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Railway to Heaven

By Xu Wei

The Qinghai-Tibet railway is under construction

China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, rising more than 4,000 meters above sea level, is the highest plateau in the world, making it be the closest place on Earth to Heaven. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, under construction, leads there.

I have a friend who worked as a driver on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ten years ago. In some sections, he says, it was rare for him to see a single person in almost a hundred vast, cold kilometers, which nearly drove him mad. Occasionally, a few Tibetans appeared on the lonesome roadside, asking for a ride. They were either on their way home with the money they'd made by selling sheep or wanted to catch up with their migrating families. With an innate talent for song, the Tibetans sang along the way, which gave my friend's heart great solace.

He never charged for a ride.

The plateau is the "Roof of the World," a place where cold and isolation rule, and where the dangers of anoxemia and mountain sickness have protected the plateau from the disturbance of human activities. This has left the landforms unspoiled and preserved an abundance of biological species. The plateau is home to more than 50 peaks that are more than 7,000 meters above sea level, and the highest of them, Mt. Qomolangma (Everest), rises 8,848 meters. Here, snow-capped mountains are pure and clean, and crystalline lakes reflect white clouds and blue sky. In summer, countless rare, wild animals roam around on flourishing meadows and endless deserts of sand and rocks.

Poor traffic conditions once blocked the local people's communication with the outside world, and the closed environment resulted in slow economic development.

In the past, there were only narrow paths tapped by caravans for the residents of Lhasa, the present-day capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, to enter the Central Plain area. Such a journey was dangerous and time-consuming. In the 1950s, China's central government constructed several highways, linking Tibet with Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai Provinces as well as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In the 1960s, domestic air routes leading to Tibet were opened. The improvement in the transportation and traffic conditions has not only promoted material and cultural exchanges between Tibet and the other parts of China, but also has attracted a growing number of visitors to the plateau to enjoy the magnificent highland scenery and experience Tibetan customs and mysterious Tibetan Buddhist culture.

But highway and air transportation have limitations. Highways mean limited transport capacity and a great deal of time, and the roadways are not always reliable. The Yunnan-Tibet and the Sichuan-Tibet Highways are often cut off due to heavy snow or landslides. Air transportation, meanwhile, is costly, unsuitable for cargo. The optimal choice for efficient, economical transport, then, is a railway.

The Tibetan-style entrance to a tunnel in the suburbs of Lhasa

The project for constructing a railway on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau was first proposed in the 1950s. After years of survey, research, and reasoning, the railway route was determined, starting from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, passing Golmud, and ending in Lhasa. This route requires a comparably short period of construction, less investment, and uncomplicated techniques. Its Xining-Golmud Section was put into service in 1978, and the second phase of the construction involves the remaining section of the railway, which starts from Golmud, then runs northward along the Golmud and Kunlun Rivers, passes the 4,772-meter-high saddle-back of the Kunlun Mountains, climbs over Mt. Hoh Xil, crosses the 5,072-meter-high mountain mouth of Tanggula, tramps the North Tibet Plateau, goes southward to Nagqu, and finally enters Lhasa. On February 8, 2001, China's State Council approved the construction of this section, which is expected to reach 1,118 kilometers. The construction started on June 29, 2001, and will be completed in June 2007.

More than 280 kilometers of the second phase have been completed. It has successfully passed the Hol Xil Depopulated Area, which is more than 4,700 meters above sea level, and is marching towards Lhasa.

The world's highest and longest plateau train route, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is sometimes regarded by Tibetans on the plateau as an iron-and-steel dragon, sometimes a path leading to heaven, and sometimes a rainbow which will bring them fortune and prosperity.

Protection of Ecological Environment

Workers transplant natural vegetation along the way.

From Golmud to Lhasa, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway passes through a fragile ecological zone that includes snowy mountains, grasslands, wetlands, and permafrost belts. This area requires protection. It is a severe test for the builders to do this while guaranteeing both quality and progress of the project.

With distinctive natural conditions and abundant natural resources, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has varied fauna and flora. The World Wildlife Foundation has designated the plateau a global biological-diversity protection zone of utmost priority, and it is also a protection zone of the top priority under China's biological-diversity protection program.

The areas along the railway are home to many rare animals, including Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan wild donkeys, wild yaks, white-lip deer, snow leopards, Tibetan snow pheasants, and black-necked cranes, which are under first-class state protection. There are also animals under second-class state protection, such as chamois, argali, Mongolian gazelles, lynxes, brown bears, and bar-headed gooses.

In order to protect the ecological environment, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company has established a new concept in environmental protection, has given priority to the protection of the environment, and has increased funds for protection. According to the plan, 1.2 billion yuan will be put into environmental protection. In order to protect the unique natural environment of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the design and construction units have signed a guarantee with the governments of Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region and formulated a system to inspect and control environmental protection.

Special trains have been manufactured for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. In addition to offices and first-aid and living facilities, they are equipped with an oxygen system to ensure normal operation under extreme cold and oxygen-deficient circumstances. They are installed with vacuum toilets, as well as sewage and garbage collectors, to prevent trains from discharging waste along the way.

In some sections, the railway will block the migration route of wild animals, including antelopes and yaks. In order to maintain the unimpeded migration of wild animals, many bridges and culverts have been specially designed.

Tibetan antelopes in an untouched area of Hoh Xil

The Hoh Xil State-Class Nature Reserve is located in the territory of Qinghai Province. 4,500 meters above sea level, it is an important habitat of Tibetan antelopes. Every June and July the antelopes migrate to Chonai and Taiyang Lakes to calve where the climate is pleasantly cool and water and grass are abundant. In August, they begin migrating back with their calves.

This year, the return migration of antelopes was postponed because of unfavorable weather. At present, small numbers of antelopes are migrating back. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction Headquarters reaffirmed that construction units along the railway should clear the antelopes' migration routes, control construction vehicles, and prohibit drivers from honking their horns. The headquarters also asked them to contact local antelope protection stations on their own and guide the antelopes through the migration passages.

According to the Administrative Bureau of the Hoh Xil State-Class Nature Reserve, the survival rate of the calves topped 80 percent this year, a new record.

2007: To Tibet by Train

All people in the areas where the Qinghai-Tibet Railway runs regard the railway as a hope for the development of the local economy. After its completion, the railway will greatly benefit Tibet's industries in mining, biology, green beverages, medicine and pharmaceuticals, farming, animal husbandry, and ethnic handicrafts. Meanwhile, many local products will be transported outside through the railway, and more and more tourists will enter Tibet by train.

Tibet boasts unmatched landscapes: magnificent snow-capped mountains, vast grasslands, and dense forests. The famous Himalayas lay south of the plateau, including the imposing Mount Everest.

Tibet also maintains an ancient, splendid ethnic culture. The ruins of the Ancient Shang Shung Culture, the site of the Guge Kingdom, and the Potala Palace on the plateau display endless charm.

One of the major goals of constructing the railway is the development of Tibet's tourism resources and the acceleration of local economic development. At present, revenues from tourism account for 5 percent of total local revenues. Tibet receives more than 400,000 visitors every year, with an estimated increase to one million in 2010. Because of current traffic conditions, travel agencies charge customers a lot for a trip to Tibet. A return air ticket from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, to Lhasa costs 2,400 yuan. With additional expenses, a trip to Tibet costs a traveler more than a trip abroad. After the railway is in place, it will take just 50 hours to travel by train from Beijing to Lhasa, and some 20 hours from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, to Lhasa. An inexpensive way to travel to Tibet, the railway will enable passengers to enjoy the beautiful landscapes and gradually acclimate themselves to the plateau's high-altitude, thus relieving mountain sickness.

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