China's Sky Train: A Great Leap West to an Impenetrable Warehouse in Tibet

August 5, 2006 12:27 | by Lynette Dumble and Susanne Menihane

July 1, 2006 marked the departure of the first train from Beijing to the roof of the world, with President Hu Jintao trumpeting an engineering feat which puts the Peoples Republic of China's interests within 48 hours of Tibet's heartland, as opposed to weeks and months via land routes. Coincidentally, the launch marked the onset of intensified political repression in Tibet with the new Communist Party chief, Zhang Qingli, announcing that the struggle against the Dalai Lama and his supporters was a "fight to the death".

Stretching from China's western city of Xining to Lhasa, the provincial capital of Tibet, the new rail was manually built by 100,000 workers over a period of five years, cost $US 4.2 billion, and stretches over 1,956 kilometres. Roughly a quarter, 550 kilometres, of the train's tracks rest on frozen earth , and around half, 960 kilometres, sit 4,000-plus metres above sea level with oxygen levels approximately half that at sea level.

Consisting of sixteen carriages equipped with oxygen facilities to prevent altitude sickness, Train 27 Special Express, also dubbed the Sky Train, was hailed by Hu Jintao in his televised speech as a "magnificent feat by the Chinese people". More accurately, credit also belongs with US General Electric and Canada's Bombardier for the design and construction of rail engines and carriages to withstand the journey through Tibet's frozen alps.

During the journey to and from Lhasa, the train crosses numerous bridges constructed to avoid contact with unstable areas of permafrost. Track embankments are stabilized by pipes fitted with cooling elements and driven beneath the earth's crust. At one point the train reaches Tanggula Mountain, 5,068 metres above sea level, and regarded by local Tibetans as "insurmountable even by eagles". Tanggula Mountain station, the world's loftiest rail stopover, is operated and monitored by satellite. On reaching the unmanned station, Sky Train's passengers had already strapped on oxygen masks, some had nose bleeds, others were vomiting, as potato chip bags burst their seams and pens spat their ink.

In heralding Sky Train as the fulfilment of a 100-year-old dream, China admits that Beijing had been eying Tibet long before the bloody annexation of 1949. The railway venture, by far the most ambitious and costly step in China's Great Leap West to develop its western regions, had a negative impact on Tibetans which pre-empted the July 1 rail launch; in part by displacing Tibetan nomads from their rural settings into cities totally alien to their lifestyle; and also by exclusively favouring the Han Chinese, by now the dominant population in Tibet, via the employment which came with the project.

Fifty years ago, Tibet's Qinghai Plateau was a scantly populated wilderness. Today, following "development a la China", it is a land conquered and settled by Han engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. The streets of Lhasa, as too those of Shigatse, bear testimony to Tibetan "disappearance'': Han Chinese monopolize the running of factories, shops, bars and restaurants, even to the point of carrying out the shoe repairs and selling the peaches. On this background, despite China's claims to the contrary, the anticipated economic windfall from the railway are unlikely to flow towards native Tibetans.

China's earlier economic paradigm for Tibet led to the demolition of world heritage-status buildings, to the extent of entire neighbourhoods, as Communist Concrete turned Lhasa into a Himalayan Bangkok, awash with bars, video arcades, military barracks, and one thousand brothels. Thriving prostitution is attributed to tourism, the vast inflow of China's military, and the economic disparities resulting from rural-urban migration. Most prostitutes are Han Chinese, but poverty has also driven Tibetan women into the sex industry. By day, the brothels operate as hair salons and bars. By night, they become "pink parlours" where the flesh trade prospers under China's modernisation drive.

China's development model for Tibet reeks of cultural and religious genocide. Since 1949, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been slaughtered at the behest of Beijing's whims; 175,000 while held hostage in prison and labour camps, and 150,000 from execution. To this day, displaying the Dalai Lama's photograph or the Tibetan flag, or protesting Chinese occupation, brings harsh penalties, with Tibet's Buddhist nuns and monks at highest risk of imprisonment and torture.

In the name of socialist purity, all but eight of Tibet's 6,259 Buddhist monasteries and convents were destroyed during the first twenty-five years of China's occupation. Today the odd monastery is restored, but purely to attract tourist dollars. China's phasing out of the Tibetan language from primary education has hastened Tibet's identity crisis, while the poor health care afforded Tibetan women translates to their being forty times more likely to die in childbirth than mothers in Shanghai.

Like China's development paradigm, the Sky Train project also has major flaws, with the rail's foundations sinking into the permafrost, together with the thousands of yak grazing along the tracks becoming a derailment threat, within the first month of operations. Worryingly too, the line passes through an earthquake prone zone where yearly tremors register around six on the Richter Scale, but assessment of the earthquake impact of the rail's cooling pipes in rural Tibet awaits the completion of a seismological monitoring system.

Train 27 Special Express facilitates the rapid mobilisation of China's military strength against the Dalai Lama's faithful, but the project also enables China to transfer the country's entire export and import trade to an impenetrable warehouse on the roof of the world, Tibet. Leaving aside the fact that the destiny of Tibet's rich oil and natural gas resources lies in China's hands, Sky Train is major step towards China fulfilling the long-standing adage that "Whoever rules Tibet rules Asia, and Whoever rules Asia rules the World". But in this context, world watchdogs need to be aware that our Tibetan sisters and brothers are indeed an endangered species.

Dr. Lynette Dumble and Ms. Susanne Menihane are social and environmental activists from the Global Sisterhood Network Dr. Dumble being GSN's Founder and Director.