The Qinghai Tibet Train

I’m in Lhasa,

The train was breathtaking… all 47 hours across 4,000 km’s … my travel companion, Mr Wang, woke me periodically through the night(s) to draw my attention to potential ‘photographic opportunities’… whispering ‘Moon’ or ‘Yak’ as he shook my shoulder… we would then both enjoy the glorious light on the snow, or shadowy herds as we passed across the vast plateau…

The new train has been running for three weeks and it wasn’t too difficult to get a Tibet Tourism Permit (TTP) to visit the ‘newly liberated autonomous region of Tibet’… two days negotiating with shonky tour operators in Xi’an and then a long wait at the railway station to buy train tickets…. Finally we passed through the police check point at the station and boarded the train… modern and clean, with bi lingual broadcasts informing us about the topography, the great feats of engineering and the issues associated with high altitudes…

“Ladies and gentlemen (the announcement crooned) smoking is really really bad for your health”… as a prelude to warning that the train would be ‘pressurized’ with pure oxygen as we crossed the highest mountain passes (Tanggula Pass, at 5,072 m above sea level the world’s highest rail track)… a soft hiss emitted from the many outlets as the oxygen was turned on…

The train slows to 120 km per hour when it reaches the Qinghai-Tibet section more than 960 km, or over 80% of the railway, is at an altitude of more than 4,000 m. There are 675 bridges, totaling 159.88 km, and over half the length of the railway is laid on permafrost.

From my window I marvel at the engineering feat which involved millions of rocks being placed on their sides in large diamond patterns, to shade the soil and prevent the permafrost from melting… and the kilometers of large steel posts containing special ‘freezing’ chemicals buried deep in the earth beside the tracks…

The Tibetan villages have squarish houses made from rammed earth or mud bricks, large perimeter walls surround animal enclosures and racks for drying grasses and stock feed… and the train track is lined with shepherds or families … looking in wonder and occasionally waving at the train… across the vast plains in the most remote areas you still see someone, off in the distance moving stock, the landscape is never completely empty…

I’m here just in time as the Chinese government plans to increase trains to 8 a day each way…. opening up the country to new technology and innovation (you understand the benefits of liberation) … a bitter sweet feeling of exhilaration and dread as you recall the icy creeks downstream from the villages beginning to ‘clog’ with plastic waste and observe the first changes as a countries values move from a spiritual to an economic base….

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