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By Ashis Chakrabarti travels to Lhasa on a rail track across high mountains and glacial fields that sustain a rare ecosystem and endangered wildlife TO BE CONCLUDED
  • Published 1.11.06

The temperature outside, someone says, is minus 10 degrees Centigrade. Small wonder in a place where the average daytime temperature is minus 4, and the nights in December-January are often as cold as minus 20/25 degrees. Already, the small lakes and streams must be freezing at night and melting during the day. Looking out of the glass windows of the train, it is difficult to make out in the dark how thick is the snow falling on the mountains, rivers and the grasslands. But then, the journey through the highest and the coldest plateau in the world has only begun.

There are things, though, that remind you that it is no ordinary train ride. Every berth has its oxygen supply connection. In the corridor, there is a seat by each window where one can sit and enjoy the view outside. But just above the seat is another oxygen line. And, within hours of the train leaving Xining, the capital of Qinghai province in southwest China, several passengers in our compartment show symptoms of altitude sickness and reach out for extra doses of oxygen. Even some of our Chinese co-passengers are among the early victims.

The warning had come in the form of a “passenger health declaration form”, which was given soon after we boarded the train and which suggests that you had better avoid this train if your heart, lungs, blood pressure and sugar level were not absolutely fine. But whoever travelled to Tibet, by train or camel, thinking of such sickly things?

On the train, if you cannot see things outside at night, you can listen to the commentary on the train’s broadcast system. The Chinese obviously want you to be a good traveller who learns as he travels. So, the commentary tells you how a train to Tibet had fired the imagination of several generations of Chinese leaders — from emperors of the Qing dynasty to Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong.

It tells you of the enormous challenges that the building of the railway from Gormu to Lhasa had to face. The 1,118-km-long stretch, which opened on July 1 this year, makes it the world’s highest and longest plateau railway.

How many people died in building the railway? Officially, China talks about only three deaths. It was not so much the accidents in the mountains as the thin air and the lack of oxygen that proved to be the hardest challenges for the men who laid the tracks, dug tunnels through mountains and built bridges over rivers. But then, not all your questions, especially the uncomfortable ones, are answered in China.

There are other facts which are readily available. About 965 km of the track are located at over 4,000 metres above the sea level. Over 550 km of the stretch traverse through perennially frozen earth. More than 8 per cent of the line runs over bridges and through tunnels. It goes through 15 mountain passes, the highest of which — the Tanggula Mountain — is at 5,072 metres. The station at the pass makes it the highest railway station in the world.

Almost throughout the journey, the Qinghai-Tibet highway and the Yarlung Zangbo, Tibet’s “mother river”, which is known as Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh, keep us company, flowing now to the left of the train, now to the right. Inside Tibet alone, the river runs for 2,057 km before entering India. Somewhere out there in the snow-clad mountains are the origins also of two of China’s longest rivers — the Yellow and the Yangtze.

We, of course, would travel 1,963 km in 26 hours — from Xining to Lhasa. The railway from Xining to Golmud — 814 km — was opened in 1984. Work on the extension from Golmud to Lhasa began in June 2001, and was completed a year before schedule. As of now, there are only five stations between Golmud and the Tibetan capital. But the plan is to build several more — a station every fifty miles.

One cannot escape the statistics that capture so vividly the outlines of this strange land. But there are also myths of the plateau that invest the modern journey with the magic and mystery of old Tibet. The day breaks as the train passes by the Tanggula Mountain. Thick snow covers the mountain even in early October. The fields below are a mix of red and black earth, like some ancient glacial zone. The broadcaster recounts Tibetan folklores about the queen who fled to the moon beyond the mountain with her husband chasing her in the snows. Or, about the monkey-king chasing a tiger that burned the once-green earth red and black in a terrible fit of fury.

There is a stir in the corridor as the train nears the wide valley between the Tanggula and the Kunlun Mountain. Peter Schwieger, professor of Buddhism studies at Bonn University, has spotted a herd of Tibetan antelopes. Fluent in Chinese and Tibetan, he never misses an opportunity to find some excitement, however small.

He has liberally shared his knowledge of Tibetan affairs with others, without being pedantic, ever since our group — of about 45 from different countries — met in Beijing for a conference organized by the China Association for the Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture and then flew to Xining to take the train. The group also has a fairly large Chinese component made of the association’s officials and Beijing-based journalists.

We had seen herds of wild asses and horses before. And of yaks and goats. There are far more animals than humans in this region which has the world’s lowest population density. By the last count, Tibet had less than seven persons per square kilometre. And the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is the loneliest of this thinly-populated world. It is a world of snow-capped mountains, mighty rivers, countless streams, high-altitude lakes, glacial fields and wide valleys. Humans form only a marginal part of this vast wilderness.

Peter’s excitement about the antelopes is, however, no mere love for the animals. Part of the controversy over the railway was about its impact on this endangered species and its habitat. The engineering difficulties were great, but no less were the environmental challenges that related to the protection of the ecology, the grasslands and the animals, both domestic and wild.

Life in the Tibetan plateau still revolves around animals. Yaks, sheep and goats still provide the overwhelming majority of Tibetans almost all their basic needs — from food and clothing to transportation and fuel. The antelopes are not domestic animals, but their case best represents the environmental challenges that the building of the railway faced.

In Beijing, an official who had been involved in the railway project outlined the challenge rather graphically. He recalled an encounter with a herd of antelopes in the early stages of the construction of the railway. “They looked back and forth. The sun reflecting on the tracks was like the gun the hunters used to kill them. Even the red colour of the Chinese flag and the Tibetan prayer flags distracted them. We couldn’t do anything about the track and hoped that they would get used to it. But, at one place, we put down the flags, hoping that they would be less disturbed.”

But the antelopes migrated in thousands from the north to the south during the breeding season in June. How would they cross the railway line that “cut through the wide lands like a knife”? The same dilemma would face hundreds of thousands of other cattle that grazed freely in the grasslands before the winter months set in.

The solution came in the form of an elevated track that was high, with concrete embankments on both sides in order to keep the grazing cattle and swollen rivers away. To further prevent the cattle from mounting the railway track, concrete fences run all along the track as a second line of defence after the high embankments.

That still did not answer the question as to how the animals, and the herdsmen tending them, could move freely on both sides of the track. The answer was to build “under-passes” every 500 metres along the concrete fence to enable the cattle and the people to cross from one side of the track to the other. Some of the under-passes are big enough to ensure the passage of vehicles. It is too early to say how effective these measures would prove in protecting the animals’ unlimited freedoms, if not their lives.

And what about the earth itself on which the railway runs? What about the heat that the train and the track generate? Will not the heat destroy the atmosphere of the world’s coldest plateau and thereby the mountains, the valleys, the rivers and the entire eco-system?

We are told that a special type of technology is used to ensure that the heat generated by the running of the train does not affect the soil, and thereby cause the soft earth beneath to subside.

All that is for scientists to debate. We now have the train’s chief steward, Shi Lei, telling us, through an interpreter, about the train and the fares. The train has 16 carriages, including the generator car, the luggage van and the dining coach. The fares for the “soft beds” in a four-bed coupe on the Xining-Lhasa journey vary from 780 to 800 Chinese yuan (one yuan is equal to about Rs 6), depending on whether you choose to take a lower or an upper berth. In three-tier coaches, the fares range from 500 yuan to 540 yuan. A sitting ride costs 300 yuan. For all its advantages, it is still an expensive ride for the ordinary Chinese, more so for the people from economically backward regions like Tibet.

Shi takes leave of us; he has to look after preparations for the dinner before the train reaches the next station, Nagqu. The landscape outside has begun to change. The area looks more moist and temperate than anything we have seen in many hours. Clearly, the harshest part of the plateau in the east — bleak and empty — is behind us. Although the mountains are still grey and treeless, there now appear occasional trees along the Qinghai-Tibet highway, their leaves turning autumn gold. The season’s last crop of barley has been harvested, but the land clearly is more fertile than the glacial fields between Kunlun and Tanggula mountains.

Also, there are now more people in the fields and more mountain villages come into view. A Chinese official confirms the first impressions. Nagqu, he says, is the most bustling place along the route before you reach Lhasa. And the effects of the three-month-old railway are already showing. We are told that a couple of remote mountain villages are moving closer to the railway stations. In China, this does not happen without the consent of the authorities. Everyone agrees that the railway will hasten the process of urbanization and commercialization of Tibet that had begun with the laying of the highways.

Night falls once again by the time the train moves into Nagqu station. Chinese waitresses get busy serving dinner. The next station — less than two hours away — is Lhasa. Minutes before the journey’s end, a grand, illuminated structure at a distance, rising in the night sky on a hilltop, brings all of us crowding to the corridor. Last year, I had seen Tibetans, travelling to Lhasa, begin their prostrations on the road the moment they get their first view of the Potala Palace. Is there some symbolism in the fact that the first thing that you see in Lhasa, travelling by road or train, is still the former home of the Tibetans’ exiled leader, the dalai lama?

Many more generations of Tibetans will probably continue to do the prostrations long after more train tracks are laid up and down the mountains in the Tibetan plateau. China has already announced a plan to extend the railway further west from Lhasa to Xigaze, Tibet’s second biggest town, by 2011.

Over one last bridge — across the Kyichu river — and we are finally at the Lhasa station.