The highest Qinghai-Tibet railway in the world: the ‘Sky Train’, which the Chinese love as much as the Great Wall of China

The highest Qinghai-Tibet railway in the world: the 'Sky Train', which the Chinese love as much as the Great Wall of China

From Xining in central China to Lhasa in Tibet, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway stretches almost 2,000 kilometers along the Himalayan plateau.

There were very few signs of human life outside this window of our train. If visible, only the golden grass stretched as far as the eye could see on this land called the roof of the earth, which met the horizon on the highest hills on the planet.

If the train were to stop unintentionally somewhere, the passengers would not be able to survive the strong winds while there was no drinking water or trees for shade.

If anything was visible it was the skeleton of a dead yak that had been eaten by animals, or the ruins of Mao-era military installations after the war.

Passing by here, I thought of the first foreign adventurers who attempted to reach the city of Lhasa, which for a time was closed to non-locals. Like the eccentric Thomas Manning of Norwich, who left Guangzhou for Calcutta in early 1811, disturbed by the troubles in China.

Accompanied by a Chinese Catholic named Zhao, Manning managed to cross the border between Bhutan and Tibet unhindered and, after months of arduous travel, he finally became the first Englishman to reach the sacred capital of Upper Tibet.

When Manning arrived in Lhasa, he found it to be a dirty and poor city, but he still had the opportunity to meet the six-year-old Dalai Lama. He was then imprisoned by Amban, who had been appointed to Tibet by Beijing. He remained imprisoned until the Jiaqing Emperor ordered him to be taken in chains to the border and deported.

Although in the following decades foreign traders forced China to open its coasts through naval wars and unilateral treaties, adventurers, cartographers, mountaineers, missionaries, gold seekers and travel writers dreamed of entering the fortress built in the city called the ‘ Roof of the World’.

They came from all the countries in the world, their goals were different, but what they faced made them all the same and that was a country plagued by wolves, earthquakes and smallpox. which was completely isolated from the rest of the world and populated by usurping monks, determined border guards and armed bandits.

Many people died in the attempt to kill Manning. It was British rule that finally brought Lhasa to the world stage. This became possible when the Tibet Boundary Commission in India, across the border, was mandated to resolve trade issues between Britain and Tibet. The commission was a military unit headed by Francis Younghusband whose sole job was to appease the Empire and who accomplished this through the Guru War (also known as the Massacre by some).

To counter this attack, the Tibetans brought out old mechlok weapons and photographs of the Dalai Lama. They believed that photographs of the Dalai Lama would protect them. But how could these things compete with the Enfield rifles and Maxim pistols that were capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute?

The fighting, which began after a British soldier accidentally fired a bullet, resulted in the defeat of the Tibetan army.

Those who survived left in silence, unable to understand what had happened to them. The British soldiers should at least be praised for trying to save the wounded Tibetans.

He then advanced towards Lhasa, encountering several skirmishes along the way, including the Battle of the Karoo Pass, known as the highest altitude battle in history.

The British army finally managed to reach the holy city. Although the Dalai Lama managed to escape to Mongolia, Britain got what it wanted: a new treaty with Tibet signed in 1904.

However, the invasion changed China’s long-term attitude toward Tibet. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, Tibet managed to regain some form of independence due to decades of chaos.

But in 1950, China’s Red Army entered the country to “liberate” Tibetans from “slavery.” railway

When Tibetans were not allowed the autonomy they desired, many, including the Dalai Lama, fled abroad and went into self-exile.

In 1984, the construction of the first section of the Qinghai-Tibet railway line, connecting Xinning with Golmud, was completed. A small town in the center of Qinghai province that became a center for hippies visiting Lhasa.

When travel writer Paul Theroux traveled the line in the mid-1980s, the train was steam-powered and the journey took 30 hours, but by the time I traveled in 2018, this had been reduced to just seven. There were hours left. Theroux described it as “a terrible train” in his travel diary. During the Iron Rooster’s journey, the train ran out of water an hour after the start of the journey, fights between passengers, etc.

In contrast, the second class compartment I was in had, in addition to a comfortable bed to sleep in, overhead nozzles to regulate oxygen levels and prevent altitude sickness. At the end of each carriage was a barrel of boiling water in case the tea flask needed to be refilled. I wrote in my diary: “The world has changed, but the Qinghai Desert has not changed.”

Reading Theroux’s travelogue as we drove towards the plateau town of Golmid, I felt that the book provided a beautifully animated commentary on the landscape passing through the window. As we drove into China’s most difficult region, the mud-brick house villages scattered across the rocky plains gave us the impression that we were passing through Stone Age settlements.

But the Gollum of today is radically different from the Gollum of Theroux’s time. Instead of a dozen small buildings, a new, clean city that looked like it had been flown by helicopter from a Model Town factory to the plateau. But I couldn’t help but feel that this beautiful city was clearly not suitable for a semi-prosperous middle-class settlement.

After spending a night in Golmid, the following afternoon he boarded the train known as ‘Sky Train’railway and left for Lhasa.

During the opening ceremony of Golmid Station in 2006 (that’s when the Lhasa section was inaugurated), Chinese President Hu Jintao called the second section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway “a great achievement in the history of railway construction of China” and “the miracle.” of the world’s railway history was declared.

Regardless of the Chinese president’s speech, the engineers had accomplished an impossible task.

The challenges of building the remaining 1,200 kilometers of railway line across the so-called Roof of the World were nothing short of a nightmare for any sensible railway surveyor.

Winters on the plateau were so severe that Tibet was called the “Third Pole.” Simply put, even if you survive golf ball-sized hail or wind gusts strong enough to blow away a small child, you may need to wash your hands to avoid some frostbite.

This extreme weather also posed serious challenges for engineers. The biggest problem was the 869,000 square kilometers of permafrost, which, according to Abraham Lustgarten’s book, The Great China Train, is the largest area of frozen ground outside the South and North Poles.

Permafrost freezes in winter but becomes swampy in summer. For the engineer connected to this railway line, this meant that the ground could rise or fall up to 30 centimeters in a year.

To further complicate the problem, the uneven terrain was frozen in some places and remained soft in others. And then there was human-induced climate change that was causing the Tibetan Plateau to warm faster than anywhere else.

To deal with this situation, more than 14% of the railway line was built on bridges such as those built to cross running waters.

Despite all these measures, this is the largest continental plate collision zone on the planet and there will always be a risk of severe earthquakes.

So as soon as my train came into view, I was a little disappointed to see an ordinary train. When I entered the car, I saw that the interior of the car was decorated with Tibetan rugs and the walls were decorated with traditional Buddhist motifs.


“Ni Hao,” I said, trying to sound familiar to the Tibetans in the car, but only received a small laugh in response.

I found a window seat and began rereading Riding the Iron Rooster, which culminated in Theroux’s road trip from Golmid to Lhasa.

It was a humorous story of a difficult two-day journey in which Theroux was accompanied by the whispering Miss Sun and the incompetent conductor Mr. Yu, who fell ill at altitude and caused the train to crash.

Although Theroux was brilliantly observant, he failed to foresee the future when he wrote that the main reason Tibet is so underdeveloped and so un-Chinese is that it is a big place in China without railways. Reaching the Kunlun mountain range is a guarantee that the railway will never reach Lhasa.

The permafrost tundra plains visible outside the train were slowly disappearing into the evening darkness. I went to bed early without dinner. At some point in the night we crossed the Tanggula Pass, which marks the highest railway in the world at an altitude of 5,702 metres.

The next morning my eyes were opened by a cheerful broadcast about the progress of the railway: ‘At night the temperature usually drops to -20°C, so there is a risk of catching a cold when going to the bathroom. To solve this problem, the railway company has installed toilets with electric heaters.

The Chinese are as proud of their Sky Train as they are of their Great Wall of China or the Three Gorges Dam. It made me wonder why this is so. It was perhaps the proudest part of their history to build giant structures, whether it was the Great Wall of China that was easily crossed by Manchu cavalry, or the Three Gorges Dam that submerged millions of homes, although the reasons for doing so were always different. . . Be suspicious.

Officially known as “China’s Drive to the West,” the policy aimed to promote economic development in the country’s 12 western provinces. It was touted as a poverty alleviation, and upon completion in 2006, the railway initially delivered on that promise, adding 2.5 million tourists to the region in its first five months. Increase. This resulted in development above the national average, revolutionizing Lhasa with hotels, paved roads and condominiums, a change that critics derided as the “second invasion of Tibet.”

But this boom did not last and the Tibet Autonomous Region was the least developed region in China when I passed through. Aside from economics, it was more reasonable to consider the strategic value of railroads. As Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, put it in cold geopolitical terms: “If China didn’t control Tibet, India was likely to try to do so.”

Then there was the role of railroads in nation-building. Large countries such as the United States and Russia were built with iron roads, most of which were laid by Chinese forges, while, at the national level, the colonial power of the railways was felt as foreign powers expanded into China during XIX century. Lay the tracks.

However, in the natural landscape outside the window, geopolitics seemed human-centered. The route to Lhasa was through the Chi Chu, a northern tributary of the Yarlong Tsangpo River, through a steep valley surrounded by black peaks ending in cotton clouds.

The appeal of Lhasa to any world traveler was evident: its remoteness, its strangeness and, despite the forces of globalization and Sinification, its isolation. It was 3,700 km from Beijing and 284 km from Thimphu, the nearest capital of Bhutan. Even with the train, Lhasa was still the hardest place to reach.

I finally got off the train and felt refreshed instead of tired. But before I had time to enjoy the Tibetan breeze, a security guard pointed me to a large white tent where all foreign visitors had to go to register their arrival.

After a while, a red seal and a signature gave me the signal that I was free to move forward from here. But, since the rules require that a tour be booked with a registered travel company, the freedom does not last long in Lhasa, only along Station Four Court, next to which a group of people from the travel company ” Are you Mr. Bird?” Thomas? asked the cheerful Tibetan.


‘Yes, that name is mine.’

“Welcome to Lhasa.”

They put a white silk scarf around my neck, the traditional Tibetan welcome, and then bundled me into a minibus full of strange-looking foreigners. We had a brief chat as we headed towards Barkhor, the historic center of Lhasa. It turns out that I was the only one who hadn’t arrived by plane.

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