- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

ABOARD THE BEIJING-LHASA EXPRESS

Chugging past shaggy yaks and fluffy clouds that look low enough to lasso, the train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, makes its final climb into nosebleed territory pulled by three locomotives instead of the usual one.

Although some oxygen is pumped into the train cars as they roll through Tibet, the air inside has 30 percent less oxygen than it did about 2,100 miles ago, back in Beijing. As the express powers over its highest point — the 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass — many onboard begin to feel it.

Dozens of passengers strap on oxygen masks, some experience bloody noses, and a few lose their lunch. Pens spit their ink, and potato-chip bags expand until some burst with the dramatic drop in atmospheric pressure.

For those looking for a novel way to visit one of the world’s more remote corners, the new express train to Tibet offers an extraordinary trip. From the ubiquitous oxygen outlets to the vacuum flush toilets, from the flat-screen TVs in first class to the tracks anchored in the shifting permafrost, the Sky Train, as China calls it, is a marvel of modern engineering.

The trip comes with political baggage. The Chinese government, which spent $4.2 billion to build the train line, says it will help invigorate Tibet’s economy. Critics say it threatens to crush a Tibetan culture already weakened by 56 years of often destructive Chinese rule.

Many passengers on the first train from Beijing — which departed July 1 and arrived 48 hours later in Lhasa — seemed content to take in the views and overlook the controversy. They gazed out the train’s windows, which have been tinted to protect passengers from the harsh ultraviolet rays, their mouths agape and eyes wide, drinking in the scenery.

Tibetan antelopes, wild donkeys, yaks and sheep grazed on open plains carpeted with spongy, bright green turf. In the distance, mountains rose to the sky, their caps blindingly white with snow.

“It’s hard to believe it’s real. It looks like one of the wallpapers you can choose for Windows XP, but greener,” said Li Changchun, a 25-year-old publishing executive from Beijing traveling by himself to Tibet for the first time.

Seldom were there signs of human life — a herder’s brown tent with a puff of smoke, a Chinese soldier standing guard along the tracks, a child in bright Tibetan dress waving madly as the 16-car train zipped past at 60 mph.

This pristine desolation is why many Tibetan rights groups and environmentalists have called on travelers to boycott the train. They say it will pollute the environment and threaten the wildlife. They fear it will be used to ship out vast quantities of minerals and other resources that once were prohibitively expensive to transport.

China says the line will help double Tibet’s annual tourism income, to $725 million, by 2010. Chinese state media say the train will pull the “cork out of the bottleneck that has held the region’s development back for decades.”

Many average Tibetans seem conflicted over the railway. The exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has said that it remains to be seen how the railway will be used and whether it will bring real benefit to Tibetans.

Tashi, a 25-year-old Tibetan undergraduate from at a Beijing university, took the train home for summer vacation. “For me and for other students, the train is good because it’s cheap,” he said. “And a place that’s closed forever can’t develop. So for that reason too, I think it’s good for Tibet.”

Tashi also said political repression has increased in Tibet in the past five or so years. He said he’s afraid to look up articles about the Dalai Lama on the Internet and to talk about politics with people he doesn’t know. He declined to give his full name for fear of recrimination.

On the environmental front, Beijing has earmarked $190 million for preservation projects along the railway and employed special technology to help protect the delicate permafrost that lies under much of the last third of the rail line.

Engineers designed sunshades, cooling pipes and loose gravel beds that conduct heat away from the ground to ensure the rail would stay frozen and stable. The cooling pipes — resembling big metal golf tees — stick up on either side of the tracks for much of the journey. They use solar energy to repeatedly turn liquid ammonia into a gas, chilling the ground like a tiny refrigerator or air conditioner.

Passenger Yan Xiao, an engineering professor from the University of Southern California, said he was impressed by the design and service. “It’s quite an achievement,” he said.

The train’s squat toilets might give some travelers pause, but the bathroom is cleaner and more spacious than on the average Chinese train and offers at least one handicapped facility with a seat-style toilet.

“It meets Western standards; it’s fairly clean,” said passenger Liu Yuejiang, a research scientist from Gaithersburg who works at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda. Those considering a trip should go soon. Chinese engineers say global warming could threaten the permafrost and the integrity of the rail line in as little as 50 years.

• • •

Trains leave daily from Beijing and every other day from Chengdu in Sichuan and Lanzhou in Gansu. One-way tickets — ranging from $40 for a seat to $140 for a bunk in a four-bed cabin — for the Beijing-Lhasa route have been nearly fully booked through September, agents say, but many tickets remain for the Lhasa-Beijing route. Flights between Lhasa and most major Chinese cities connect through Chengdu.

China travel visas must be obtained by travelers in their home countries. Foreigners also must get Tibet travel permits in their home countries or in China through a travel agent. Tibet permits take two to seven days to be processed.

Oxygen is provided on the train, but tourists are advised to bring their own basic medications for headaches, diarrhea and minor ailments. Bringing extra water and some high-energy snacks also is a good idea. Because of the supplemental oxygen, smoking on the train is forbidden for the last 12 hours of the 48-hour journey. The train has power outlets and spotty mobile phone service between Beijing and Lhasa. The disk drives of some laptop computers and other portable electronic devices may crash at high altitudes, and data could be lost.

The International Campaign for Tibet has prepared a socially conscious travel guide to Tibet: www.savetibet.org/tibet/travel/index.php.

Lonely Planet publishes a stand-alone guide to Tibet in addition to its comprehensive China guidebook.

Although it was published nearly 20 years ago, “Riding the Iron Rooster by Train Through China” by Paul Theroux remains an excellent introduction to the delights and peculiarities of Chinese trains. It includes a chapter called “The Train to Tibet,” which describes how in 1985, Mr. Theroux got as close to Lhasa as he could by train — and then drove the remaining 900 miles.

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