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Over The Roof of The World

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/12/18; December 18, 2001.]

Kate Price

International Construction, Dec 1, 2001.

PLANS to connect China and Tibet by rail were initially discussed during the 1950s, but were shelved due to the massive technological and physical challenges posed. Large belts of continually shifting permafrost, swamps and high peaks are the main features of the Tibetan landscape, and it was feared that China would be unable to meet such harsh topographical challenges. In fact, some doubts still remain whether these natural obstacles will be too much for technology even today.

Inner Tibet is currently the only Chinese region without a rail link. However, in March of this year the final route was agreed, extending the existing line from Golmud, in the northwestern province of Qinghai, into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. When completed in 2007, this line will amount to a total of 1,118km, incorporating a total of 30 tunnels and bridges - equating to 2.8% of the project.

There has been much speculation that the decision to construct the line is resting upon strong military and political objectives to cement Chinese rule over the Tibetan Plateau. Chinese officials say that the railway will offer an economic lifeline to Tibet and improve the lives of its people by bringing greater prosperity into the country. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was quoted as saying: "The railway will have great significance for accelerating economic and social development in Tibet, increasing economic and cultural exchanges between Tibet and the rest of the country - and reinforcing unity among various ethnic groups."

However, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, retaliated by saying: "The Chinese are setting up the railway tracks, but it is not for economic development. They have plans to transfer 20 million Chinese into Tibet. The purpose of the railway is basically to facilitate the transfer of population."

Kalon T.C. Tethong of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration in India also agrees: "The proposed Lhasa-Golmud railway line will mean that more Chinese settlers will swamp Tibet, and Tibet's untapped natural resources will find their way to China."

Despite the political implications of such a project, there are also huge environmental and logistical issues to contend with. The seven year project will be a laborious task, involving a workforce of over 30,000 physically manhandling the iron rails into place - 4km above sea level. Doctors consulting on the project are recommending that workers stay on the job for only four to six hours a day for no more than six months of the year due to the extreme altitude and freezing winters.

Crossing the Line

At an estimated cost of $2.34bil., the line will cross the Qinghai Plateau, which is known as 'the roof of the world'. Half of this single track railway will cover frozen earth, which planners hope to keep frozen with elaborate refrigeration systems and tunnels which circulate cold air. This experimental scheme has never before been used for a rail line - although it has been tried for housing foundations.

The Lhasa rail terminal will be built in the Liuwu township in the Toelung Dechen county, with a bridge linking the township to central Lhasa, which is situated on the opposite bank of the Kyichu River. The building is in line with Chinese plans to develop the area with 'high-tech' industry in a scheme known as the Liuwu New Area.

However, the challenge will not be over even when the line is completed - ordinary locomotives can only exert 60% of their full power at such a height, and passengers may experience difficulty breathing. Experts have predicted that airtight carriages which provide oxygen, similar to aeroplanes, are the answer, whilst 'plateau-illness' doctors will most certainly need to be present along the line.

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