights activists, the rail link simply means further marginalization, and less
"On the surface, it looks like Tibet is going to benefit from the railway,"
said one Tibetan intellectual who asked to remain anonymous, "but in fact, I
believe it'll hurt the Tibetan people. Already, fluency in Chinese is almost
essential for getting a job in Lhasa and other towns in Tibet. Chinese
immigrants are taking over jobs traditionally done by Tibetans, so the economic
situation for many Tibetans not only hasn't improved, it has worsened, and is
expected to worsen further with the great wave of Han immigration that will
start with the completion of the railway."
She is a frail, soft-spoken woman, a graduate from one of China's finest
universities who speaks passionately for the Tibetan people. "The few cities in
Tibet appear to be prosperous, but go only fifty kilometers out of Lhasa, and
living conditions are appalling by any standard. Not enough money is allocated
for education; Tibetan youths are being marginalized and discriminated against
in their own country. They face a grimmer future than ever."
The key problem, she says, is that of participation. "Just as they're building
underpasses for animal migration under the railway, the government is trying to
make us Tibetans walk down a certain, narrow path. Ever since the Chinese
occupation [began] in 1950, Tibetans were never asked whether, or in what way,
they want to see their country developing. Even now, with more economic freedom
and more money coming in, the human rights situation in Tibet is still very
bad. This year, some people in Lhasa were detained for the sole 'crime' of
watching a Dalai Lama lecture on DVD. Tibet needs real autonomy, not just
economic benefits," she concludes.
This view, however, is hardly shared by all in Lhasa. Small business owners,
Han and Tibetans alike, are looking at the railway with mixed feelings of
anticipation and suspicion. The railway is expected to bring many tourists and
business people to Lhasa, helping local small enterprises and providing more
job opportunities. Prices of goods will probably go down with easier, cheaper
"Many people believe the railway will accelerate the current opening-up and
globalization trends in Tibet," said Arthur Holcombe, president of the US-based
Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund. "This will mean an increasing flow of lower
cost consumer and durable goods to Tibet, making them available to broader
segments of the Tibetan population living in urban and rural areas. The railway
is also likely to stimulate increased growth and job opportunities along its
route in such places as Amdo, Nakchu and Damshung Township areas, as well as in
Lhasa," Holcombe added.
The big winner, it seems, will be the growing middle class in Lhasa, although
many Lhasa residents worry about the modern ailments the rail link may bring in
along with its benefits. Crime and prostitution, already mushrooming at the
other end of the rail track, in Qinghai province, are winding their way into
the once pristine plateau. Air pollution, so far unheard of, is expected to
rise with the coming of more factories and cars. Whilst even the Dalai Lama's
administration in India acknowledges the need for infrastructure development in
Tibet, many feel the rights and wishes of common people are not being fully
Is the economic miracle going west?
In spite of all the efforts, it is debatable whether truly large-scale
investments will ever reach Tibet. Many analysts argue the area is simply too
remote, too backward and distant from major industrial centers to attract
investors. The only industry universally expected to leap forward is tourism.
The "roof of the world", with its stunningly beautiful landscape and unique
Buddhist culture, has certainly got a lot to offer to both foreign and Chinese
sightseers, and the railway, once operational, will definitely make the trip
The ride, China railway's brochures promise, will be a luxurious one with
private toilets and showers in each car, and windows offering panoramic views
of the Kunlun mountain range. The cars, to be built by Bombardier
Transportation of Canada (which has attracted criticism for its participation
in the project), will even be pressurized to protect lowland passengers from
altitude sickness, and outfitted with UV-protection systems to prevent sunburn.
No doubt, many middle-class Chinese, who are enthusiastic travelers inside
their own country, and have more money than ever to spend on vacations, are
looking forward to the trip.
Another benefit, almost certainly more important from the government's point of
view, is easier access for military troops to secure both Tibet itself and the
borders with India and Nepal. Tighter military control, alongside Chinese
immigration prompted as the Chinese version of "go west, young man", might
finally integrate Tibet, for decades a thorn in China's side, into the fast
Of course, many foreign journalists, as well as "free Tibet" activists, see
this, rather than economic development, to be the main objective behind the
mammoth rail project. Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, author of The Dragon in
the Land of Snows, said in a 2002 interview: "Tibet's natural economy
faces westwards towards south Asia; Beijing wants to tie it firmly eastwards
with China and to encourage more migration from the interior".
But this is not the whole story, either. As in other areas of western China,
one of the main objectives of the Qingzang rail link is improving access to
some of the natural resources buried under the frozen land. Tibetan uranium,
especially, is important for China's future nuclear programs. Oil, gold, and
other minerals will be loaded on the rail cars to be shipped east to the
booming coastal economy. It seems that, yet again, investments in the west
mainly contribute to the already flourishing east, leaving millions of local
residents in wretched poverty with an ever-slimmer chance of improvement.
The Chinese-educated Tibetan woman feels the pain of her people, but sees
little chance for any change. "The Tibetans have been weakening ever since the
Fifties. They're losing their culture and traditional way of life, and are
offered little in return. I'd like to see China adopting the Dalai Lama's
'Middle Path' philosophy, and moving towards real dialogue and real autonomy
for Tibet, but I don't see this happening under the current regime."
To judge by her words - and the sad look in her eyes - it seems like the thud
of the coming trains is also an announcement of a new era for the Himalayan
region, and possibly the beating of funeral drums for traditional Tibet.
Rui Xia is a Western teacher and freelance writer living in China. Rui
Xia is her unofficial Chinese name.