04/17/2009 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Aboard the Highest Train in the World: China's Railroad to Tibet

Even after less than a handful of hours of sound sleep, I awoke with a start just before my alarm sounded. Suddenly, the vents began to emit a steady woosh -- oxygen being piped in to assist our breathing at some 2700 meters above sea level. When I looked down from my bunk
bleary-eyed, the T27 train from Beijing to Lhasa was still rolling through black night. I had awoken for the sunset, but then realized my mistake. Tibet, like all parts of China, was on Beijing time, but we were far from the capital -- and from everything, it seemed. As I lay awake waiting for a sunrise still hours away, I pondered the symbolism: out here, Beijing controlled even the clocks. To many this amazing engineering feat is a blessing for Tibet -- or for those who want to behold or control its remote landscape. But it is also a curse, some say, for the place it's meant to serve. As we barreled into the mysterious region, half a year after capital Lhasa was beset by deadly political turmoil, I wondered how the train was changing Tibet.

China's -- and the world's -- reach to the highest plateau on earth grew in summer 2006 with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Qingzang Tielu 青藏铁路). An engineering marvel that China itself once ruled impossible, the $4.2 billion line traverses an region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure. Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called it "an unprecedented project in the history of mankind," a boast that for once, wasn't hyperbole. But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world's longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags.

All aboard

For me and my three travel companions, with whom I shared a $150-per-bed soft sleeper cabin, this was certainly unlike any other transit experience. At times, its impact was physical. Although she had been preparing for the elevated trek by taking altitude-sickness pills, one friend sunk into her bunk at the whim of pounding headaches. Her bags of snacks, inflated to the verge of bursting, registered the lower air pressure as the flow of oxygen provided a calm, steady background noise.

Still, while everyone had warned us about the nasty effects of a sudden rise in altitude -- and a handful of people curled up in the cheap hard seat section
looked like they were feeling it -- I barely felt any effects. Perhaps I was distracted by the stunning view.

There wasn't much else to draw our attention. The LCD TVs set into the wall at the foot of every bed weren't working, at least not in my cabin, which was probably a good thing if the snatches of cheesy music were any indication. The dining car offered up costly, unremarkable food (about $2.50 for a set lunch). The bathrooms were thankfully not dirty, as they are wont to be on a 2-day train ride, but most were of the squat,
not sit, variety. There were no showers, and no luxury sightseeing car, though a $1,000 per-person train, now postponed, is meant to include both of those things.

Protecting wildlife

At night, entertainment came by book (I tried to get a copy of The Snow Leopard, but Midnight's Children would do) and laptop (there's a standard Chinese outlet in each soft sleeper cabin and along the hallways of each car). One night we watched Kekexili, a hypnotic 2004 film by Lu Chuan that tells the true story of a ragtag militia that protected the endangered Tibetan antelope from vicious poachers.

Conservationists have warned that the train would pose an even greater threat to this treasured species. The film's title refers to the region in the historically Tibetan province of Qinghai where the antelope give birth -- and where the railroad threatens to keep them from going.

But as voices in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) frequently reassured us over the public address system, authorities have gone to great lengths to mitigate the train's impact on the fragile environment, at a cost of around $192 million.

Wildlife researchers helped engineers install over 30 passageways that would allow the migrating antelope and other animals to pass beneath the train (see one on Google Earth). Despite an uneasy start and a scandal over a faked 2006 photograph that purports to show antelope and train in harmony, some Chinese researchers say that the animals have actually adapted to their new steel neighbor. In a letter to the journal Nature detailing their findings, the Beijing-based researchers with the government-sponsored Academy of Sciences say that 98% of the antelopes have managed to migrate in spite of the train.

Other successful precautions include the introduction of dozens of man-made swamps to replace swampland and endemic plants destroyed by the train, and the storage of waste onboard until the train reaches collection points, rather than leaving waste on the tracks. A US Embassy report tells of workers halting work to accommodate migrating antelope.

But embassy officials recorded no instances of rolling up and preserving grass, as authorities promised. Meanwhile, nomads and herders who live near the tracks have complained that they received minimal compensation for their ruined farmland.


Some point out that the train was intended as much for transporting people as for carrying valuable natural resources from Tibet to the rest of resource-hungry China, much as the United States' Western railway did in the 19th century. The resource riches of Tibet's pristine landscape alone seem reason enough for China's leadership to be interested in building more links to the region. One survey on the Tibetan Plateau found that the area contains more than 10 billion tons of oil, and preliminary estimates show the plateau has reserves of 30 million to 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc and billions of tons of iron, according to the China Geological Survey Bureau. The rich-iron find could alleviate China's massive dependence on iron-ore imports, which it needs to build factories and cars, while the copper lode in the environmentally sensitive Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge could turn it into the country's largest copper mine.

Last year, Zhang Hongtao, deputy director of the bureau, told the Xinhua News Agency that a new discovery of minerals on the plateau, potentially worth $128 billion, was "significant to regional economic development but China will give priority to protection over exploitation of these mineral resources." Still, the Gold Rush cannot be good for the landscape. The landscape outside the train looked immaculate, but occasionally I saw evidence of new factories or mines growing along the route. And as Fortune reported last year, while "a fresh set of satellite images on Google shows a large increase in road construction branching off the new railway route, education and health care spending in Tibet continue to lag far behind the rest of China, provoking the ire of human rights advocates."

Influx of People

Indeed, amidst the many self-congratulatory environmental precautions of the train, it is the people of Tibet who are being railroaded fastest by the train's promise of modernity. Critics have noted that the train greatly helps Beijing's efforts to resettle millions of ethnic Han Chinese to Lhasa and other Tibetan cities, exerting even more control over a region it has ruled since a violent 1959 "liberation." 

Though China says that as of 2000 Lhasa was 81.6 percent Tibetan, locals I spoke to estimated that Chinese now make up half of the region's population. As I wandered through the train I conducted my own casual survey. It seemed like between 5-10 percent of the passengers were Tibetan, while about the same number were dressed in official uniform, either police or military.

From Beijing's perspective, these soldiers are badly needed in a place where tensions between Chinese and Tibetans run higher than ever. The deadly protests that swept through Lhasa last March, killing between 19 and 80, depending on who you believe, are referred to throughout China by the simple date "3.14." But one Tibetan I spoke to noted that the protests actually began on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. The military campaign that China waged in response resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama's flight to exile in India.

Cultural Genocide?

Since then, Tibet has undergone what Tibet's spiritual leader calls "cultural genocide," its people as vulnerable as the Native Americans were to European and American expansion. Besides tourists and soldiers, the railway is ferrying in hordes of Chinese workers who are encouraged by tax breaks and other incentives to participate in and contribute to Tibet's runaway growth. I was told that to take out a bank loan or conduct most business, citizens must speak Mandarin, which has already replaced Tibetan as the required language at Lhasa schools, and dominates nearly every sign in the capital. Monasteries are under varying levels of ideological control. Even Lhasa's grand railway station carries a symbolism that's hard to shake: it bears a striking resemblance to and is larger than the city's Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's majestic home.

Meanwhile, the drive to extract natural resources is also having a powerful impact on Tibetan culture, which, like Native American tribal culture, venerates the land for more than economic or political reasons. As I noted after the March protests, Lhasa's anger was deeply rooted in environmental concerns too.


Despite sanguine government reports suggesting otherwise, tourism is also having a significant impact on the region's long-cloistered culture. To be sure, tourists have become a lynchpin of the Tibetan economy, one that Beijing is and should be eager to support. (Due to the protests -- or the subsequent closure of Tibet to foreign visitors until June this year -- tourism was down as much as 70 percent, according to state media. A new program to cut admission fees is meant to help boost tourism during the winter, a season which I'm told, despite rumors, is a great time to see Tibet.)

But the hordes of tourists that will make the pilgrimage to Tibet over the next months and years will carry with them baggage more complex than state ideology: like the train itself, they'll be helping ferry Tibet into global modernity. Putting aside the political issues -- and politics quickly fade away in the face of the region's awesome natural wonders -- a trip on the train to Tibet is one of the world's most powerful lessons in responsible, or irresponsible, tourism.

For the government and tourists like us, the ride is impressive and captivating. But for Tibet, it will also be bumpier and less pretty than it looks from a train window.