Tibet's controversial Tanggula Pass: The view from on board

Cross over from Tibet to China at over 5000 meters while battling altitude sickness and sampling stir-fried yak; all aboard the Qinghai-Lhasa railway line

6 mins

Mid-afternoon at the world’s highest railway station and carriage D of the ‘sky train’ resembled a debauched teenage party. Those of us still standing tottered around drunkenly, clinging to headrests and walls for support. The seated held their heads in their hands, slumped back in their chairs or stared blankly into the carriage. One woman tried to speak, but slurred her words and collapsed in a fit of giggles. Yet there was no alcohol here, and the only drugs were those being administered by the on-board doctor. 

The reason for our apparent state of intoxication was altitude. 

We were at 5,072m – the peak of the world’s highest railway – and, although the train had been pumped with supplementary oxygen to stave off the worst effects of altitude sickness, many of us were suffering headaches, nausea and a strange sense of euphoria. When I looked out of the window to see a shaggy yak smiling back at me, I wondered if I should add ‘hallucinations’ to the list of symptoms our doctor was compiling.

We were the first group of Western passengers to ride the train that links Beijing in north-eastern China to Lhasa, Tibet’s mystical capital. We boarded at Golmud, an outpost in China’s western Qinghai province and the official start of the highest section of the line. When we arrived in Lhasa we had travelled 15 hours and 1,150km across the region’s northern Kunlun Mountains, some of the bleakest and most inhospitable terrain on earth. 

It was a miracle we were here at all. Critics said the railway could never be built, that the Kunlun ranges were too high, too bleak and too oxygen starved. So treacherous are these mountains that Paul Theroux once described them as ‘a guarantee that the railway will never get to Tibet’.

Engineers and workers battled summer sandstorms and winter blizzards to construct the line, and had to drive a network of pipes into the ground, pumping liquid nitrogen and cold air through them to keep the permafrost under the tracks frozen all year round. Carriages were piped with oxygen, with supplementary supplies under each seat; windows were tinted with UV protection; a special ‘skirt’ was built around the train to prevent sandstorms damaging the undercarriage.

Political motivation

At a cost of £2.3 billion, on 1 July – a year ahead of schedule – the line opened, and with it a string of record-breaking achievements were created: the world’s highest railway; highest train station; longest mountain-plateau railway;and longest mountain-plateau tunnel.

Although the Qinghai-Lhasa railway is undoubtedly one of the world’s most adventurous train journeys, it is also one of its most controversial. Signing up for it requires a degree of soul-searching. Critics claim that the motive behind it is purely political, aimed at putting Tibet more firmly under China’s grip and confirming its status as a technological superpower.

Since the People’s Liberation Army invaded during the Cultural Revolution of 1950, Tibet has been officially ruled by China – but its isolation saved it from the ravages of industrialisation taking place across the rest of the country. As soon as the train made its inaugural run – timed to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party – thousands of Han Chinese entrepreneurs and migrant workers flocked to this latter-day El Dorado. Almost overnight, Tibetans found themselves marginalised in their own country, with little stake in its future.

The Free Tibet Campaign, one of the most influential and outspoken pressure groups against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, says that the railway “furthers economic exploitation and cultural genocide in Tibet,” and demands that travellers boycott it. Its press release is unequivocal in its message: “By using the railway, tourists should understand they will be providing both financial and moral support for the Chinese efforts to strengthen control of Tibet.” 

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, added his comments, stating: “A railway link is very useful in order to develop, but not when politically motivated to bring about demographic change.”

Environmental Impact

Most of my fellow passengers – a mix of rail enthusiasts, couples and retirees – confessed they were worried about the future of Tibet and that they had thought twice about coming, but each concluded that boycotting the train would not have any impact. Nigel, a metals trader from Essex, told me: “If China wants Tibet, it’ll get it. My coming on this trip will not make any difference.” His wife, Ellen, added: “Knowledge is power, and I know a lot more about the situation in Tibet by coming on this train than I would still sitting on my sofa at home.”

Tim Littler, managing director of GW Travel, a Cheshire-based company that runs private package tours on the train and with whom we were travelling, shared the collective clear conscience. He told me: “Whether we come or not won’t make any difference as to whether the line will run. People should be able to come and see the conditions in Lhasa for themselves, good or bad.”

But politics is not the only concern hanging over the railway. Environmentalists say the Tibetan plateau’s fragile ecosystem is being damaged by vast amounts of waste being thrown off the train, and that migratory patterns of animals living on the plateau, such as the endangered Tibetan antelope, gazelle, snow leopard and Bengal tiger, are being seriously disturbed by the daily comings and goings. 

There are safety fears too. Just four weeks after the train’s inaugural run, the Chinese government admitted that global warming had raised temperatures in the mountain region faster than expected, and foundations had begun sinking into the permafrost: the day before our group boarded the train, one of the dining cars derailed 400km from Lhasa.

Despite all this, though, a journey on the ‘sky train’ has proved an irresistible draw for many travellers. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the most scenic route on earth; neither is it the most comfortable. The train is divided into three classes: soft sleepers (a sleeper cabin with four berths), hard sleepers (sleepers with six berths) and soft seaters, a seats-only carriage. I travelled in the latter, a less-than-luxurious experience similar to a normal British commuter train: although the bolt-upright chairs would be adequate for a short journey, after 15 hours they make for sore bottoms and stiff backs.

The service on board was purely functional too: the toilets were squat-style; the staff unsmiling; the food an unappetising selection of stir-fried yak and dried donkey meat. 

Tanggula Pass

 Scenically, the beginning of the line was all you might expect from a railway that soars towards the Tibetan sky. Leaving the factories and coal mines of China behind, the train elbowed its way through jagged, snow-capped peaks, past Tiffany-blue lakes, gushing waterfalls and over vertiginous bridges. 

After an hour or two the line began to flatten out and, for the remainder of the journey, the train barrelled across the Tibetan plateau – a bleak, lonely landscape of wide, empty valleys edged with brown hills. 

The line passes the source of the Yangzi River and the Tanggula Pass (the highest point), but otherwise there were few specific sites of interest. When we did spot something, there was a great flurry of excitement among passengers: a lone horseman in flowing robes galloping below a dark lake; a web of brightly coloured Buddhist prayer flags fluttering on a sheer cliff face; a nomad emerging from a yak-hair tent. In the lulls between these highlights, we passed the time playing games and exchanging sign language with the Tibetan monks and pilgrims in the next carriage.

At nightfall, 600 weary Chinese businessmen, officials, tourists and pilgrims disgorged themselves from the train into the streets of Lhasa. This mountain kingdom was once a byword for remoteness. Now it is full of karaoke bars, neon signs and so-called ‘hairdressers’ – code for brothels. It is sleaze, not spiritualism that now draws visitors to Lhasa.

Locals I spoke to about the impact of the train told me that the pace of change brought on by it was “terrifying” and it would have “terrible consequences”. And worse is to come: in September, the Chinese government announced that the line is to be extended further west, and then possibly over the Himalaya to India. With three daily services already on the ‘sky train’, and a five-a-day schedule from next year, Tibet’s fabled isolation is clearly at an end.

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