39Train from Heaven39 the world39s highest railway described as an

'Train from Heaven': the world's highest railway, described as an engineering 'miracle'


The socalled “Heaven Train” travels at an altitude of 5,702 m

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  • Author: Thomas Bird
  • Roll, BBC Travel
  • 5 hours ago

The QinghaiTibet Railway stretches for almost 2,000 kilometers. It crosses the Tibetan plateau from Xining the capital of Qinghai Province in central China to Lhasa in Tibet.

It's an epic journey, but little human intervention is visible from the train window.

The landscape consists mainly of the yellowish grass of the savanna on the roof of the world, stretching to the horizon in the highest mountains on earth with the appearance of crocodile teeth.

If the train broke down, few passengers would survive long in these windswept highlands. There appear to be no wells for drinking water or trees to provide shade.

Whenever something appeared in the distance in the vision, it was invariably a skeleton: the carcass of a yak eaten by predators, or military installations from the Mao Zedong era (18931976) that look like war ruins.

The Tibetan prayer flags themselves were torn down and cotton cloths were tied to the rocks to symbolize the men's surrender.

My thoughts went to the ancient adventurers from other lands who were the first to attempt to reach Lhasa, the original Forbidden City.

One of them was the eccentric Englishman Thomas Manning (17721840). “Haunted by the idea of ​​China,” he traveled by ship from Guangzhou (also called Canton, in southern China) to Calcutta, India, in early 1811.

From there, accompanied by a Chinese Catholic named Zhao, he easily crossed the BhutanTibet border. And after months of arduous travel, he became the first Englishman to set foot in the holy capital of Tibet.

To Manning, Lhasa seemed like a poor, dirty city. Nevertheless, he was granted an audience with the then sixyearold 9th Dalai Lama (the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th).

Manning was later arrested by the Amban the agency that ruled Tibet on behalf of the Chinese government. The Englishman remained a prisoner until the Jiaqing Emperor ordered him to be chained, escorted to the border and deported.

In the decades that followed, China's coast was invaded by aggressive foreign traders, leading to naval wars and onesided treaties.

But a wide variety of adventurers cartographers, mountaineers, missionaries, gold prospectors and travel writers still dreamed of infiltrating the mystical fortress on the “Roof of the World”.

They came from all directions. Their motivations were different, but the adversities were always the same. Wolves, earthquakes and smallpox plagued a country that literally disappeared from the map.

Tibet was inhabited by godlike kings, despotic monks, unyielding border guards and armed bandits.


The railway's terminus is the city of Lhasa in Tibet, known as the Forbidden City.

Many people died trying to get to Lhasa after Manning's trip.

The British Empire finally brought the Tibetan capital onto the world stage by ordering the Tibet Boundary Commission to cross the borders of India (then part of the Empire) to resolve trade issues between the United Kingdom and Tibet.

The Commission was a military unit led by officer Francis Younghusband (18631942). He was born in India and had a vague goal to fulfill: to achieve “contentment” for the empire.

Younghusband achieved this satisfaction with the battle (or massacre, as some say) against Guru.

The Tibetans stormed out of their obscure fortress, armed with ancient muskets and pictures of the Dalai Lama, who they believed would protect them. They were no match for the English Enfield shotguns and Maxim machine guns, which could fire hundreds of bullets per minute.

Their ranks were brutally slaughtered after a sniper accidentally initiated the British attack by firing his weapon. And the survivors simply fled, unable to comprehend what they had just seen.

The British soldiers must be given the honor of rescuing the fallen Tibetans.

They then advanced towards Lhasa, encountering several conflicts along the way. One of these was the Battle of Karo La Passage, considered the highest battle in history.

So the British finally reached the Holy City. The Dalai Lama had sought refuge in Mongolia, but there they got what they wanted: a new treaty with Tibet, signed in 1904.

The Chinese and the railways

The legacy of the British invasion would change China's position towards Tibet. The Chinese could no longer view the region as a protectorate with little control.

In the chaotic decades following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Tibet was virtually independent. But in 1950 the Red Army invaded China to “liberate” the country from “serfdom”.

Tibetans lacked the autonomy they desired and many of them, including the Dalai Lama, fled abroad voluntarily.


The legendary QinghaiTibet Railway inspired the book “Travels in China” by American writer Paul Theroux

In 1984 the construction of the first railway section was completed. It would become a symbolic umbilical cord connecting the Chinese capital Beijing to its wayward cousins ​​in the mountains. It is the highest railway ever built in the world.

The first route connected Xining to Golmud, a middleofnowhere town in Qinghai Province. The place quickly became a stopover for a generation of hippies on their way to Lhasa.

American travel writer Paul Theroux traveled this route in the mid1980s. At that time the train was powered by steam and the journey took 30 hours. At the time of my trip in 2018, the drive only took seven hours.

“It was a terrible train,” Theroux wrote in his travelogue Riding the Iron Rooster. He reports a physical altercation between passengers and says that the train “ran out of water an hour after departure.”

As I read this report, I felt a little pampered in my cramped secondclass berth in a carriage equipped with ceiling blowers to regulate oxygen levels and prevent passengers from altitude sickness.

There was also a bottle of boiling water at the end of each carriage to top up my bottle of tea if needed.

“The world has changed,” I wrote in my diary, “but the Qinghai Desert remains the same.”

As I read the final chapters of Theroux's book as I approached the remote town of Golmud, it was as if I was receiving realtime commentary on the landscape passing by my window.

“Square walled villages that looked like Neolithic dwellings” were spread across a “hellish and unforgettable” stone plateau as we ventured deeper into “the roughest terrain I have ever seen in China…”

But Theroux's description of Golmud “a dozen low buildings scattered over a large plot” no longer corresponds to reality. The modern city of Golmud looked so new and clean, as if it had been transplanted by helicopter from a model city factory to the Tibetan plateau.

I couldn't help feeling that its leafy boulevards somehow violated earthly laws that this plateau of rocks and skeletons was no place for a semiprosperous, clearly middleclass settlement.

I spent one night in Golmud. The following afternoon I boarded the socalled “Sky Train” back towards Lhasa.

On the way to the “Third Pole”

During the laying of the foundation stone at Golmud Station in 2006, which opened the connection to Lhasa, then Chinese President Hu Jintao described the second section of the railway as “a great achievement in the history of Chinese railway construction” and “a miracle of world history.” Railways”. “.

Despite the blatant nationalism expressed in President Hu's speech, Chinese engineers have actually achieved a feat that seemed impossible.

The difficulties presented by the construction of the remaining 1,200 kilometers above the roof of the world were enough to make any sensible surveyor stop his work and forget once and for all the absurd idea of ​​building a railway.

First of all, the winter itself on the plateau was so stormy that it gave Tibet the nickname “Third Pole.”

In short, if you manage to avoid getting pummeled by golf ballsized sleet or mountain winds strong enough to carry a small child, you're probably going to lose a few toes. Freeze.


Former Chinese President Hu Jintao called the construction of the line from Golmud to Lhasa a “miracle in world railway history.”

The engineers also faced major challenges due to the relief of the region.

Its greatest difficulty was the permafrost, which stretches over 869,000 square kilometers the largest region of frozen ground outside the poles, according to the book China's Great Train by American journalist Abrahm Lustgarten.

Permafrost freezes in winter and turns into swampy ground in summer. For railway engineers, this means that the ground can rise and fall by up to 30 cm in a typical year.

Inconsistent defrost patterns exacerbate the problem. Some regions will freeze solid while others will soften.

And this unpredictable terrain is being exacerbated by climate change caused by human activities, particularly on the Tibetan Plateau, which is warming faster than any other region in the People's Republic of China.

To compensate for the great uncertainty of these foundations, around 15% of the section was built on bridges, as if the railway were traveling over running water.

But despite all this infrastructure, the region is still the largest collision zone of tectonic plates on the planet. And the possibility of a large earthquake must be considered.

So when my train pulled into the station I felt a certain disappointment at the routine nature of this operation.

The second section

As I boarded, I noticed that the interior of the carriage was decorated with Tibetan carpets and the walls were decorated with traditional Buddhist motifs.

“Nǐ hǎo” “Hello,” I said in Chinese, trying to introduce myself to the Tibetans in the train compartment. But they just giggled.


Traveling with Tibetans is one of the most rewarding parts of the railway journey

After finding a window seat, I sat next to the table to continue reading “Traveling China by Train.” Despite the title, Theroux recounts the completion of Golmud's journey to Lhasa by car before the construction of this section of railway.

It would be a hilarious episode if it weren't so tiresome. The twoday car journey accompanied by wife was hellish. Sun with his constant complaints and the incompetent driver Mr. Yu, who suffered from altitude sickness and crashed his car.

Theroux's brilliant observations have not stood the test of time. He wrote: “The main reason why Tibet is so underdeveloped and unChinese and therefore completely oldfashioned and pleasant is because it is a large place in China that the railway has not yet reached.”

And he also highlighted another observation that the future would have to deny: “The Kun Lun Mountains are a guarantee that the railway will never reach Lhasa.”


Outside the train, the great windswept plateaus of tundra and permafrost gradually disappeared with dusk.

I slept early and without dinner. Sometime during the night we crossed the Tanggula Pass, which at 5,702 meters marks the highest railway point in the world.

The next morning I was woken up by a joyful announcement about the construction of the railway:

“The temperature often drops to 20°C at night,” said a woman in robotic English. “That’s why it’s easy to catch a cold when you go to the toilet. To solve the problem, the railway company installed toilets with electric heaters inside.”

The Chinese are as proud of the Sky Train as they are of the Great Wall of China and the Three Gorges Dam. But when we look out the window at the huge empty rooms, the legitimate question arises: Why?

Maybe always building “the greatest” of them all is just part of your story of pride. For just as the Wall was easily stormed by Manchurian cavalry and the Three Gorges Dam flooded millions of homes, the reasons for building the railway were dubious at best.


Tanggula Pass is the highest railway point in the world

Officially, the Chinese idea of ​​marching west the policy that would promote economic development in 12 of the country's westernmost provinces was sold on the basis of poverty alleviation.

When the railway opened in 2006, it initially supported this promise. In the first five months of operation, it carried 2.5 million visitors, resulting in an expansion of regional tourism.

This expansion resulted in growth above the national average and in turn led to a radical redevelopment of Lhasa with new hotels, paved streets and condominiums. Critics called the transformation the “second invasion of Tibet.”

But this boom didn't last long. The Tibet Autonomous Region was still the least developed place in China at the time of my visit.

Apart from economic aspects, the most sensible thing would be to consider the strategic value of the railway. British journalist Tim Marshall and author of Prisoners of Geography puts the issue coolly and geopolitically: “If China did not control Tibet, it would always be possible that India would try to do so.”

And there is the role of the railway in building a country.

Vast nations like the United States and Russia were shaped by railroads, many of which were built by Chinese workers. Meanwhile, in China, the colonial power of railways was felt as foreign powers laid tracks across the country in the 19th century.

But in the wild scenario I observe through the window, geopolitics seems something distant and very limited to humans.

Arrival in the “Forbidden City”

The passage to Lhasa follows the Kyi Chu River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River to the north. It flows through a fragile valley flanked by craggy black peaks, whose edges pierce the cotton clouds.

I realized that this was a real “stone fortress,” which explains why this was undoubtedly the last medieval city to surrender to modernity.


For many years it was not believed that the railway would ever reach Lhasa

The reasons for Lhasa's allure to any selfrespecting world traveler are obvious: its remote location, its peculiarity and its isolation, despite the forces of globalization and Chinese assimilation.

Lhasa is 3,700 kilometers from Beijing and 284 kilometers from the nearest foreign capital Thimphu, Bhutan. Even by train, the city still seems to be the furthest place from the world.

Finally, I got off the train exhausted and strengthened.

But before I had time to breathe in the Tibetan air more deeply, a security guard showed me a large white tent where all foreign visitors must register their arrival. After a few long minutes, a red stamp and signature indicated that I had been released.

Regulations require you to book a tour with a registered tour company, so freedom in Lhasa only lasts as long as you walk through the station lobby.

A cheerful Tibetan citizen held a sign with the tour company's logo and asked, “Are you Mr. Bird, Thomas?”

He places a white silk scarf around my neck the traditional Tibetan welcome sign and leads me into a minibus full of strangelooking foreigners. We chatted briefly as we drove to Barkhor, the historic center of Lhasa.

And I discover that I'm the only one on the bus who didn't arrive in Lhasa by plane.