China opens up train travel to neighbour
AP Photo/Color China Photo
Chugging past shaggy yaks and fluffy clouds that look low enough to lasso, the train from Beijing to Lhasa 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 per cent less oxygen than it did some 3,380 kilometres ago, back in Beijing. As the express powers over its highest point — the almost 5,100-metre Tangula Pass — many on board 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 their seams 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.
But the trip comes with political baggage. The Chinese government, which spent $4.2 billion US to build the train line, says that it will help invigorate Tibet’s economy. But critics say it threatens to crush a Tibetan culture already weakened by 56 years of often harsh Chinese rule.
Many passengers on the first train from Beijing — which departed July 1 and arrived 48 hours later in Lhasa, Tibet — seemed content to take in the views and overlook the controversy. They gazed out the train’s windows — tinted to protect passengers from the harsh ultraviolet rays — mouths agape and eyes wide, drinking in the scenery.
Tibetan antelopes, wild donkeys, yaks and sheep grazed on wide open plains carpeted with spongy, bright green turf. In the distance, mountains rose up to the sky, their caps blindingly white with snow.
Signs of human life were rare — 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 100 km/h.