World’s Highest Railway Offers Yaks on the Tracks

BEIJING ~ The night before I was to leave for Tibet on the new Beijing-Lhasa Express, my travel agent called to say he couldn’t get me a seat. The highest railway in the world, inaugurated last July, is a hot ticket.

So, I flew from Beijing to Lhasa, where my guide greeted me with a white silk scarf, or “khatag,” and something even better: a return train ticket.

Many tourists take the express in the opposite direction. But no matter which way you go, the railway is the ride of a lifetime.

It arcs for 2,525 miles across the heartland of the Middle Kingdom, or “Mandarin Zhongguo,” the Chinese name for China, and the Tibetan Plateau. It has 675 tunnels and bridges. Eighty percent of the last segment completed in 2006 between Lhasa and Golmud in Qinghai province sits at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet, and the top of the route is at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass.

The US$4.2-billion Beijing-Lhasa Express is the flashiest recent addition to China’s rapidly expanding railway network, which will get about 62,000 miles of new track in the next three years.

It is also the most controversial, seen by critics as a means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, although few would debate that tourist development has had a positive effect on the economy.

A new station at the Tibetan end of the line also serves the more southerly Sichuan-Tibet Railway. I waited there for the Beijing-bound train, which leaves Lhasa at 8 a.m. daily, standing among Chinese tour groups, Tibetan businessmen, European backpackers and American students.

I took seat No. 31 in Car 6 with a fold-out map of China to keep me oriented. Each car had an electronic sign showing the speed, altitude and next stop. Apart from the frequently repeated “You are welcome to take this train,” announcements on board were chiefly in Mandarin Chinese.

I had booked one of the four-berth soft-sleeper compartments that foreigners prefer. They’re in front of the six-berth sleepers the Chinese favor and the hard-seat cars holding mostly Tibetans.

In my compartment, the beds were stacked like facing bunk beds across a table, with pressed cotton sheets, pillows and comforters. Each berth was equipped with a TV monitor and headset as well as oxygen canisters for those with altitude sickness. The curtained window was spotlessly clean and slightly tinted.

From a pull-down seat in the corridor, I watched the passing scenery. O n the wide, treeless Tibetan Plateau, villagers gazed at the passing train and yaks bolted off the tracks. Up here, the curvature of the Earth seemed almost apparent to the naked eye, and every few minutes another nameless range of snow-capped peaks with glaciers streaming down their sides appeared on the horizon.

Closer to the tracks, snowmelt collected in puddle-like lakes, and rivers with ice-crusted banks made lazy curves across the nubby brown tundra.

The railway crosses hundreds of miles of fragile permafrost and the range of the endangered Tibetan antelope. Myriad high-tech engineering solutions were required, such as building subterranean animal passageways and piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw.

Tanggula Pass came and went, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the high country. Much of the way, we followed the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, completed 53 years ago. We stopped rarely and briefly.

When it was time to eat, we filed into the dining car for an unappetizing meal served on tin plates: potatoes, cabbage, greens, a slice of Spam, half a hard-boiled egg and rice. The fare improved as the journey continued and the staff took on produce in big cities. But by then, people were subsisting on snacks, instant noodles or beer.

The last thing I remember on the first night was a 30-minute stop in the lonesome city of Golmud, devoted to mining and chemical manufacture. When I awoke the next morning, we were nearing Xining, capital of Qinghai province.

All that day, China passed by my window, decorated in sunshine and cherry blossoms. I closed my eyes for big, ugly, polluted cities like Lanzhou in Gansu province and opened them for the idyllic countryside.

The second night, I went to sleep around Xian, home of the terracotta warriors, and awoke just in time for our 8am arrival at Beijing’s West Station, reflecting that in two days I’d seen more of the country than many Chinese see in a lifetime.

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