Asia Rising: China's Railway to Tibet

Even on her journey of a lifetime, Beijing official Yang Hong felt terrible. As the railway ministry's boss of dining services, she had to ensure that some 800 passengers on the inaugural Beijing-Lhasa train were adequately fed and watered. Her staff brought onboard 100 cases of water and soft drinks, 1,100 pounds of rice, and 3,000 wheat buns (especially for the last meals, when the air was too thin to boil rice.) Now near the highest rail station in the world—Tanggula Pass—Yang had a pounding headache due to the altitude. She rested her head on a dining-car table graced with orchids and carnations. One of her staff reported that, after delivering 500 boxed meals to passengers that morning, his feet had gone numb. All seven chefs were suffering from nausea. Slightly green around the gills, 26-year-old Zhang Weihua breathed in oxygen through tubes in his nostrils connected to a special wall outlet while slicing celery in a cramped kitchen packed with jumbled sacks of zucchini, carrots and yak meat. Yang moaned, "I’m suffering, but I must keep going." Suddenly her mobile phone burbled to life—and so did she. "I'm almost in Lhasa!" she crowed triumphantly into the phone.

The $4.2 billion railway to Tibet has caused its share of political headaches as well. Not long after communist soldiers marched into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1950, Mao Zedong dreamed of a railway to the roof of the world. (Mao liked trains; he often conducted rolling mini-Politburo meetings in special carriages staffed by comely female attendants.) But the Himalayan region is a restive place. Tibetans staged an abortive, CIA-encouraged uprising in 1959, during which Tibet's religious leader the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India, where he lives today. Although more recently he’s softened his tone, in the past the Dalai Lama had expressed fears that the Tibet railway might accelerate “cultural genocide” in his homeland.

Partly for these reasons, the railway to Lhasa didn't really get rolling until half a decade ago, when Chinese scientists discovered how to build a rail across 340 miles of permafrost on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. Around the same time, overseas activists from groups such as Students for a Free Tibet began mobilizing opposition to the project, for fear that it’ll accelerate environmental degradation, Han Chinese domination of the region's economy and cultural assimilation of the Tibetan ethnic minority. The day before my departure on the Beijing-Lhasa train, three foreign protestors were detained at the Beijing train station.

Security was tight for the first Beijing-Lhasa run. The 2,500-mile journey began late July 1, with the train becoming temporary quarters for tourists, officials and reporters who lugged onboard laptops, cameras, mobile phones, video-editing equipment, and logistics headaches that would create havoc on any train trip. And this was no typical voyage. The launch of the highest railway in the world was declared a "miracle" of modern engineering by Chinese president Hu Jintao as he cut the ribbon on the newly constructed sector linking the hardscrabble Qinghai city of Golmud to Lhasa. As we pulled out of Beijing, the surge of pride and patriotism among Chinese passengers was almost palpable. One Chinese passenger jabbered in the relentless glare of TV cameras, "I'm so proud that China could achieve what foreigners thought we could never do!" He was cozily ensconced in a first-class sleeper (four bunks and a flat-screen TV for $158 per person).

Around 40 foreign correspondents, organized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, settled into two second-class hard-sleeper carriages (bunks stacked three high, free slippers, about $100 per berth). Trying to stay powered-up in order to file was the biggest challenge on this midnight train to Lhasa. Two hours out of Beijing, every electrical socket had sprouted numerous electronic gizmos. Reporters sat on the floor near the washbasins, plugging laptops into shaver outlets. The bathrooms (two per carriage) were more modern than what you'd find on a normal Chinese train, as was just about everything else. Still, squat toilets and swaying, lurching train cars were a challenge for many. (A few colleagues who discovered a spacious handicapped bathroom with a proper sit-down toilet in a different carriage kept the secret to themselves).

On the other hand, the 500-some tourists aboard were easy prey for prowling reporters. As the train hurtled westward in the dark, I wandered back to the hard-seat section, where passengers had to sit in high-backed seats for the entire 48-hour journey ($49, and by the end of the trip some were snoozing on the floor). Some travelers were Tibetan students returning home, such as Baima Guzhu, a 27-year-old student at Beijing's Minorities University. "The train means more competition for jobs back home, and I'm a little concerned about that," he says, "but Tibet needs to open up. It's been closed for too long. We need a lot of development to raise the standard of living." He acknowledges that the influx of Chinese tourists and migrant workers into Tibet "will be a blow to Tibetan culture. But that would happen anyway."

The next day I fled to the refuge of the dining car. There John Liu, a China-born bio-medical scientist who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., says he’d managed to snag a soft-berth ticket while visiting relatives in the Chinese capital. “I had to go; I don’t even have a hotel reservation in Lhasa. Maybe I’ll just sleep in the train station.” Liu (no relation to me) echoed the thoughts of the Tibetan student: "It's impossible to keep Tibet the way it was 1,000 years ago. I bet you'll be writing that Chinese migrants dominate the economy of Tibet. ...Well, even in Beijing a lot of the hard work is done by migrant workers from Sichuan and other provinces. So they're changing people's lives in Beijing, too, not just in Tibet."

Every train has its eccentrics. This one had Ivor Warburton, a British "train geek" who’s worked with railways for three decades. For him the Beijing-Lhasa trip was "a wow moment." But it was business as well as pleasure. Warburton and two expat colleagues are with Railpartners, a firm involved in a deal that would bring luxury on wheels to the high Himalayas. By early 2008 (in time for the Beijing Olympics) they hope to roll out the top-class Tanggula Express, a five-day Beijing-Lhasa rail extravaganza replete with private bathrooms, picture windows, all-you-can-drink mini-bars, satellite TV, broadband, and a German-built butlers’ station just down the hall (about $1,000 a day, ground excursions included). "The opening of the railroad to Tibet has opened interest in luxury ... Of course you can go to Lhasa by plane, but a plane gives no sense of Tibet’s place in the world,” he said. “Here, you’ve got a continuous story rolling past your window."

Warburton carried with him a well-thumbed list of all the stations our train would pass through, and he jotted arrival times at each one. That’s how I knew we were arriving earlier and earlier at each stop—my first hint that we’d stop nearly an hour (about 5:30 a.m. Monday) ahead of schedule at Golmud in Qinghai province, which marks the beginning of the newly inaugurated bit of track. Not content with making the trains run on time, the gaggle of jittery Chinese railway officials on board were clearly intent on making them run ahead of time—to ensure we didn’t arrive late.

By day three, the journalist entourage was looking downright disheveled. At Golmud, rail officials turned on the oxygen to ventilate our carriages. It was a high-tech effort to minimize the effects of high altitude sickness, which can bring on fatal cerebral or pulmonary edema. (I was taking the drug Diamox to combat altitude sickness, and suffered just a mild headache). The thin air left other casualties: potato-chip bags exploded, ink pens leaked, some laptops and an iPod died. A medical team bustled through my carriage a few times, apparently ministering to people who’d begun to feel ill. “After he throws up, he’ll feel better,” one of them muttered to a colleague. At one point a mechanic grasping a plunger—never a good sign on a train—scurried past. So many passengers were turning green that officials held a “security meeting” as the train approached the 16,640-feet Tanggula Pass—the high point of our trip in more ways than one. To our disappointment, they decided not to let us get out of the train, for health reasons. A dozen police lined up and saluted the train as it passed.

But the train aficionado Warburton was right: Scenes rolling past our windows (coated with UV protection) were unforgettable. Snow-capped peaks of the Kunlun mountain range rose out of the hostile Gobi desert. The sky looked impossibly blue. Herds of Tibetan gazelle and wild donkeys scampered away from the train, or simply regarded it curiously. Chubby golden marmots popped out of burrows (a running commentary on the PA system informed us, helpfully, that marmots carry bubonic plague).

At one point, we noticed that every 150 feet or so, a lone member of China’s armed police stood ramrod straight not far from the track, sometimes saluting the train, sometimes facing away from it, always at attention. As we got closer to Lhasa, the uniforms got spiffier, including helmets and bullet-proof vests. This succession of solitary figures saluting our train in the middle of high-altitude nowhere was truly surreal. (“They’re protecting the railway,” explained a foreign ministry official. Protecting against what? “I don’t know.”) We also passed hundreds of dark green military vehicles in convoy, a reminder of the heavy People’s Liberation Army presence in Tibet, and its role in national defense.

We arrived in Lhasa’s Liwu station several minutes early. After sitting in the bubble of the train for two days, passively taking in images of gamboling yaks and plague-carrying rodents and saluting policemen, we were rudely ejected into the hustle and bustle of terra firma. A welcoming party of young Tibetan women scurried about trying to place traditional white scarves, or hada, around our necks. Some journalists were desperate to get to the hotel, since mobile-phone signal and GPRS internet connections had been fleeting at best during the trip.

A handful of us commandeered a vehicle arranged by local officials, to make a quick exit from the crush of departing passengers, luggage, white scarves and souvenir picture-taking on the platform. Thirty seconds later, we found our escape blocked by a locked police car. Inspired by the can-do spirit of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, we decided to push the vehicle out of the way. “Don’t exert yourself, you’ll get out of breath; it’s dangerous,” warned a ministry official, who quickly added with a smile, “and this is a criminal activity.” We heave-hoed and miraculously shoved the heavy SUV about 30 feet, allowing our car to pass.

Compared to my previous trips to Lhasa, the streets seemed much more jammed with muscular SUVs, shiny new hotels and karaoke parlors. Not far from the legendary Potala Palace, home of the exiled Dala Lama, a transmission tower on top of the holy Medicine Hill is now draped with gaudy red neon lights. We arrived at a comfortable three-star hotel, its lobby graced with a glittering crystalline ornament shaped like a gigantic gold ingot. Shortly after midnight, many of us—including me—received phone calls in which a soft female voice asked in Chinese, “Do you want a massage?” (A frequent phenomenon in western China, this sort of thing is often just thinly disguised prostitution.) For better or for worse, the new railway on the roof of the world will undoubtedly play a role in making Lhasa more and more like just another Chinese city.