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Journey To Top Of The World

People's Daily
January 22, 2007

One passenger suggested that if the train were to chug along for seven more hours, it would reach India. That was after China's newest marvel the Tibet Express or the Qinghai-Tibet train had heaved its way along the world's highest railroad to the roof of the world.

In July 2006, China linked the Tibet Autonomous Region to the rest of the country with this engineering miracle, which involved laying a 1,142-kilometer track through some of the highest and most inhospitable terrains. The peak was the pass into the Tibetan plateau rising to 5,072 meters, a height at which Qomolangma summiteers set up base camps. A little more engineering and some diplomatic miracles, and the train could very easily have been steaming into Nathu-La, a pass on the Indo-China border.

As part of a first group of Indian reporters, we boarded the train on an afternoon last August in Lanzhou, a northwestern Chinese city and one of the four from where the train originates. The others are Beijing and the cities of Xining and Chengdu.

China describes the train as a mammoth steel dragon zooming into Tibet a train touching the sky. That's almost true. About half the route is set on terrain frozen for most of the year and is called permafrost. Here, the tracks are set on reinforced foundations that remain stable only if the soil does. And to ensure that heat doesn't twist the tracks, there are 6-foot tubes filled with liquid ammonia along a 600-kilometer stretch keeping the soil cool by helping the heat escape.

I soon realised that the train is for those who believe that the journey is more important than the destination although in this case the end point is equally exotic.

As the train pulled out of Lanzhou, a buzzing industrial metropolis, the urban landscape faded along with the northern light. Soon, passengers were filing into the dining car and settling in with a beer, and some fried beans, tofu, boiled greens and sliced watermelons.

At daybreak, the train was already pulling into Golmud, a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert and the real starting point of the new high-altitude railroad. As passengers caught the morning rays and took pictures, an announcement warned them that from here on, the entire train would be pressurised and oxygen pumped in.

As the train heaved across the relentless green expanse, skirted by snow-capped peaks, cameras and binoculars were pulled out and people craned their necks. The train was entering the home of chiru, one of the most endangered antelopes, which have been killed for centuries to make shahtoosh shawls. And as the first chiru little larger than a spaniel of a flock was seen, a buzz went through the coach. "Here, look here."

The chirus disappeared quickly from the double-paned window frames as the digital display in the galley showed that the train had groaned all the way up to 4,500 meters. It was heading to its highest point called the Tanggula Pass, the gateway into Tibet at 5,072 meters, after crossing the Tuotuo River bridge, the genesis of the Yangtze River.

As another dusk settled in, one gazed out at the unending flat landscape with electric cables stretched all across from Central China to Tibet and dotted with communication towers, and wondered. These, and not just the mighty Olympic stadiums, the skyscrapers in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, are the real sinews of an emerging world power. All one had seen for hundreds of miles were yaks and Tibetan herders, yet cell phones in the train hadn't stopped jingling.

The author is an editor with The Times of India, a major Indian newspaper


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