China builds railroad on top of world


From the Chicago Tribune

By Michael A. Lev, Tribune foreign correspondent

July 30, 2001


This country with a grand history of politically motivated construction projects, from the ancient Great Wall to the massive Three Gorges Dam work-in-progress, is challenging its engineers again, this time at 16,000 feet above sea level. Here, where the air is so thin that unacclimatized workers risk nose bleeds, blackouts and death, the government is building the first railroad into Tibet. It will be the highest and steepest train line in the world, and China's leaders have dreamed impatiently of it for more than 30 years. But it is a project so complex, risky and foreboding that teams of medical specialists will follow every construction crew as they work their way past the icy cold, uninhabitable peak.

Begun this summer and if completed in 2007 as China promises, the train track across the top of the world will be a marvel of engineering and provide a 16-hour ride through 695 miles of desolate, beautiful landscape. It also will be one of the most significant political acts in Beijing's 50-year effort to control and assimilate Tibet. Occupied by China in 1951, Tibet has remained protected to some degree from China's influences because of its isolation. The main route to the capital, Lhasa, is a 36-hour drive from the Chinese frontier town of Golmud or an airplane flight too expensive for most Chinese to afford. But when reachable by railroad, Tibet will become more solidly connected to the rest of the country.

Tourism is expected to greatly increase; more ethnic Chinese probably will move to Tibet's capital; business links, including Tibetan mineral mining operations, will intensify; and Chinese troops can be transported there more easily. This is China's vision, and this is the concern of some Tibetans, who have struggled to maintain their ethnic and religious identities while under communist Chinese control. With the railroad, warned Tibet's government-in-exile in India, "Tibet itself will go the way of Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, totally swamped with Chinese settlers and completely Sino-cized."

China's perspective is slightly different, and some Tibetans, along with some pro-Tibetan critics of the government, say they foresee enough improvements in Tibet's standard of living that they support the project, or at least don't feel they can reject it. After 50 years of Chinese development, Tibet still remains one of the poorest regions of China. Beijing estimates that the railroad will carry 5 million metric tons of goods annually into Tibet, including consumer goods that now cost up to twice the price of products elsewhere in China. It is expected to bring out 2.7 million metric tons of cargo, much of it mineral extracts. Beijing's ambitions China's government has broad concerns about the lack of development in western China. Incomes are far below those in the eastern manufacturing belts, and the political challenges and pressures are far greater. Much of China's ethnic minority population--about 7 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people--lives in the hardscrabble west. It is in places such as Buddhist Tibet and Muslim-dominated Xinjiang that China faces the greatest challenges to its legitimacy from restive indigenous groups such as Xinjiang's Uihgurs. To improve standards of living and, as the government acknowledges, to "strengthen ethnic unity," China is spending at least $3 billion on the railroad and billions more on highways, energy pipelines, factories and other projects. The government has called the package of heavy-duty development its "Go West campaign." The slogan is an attempt to add marketing heft to its investment by conjuring up a positive, evocative image to rally support at home and catch the eye of foreign investors.

In the railroad project, China has the perfect, Western-friendly symbol for the taming of its own wild west. The barren landscape rising out of Golmud, a Chinese frontier boomtown of 200,000 people in obscure Qinghai province, is as flat, brown and dry as Death Valley. Farther out, along the lower reaches of the Tibetan plateau, are narrow, sandy mountain spires that bring to mind the desert highlands of Arizona. Then the going really gets tough in terrain prone to earthquakes and landslides. Past 10,000 feet, glacial snowpacks appear on distant hilltops and the air thins dramatically. Most visitors experience shortness of breath, some get dizzy and stone-footed, and work crew chefs need to use a special military-designed pressure pot to cook rice. Beyond, toward the train route's 16,000-feet apex, all is permafrost, and there is a 50 percent loss of oxygen compared to sea level. Train construction officials say the engineering challenges in designing, building and operating the railroad include withstanding the high altitude, preserving the environment and taming the permafrost, which softens and undulates in summer, causing track to buckle.

A mighty challenge One project manager, Zhang Xiu Li, described the Tibet train line as one the greatest, or perhaps the greatest, design challenge in the history of railroads. "In Russia, they have built on frozen ground," he said. "In the Andes, they've built on a plateau. This is both."After 30 years of study and testing, and still more to come, officials say they know what they have to do. To deal with the altitude, workers in good health will work shorter hours, undergo daily monitoring from doctors, come down off the mountain every few weeks. They will take a daily dose of Chinese medicine made from mushroom plants that grow at 13,000, and they are forbidden to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

Construction will be limited to April-October, and temporary concrete factories along the line will use a high-pressure manufacturing technique to produce bridges and tunnels that won't crumble in winter. Avoiding the permafrost On the 350 miles of track that are to traverse permafrost, there will be as many bridges and tunnels as possible to keep rail from touching unstable ground. Where the tracks do rest on frozen earth, Chinese engineers have devised a system in which underground piping will draw up cold air like a refrigerator to prevent the permafrost from melting in summer. It is a system that has been used on houses but never on train tracks. Once the track is laid, engineers say, three diesel engines will pull each train, and pressurized cars will protect passengers from the altitude.

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