Revisiting my documentary on China’s Sky Train

In 2006 I had the opportunity to travel on the Train to Lhasa–a technological marvel. On the web these days there is a lot of discussions on the train and its importance to China’s hold over Tibet. That’s why thought I will post my write up and the link to the film I made on the Train in August 2006.

Enjoy the film here:


Read here

AUGUST10, 2007

Exactly a year ago, an NDTV team had an opportunity to travel to the roof of the world, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet on the spanking new train which can be only be described as a modern day wonder. Both of us– me and cameraperson colleague Thulashreedharan — were on the train just a month after the train started its commercial operations.

Now, as I recall that journey, one realises what a stupendous effort the Chinese have put in and how the train will change several strategic theories that the Indian security establishment has held dear for a long time. But security considerations apart, the journey itself is worth recounting.

Till June last year, getting to Lhasa meant either a long and hard road journey or an expensive air one. But now more and more westerners as well as ordinary Chinese are increasingly using the train to discover Tibet.

Take Chinese army officer, Lt Peter Chang, for instance. Ordinarily, he would have spent his three-week leave somewhere near his post in north-eastern China but this time, Chang could not resist taking a ride on the spanking new train to Lhasa. ” Earlier it was very expensive to fly to Tibet but now with the train having started its operations, it has become possible to see this distant part of China,” he was telling me as the train hurtled across the vast plains of Tibet.

Lt Chang was not alone in grabbing the first available opportunity to take the train ride to Tibet. Jessie Wang, like Chang, was a long way off from south-eastern China’s Fujian province. This was the young entrepreneur’s first trip to Tibet — again made possible by the Qinghai-Tibet railway— also known as the sky train since most of its journey is above 4,000 metre –allowing curious tourists like Chang and Jessie to make their first journey to the mysterious, spiritual land that is Tibet.

As Jessie, who surprisingly spoke fluent English, said: “I had always dreamt of visiting Lhasa…coming on this train is a dream come true but since this is the first time, I have come in a group. I want to understand and study Tibetan culture.”

It’s a long, 30-hour journey even from Lanzhou (where we boarded) in western China’s Gansu province to Lhasa but the train is comfortable and equipped with state of the art facilities like pressurised cabins fitted with special oxygen kits. After Golmud, the capital of the Qinghai province, at 3,800 m or over 11,000 feet, the air begins to thin perceptibly and oxygen is released throughout the train making it easier for passengers to breathe normally.

And through the journey there are constant announcements asking passengers to contact rail staff if they felt uncomfortable. The coach attendants are quick and responsive, even though few of them speak English.

There are three kinds of tickets you can buy. A standard coach ticket from Beijing to Lhasa called a hard seat, sells for $48. A hard sleeper or bunk is $106 and a shared compartment or soft sleeper is pegged at $148. The soft sleeper coach also has folding seats, which allow you to sit and gaze at the awe inspiring and stark Tibetan plateau.

There’s no fear of going hungry on the long journey since the dining car is well stocked with freshly cooked food. The menu is Chinese and Tibetan, noodles, momos, steaks, grilled fish, the works. But vegetarians would find the going tough. Beer lovers, on the other hand, will be pleased to discover that a can of Chinese beer is just a dollar–and even cheaper than a bottle of mineral water.

The train slows down from 120 to 100 kilometers per hour in the frozen earth areas where the permafrost stretches across the endless expanse of the Tibetan plateau. Through the window the bewitching beauty of the landscape packs an almost physical punch.

Wild donkeys, horses and yaks are framed dramatically against the snow-capped mountains. At Golmud, the capital of Qinghai province, the final stretch of the railway line to Lhasa begins. This train is culmination of a long-held Chinese desire.

Old dream

The Chinese had dreamt of easy access and communication to Tibet for at least half a century. And one of the first to articulate this desire was Ying Fatang, who was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tibet Autonomous Region.

He came to Tibet in 1951 when he was 34 and worked here for over 20 years. His legendary life is interwoven with the mountains of Tibet. Yin Fatang’s experience and knowledge told him that China needed to build the Qinghai-Tibet Railway urgently if it wanted to ensure total control over Tibet. And with this proposal he went to meet Deng Xiaoping, then China’s supreme leader in the early 1980s. Deng was equally enthusiastic.

And thus began what Deng called the “dream of the century.” Work on the world’s highest railway line began in 2001 and in less than six years after the project began, train services began operating. The first train rolled into Lhasa on July 1, 2006. We made the historic journey in the first week of August last year.

Like us, most passengers are first time travellers to Tibet. Cameras clicked furiously as the train, pulled by two specially designed diesel locomotives, made its way up the mountains. At precisely 2.50 pm, there was much excitement as we reached the highest point in this journey–the 5072 metre or 16,640 feet high Tanggula Pass.

No railway track has been built at such an altitude before. And no track is likely to be built at such an altitude again since no other plateau in the world rises as high as Tibet. The pass is part of the formidable Kunlun range, long considered impenetrable. These mountains form the northern flank of a huge area of permafrost that stretches for hundreds of kilometers across the Tibetan plateau toward the Himalayas. Above the permafrost is a layer of ice that melts and refreezes every day–as the sun rises and sets.

After years of research, Chinese engineers solved the problem by developing a technique that enabled them to permanently freeze the top level of ice and prevent the daily pattern of melting and refreezing. Also, coolants are pumped into the earth to ensure the ground near the tunnels and pillars remains frozen.

At these altitudes the other tricky issue was the lack of oxygen. When humans live above an altitude of over 4000 meters the strain on the body is like walking in the plains with 25 kilograms on your back. Sustained work over long stretches here can damage internal organs as well as cause high altitude sickness.

But despite these huge problems construction began and workers had to carry a 2.5 kg air tank with them. Even this was inadequate and they were forced to take a break every two hours. When that did not help it was decided to set up oxygen stations all along the way. Once the oxygen shortage and frozen land problems were cracked, the workers were able to finish ten meters of work each day. And they worked inwards from each end towards the centre.

But the project has its critics who say the railway will not benefit the Tibetans as much as the Chinese from other parts of the country. They are descending on Lhasa in droves to set up business. These new migrants are better educated and also have access to lines of credit that most Tibetans lack.

Chinese businessmen are seeking a fortune in new business opportunities in Tibet. Every day there are new hotels and restaurants opening up in Lhasa, in anticipation of the coming tourist boom. But local Tibetans have very little stake in the economic upturn.

Most new enterprises are owned by Chinese traders streaming into Tibet from other parts of China. Tibetans get to do only low-end jobs.

Within the next three-four years, the trains will bring in irreversible changes to the Tibet the world has known so far. Many poor Tibetans from rural areas still throng to monasteries like Jokhang for pilgrimage but soon they will be outnumbered by curious tourists and Han Chinese entrepreneurs.

Wa Ming, who manages an upmarket restaurant in Lhasa, for instance, has come all the way from north-east China, some 4,000 km away. She employs more than half-a-dozen Tibetans. Even at Barkhor street, famous for hawking Tibetan knick-knacks, Chinese rock and pop albums out-sale Tibetan music.

On the train itself, none of these concerns are apparent. Many Han Chinese are simply happy to be able to travel to Tibet, which has remained inaccessible to most of them so far. The Potala Palace, once the winter palace of the Dalai lama, is in fact so popular that the curator has put a daily ceiling of 2,300 visitors, to ensure the largely clay and wood structure does not crumble under the weight of eager tourists.

The influx of tourists after the opening of the railway has led the palace management to admit an additional 500 visitors per day. But the price of an entry ticket will be tripled to scare away the budget-conscious and reduce the burden of human weight on the fragile building.

With four trains steaming into Lhasa everyday, more than 2,500 passengers, most of them tourists, have begun arriving in the Tibetan capital creating additional pressure on the civic facilities But for the Tibetans, the tourists are not the problem. The influx of the Han Chinese from mainland China is the long term concern.

More prosperous, better connected and definitely more enterprising, the Han Chinese have already begun controlling major enterprises in Tibet. Because of the train, more and more Chinese are making a bee-line to the new Eldarado. With time, many Tibetans fear they will be reduced to a minority in their own land. And Tibetan activists point out that Beijing will now be able to send in more troops to the area with greater ease.

That this railway will bind the region both economically and politically more closely to the mainland is a fact that supporters and critics of the project agree on. It is on the implications of this new link that opinions differ dramatically. But how exactly this train will transform Tibet and how it will impact a way of life which has been slow to change will only emerge with time.