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A rail journey to take your breath away

24 Juli 2004
The Times

Oliver August in Tuotuohe meets some of the 100,000 men building a 700-mile line across the roof of the world

YE XIZHONG needed both hands to explain the most important skill employed by the 100,000 men building a controversial railway across Tibet.

"You take a bag filled with oxygen in your left hand like this and squeeze," he said. "At the same time you feed a tube attached to the bag into one nostril with your right hand. Then breathe and rejoice."
Mr Ye was taking a short break, together with dozens of other migrant labourers working on the track to the "roof of the world" that will soon connect Tibet permanently to the outside world.

Dressed in rags, his ears frostbitten and his face burnt black from the sun, he said: "We couldn't survive without the extra oxygen."
Working at up to 17,000ft along the 700-mile (1,100km) line from Golmud to Lhasa, the men have long been waiting to return to China's coastal plains, a day that is now drawing nearer. Beijing recently announced the completion of the trickiest sections of the Pounds 2 billion project that Chinese leaders have dreamt of, and Tibetans have feared, since the 1950s.

After several failed attempts, construction started in earnest in 2001 after engineers found ways to tunnel through sheer ice and lay tracks on thawing permafrost. The new techniques have worked, and the first cargo trains are now in limited operation.

The project is part of Beijing's grand strategy to ensure central control over the immense country and prolong its economic boom.

But to men such as Mr Ye, who advance the Tibet link by a kilometre a day, the only thing that matters is the next oxygen fix. "Lots of workers have died," he said. "They work regardless of whether they feel bad because they want the money and then suddenly they collapse when it's too late to help them."

Even though the workers are supposed to get daily access to oxygen, at many construction sites it has run out. The resulting altitude sickness can be severely debilitating. Within 12 hours of arriving at 15,000ft, I developed a splitting headache, retching nausea and could only sleep for an hour a night. Even machines are affected by the altitude. The diesel locomotives only achieve 60 per cent of their usual power because of the thin air. Many of the labourers hired from the plains have been working on the railway for years without a break, but earning Pounds 120 per month, double what they can make at home.

They live in muddy tents with stove pipes peeking out the sides. In winter, temperatures plummet to -30C (-22F)and even in summer it snows regularly. The men work in shifts around the clock, shivering under lighting rigs at night.

The weather is almost as bad for the track as for the men. To build a railway in Tibet was long thought impossible. Chairman Mao Zedong despaired whenever the subject came up.

The solution now being implemented involves "insulating" the tracks. All 700 miles are elevated by an average of 25 ft above the permafrost that thaws daily in summer, only to freeze over again at night. No ordinary track could stand the resulting strains.

In tunnels, the surrounding earth is frozen artificially to maintain a solid ice shell. Ma Wei, of the Chinese Academy of Science, said: "Where passive measures are not enough, cooling agent is pumped through pipes deep in the ground."

With a commercial service now only two or three years away, Tibetans regularly gaze down from snow-capped hilltops on an unlikely spectacle.

Abandoned cement mills litter vast valleys under a huge blue sky, while antelopes race through specially built "environmental" underpasses in the embankment. There are even traffic lights on access roads to allow uninterrupted migration. The stations have yet to be built. In Tuotuohe, a local official stood among sheep belonging to herders in traditional yurts decorated with prayer flags and said: "Right here will be our passenger building."

A shantytown has sprung up near by to supply the construction boom. Petrol fumes rise over a stack of old tyres; drivers of the 6,000 lorries that pass through every day, eventually to be replaced by rolling stock, are beckoned by prostitutes.

The spirit of Tuotuohe is reminiscent of 19th-century boom towns in the American West, with the Tibetans cast in the role of the Indians.
Chinese fortune-seekers, botch-job repairmen and con artists seek frontier riches.

They throng restaurants using mock Ming dynasty furniture and that claim to have live seafood from faraway Shanghai in their murky tanks. At night, off-duty workers and entrepreneurs gather in the dingy Storm nightclub for all-male ballroom dancing to Cantonese pop music.

Li Zhongxiang, a migrant restaurateur, freely admits taking advantage of local people. "I rented two places from a lazy Tibetan for 9,000 yuan (Pounds 700)," he said. "The bigger place is now my restaurant, the smaller I rent out." He intends to leave when the railway boom is over and to buy a Mercedes.

Despite a sign outside the railway office proclaiming "We benefit the Tibetan people", few Tibetans have construction jobs. "We don't employ them," said the foreman of signal installation crew. "They always quarrel."

At sunrise the next morning, local school children chant prayers and old women prostrate themselves by an altar mount that now stands under a railway bridge.

Traditional life appears still intact and few have given up hope of preserving their culture while enjoying improved education and health care. Nevertheless, Tibetans agree that they are unlikely train passengers because they could never afford a ticket.

Instead, much of the funds spent on their doorstep will benefit gold diggers and oilmen who are already setting up shop as the railway transforms the economics of minerals extraction.

Beijing also hopes to lure additional settlers and tourists to Tibet. They are set to enjoy one of the world's great railway journeys, ranking with the Trans-Siberian. To avoid altitude sickness, as well as contact with local people, carriages will be sealed and pressurised.


Length: 700 miles

Bridges: More than 1,000

Highest point: 17,146 ft

Altitude: 80 per cent of the track is above 13,300ft, at which height locomotive power is reduced by 40 per cent because of the thin air

Cost: Officially Pounds 2 billion Construction: Started in 2001. Commercial service should begin in 2006 or 2007

The Chinese railway system: At present the country has 50,000 miles of track. This will rise to 63,000 miles by 2020 to accommodate the country's economic boom and the growing mobility of 1.3 billion Chinese

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2004

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