A Railway Runs Through It

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A Railway Runs Through It
by Michael Buckley



Fast track to oblivion in the highlands of Tibet


Tibet stamp

When the first train arrived in Lhasa in October 2005, it set a number of records. It set a record for the highest railway on earth, eclipsing the Peruvian Railway of the Andes by a few hundred metres. The railway through Tibet is most likely the most expensive ever constructed, costing over US$4.1 billion to lay 1,130 km of track. Half of that track is constructed over permafrost terrain––another world first. And for a number of reasons––environmental, demographical––the line is the holder of a more dubious honour. It is the world's most controversial railway.

Chinese news sources all wax lyrical about the great sacrifice and hardship that Chinese engineers and workers endured in building this line––which crosses more than 400 bridges and bores through some 30 km of tunnels. The railway is a source of great national pride––on a par with China's second manned space flight. But the Tibetans do not see the railway as an engineering marvel. They see it as the Genocide Express––speeding up the destruction of Tibetan culture. Tibetans in Lhasa are fearful of the changes that will take place when the railway starts up in earnest in the fall of 2006. You only have to go to the town of Bayi, east of Lhasa, to see what they mean. Bayi has very little Tibetan presence: it's a fully–fledged Chinese town, crowded with white–tiled buildings, karaoke halls and mini–brothels catering to Chinese army garrisons. Bayi means "8–1" in Chinese (commemorating August 1, 1927, founding date of the People's Liberation Army), but Tibetans joke that it means eight Chinese for every one Tibetan.

Lhasa Railway

The Tibet railway was constructed over the period 2001 to 2005: it cost more over that four–year period than the entire budget spent in Tibet on education and health–care since it was invaded by China in 1950. The railway was not built for philanthropic purposes: it was built to exploit the untapped natural resources of Tibet, and to tighten Beijing's control over the troubled region. In breach of the Geneva Conventions, population transfer is a policy actively pursued by the Chinese in Tibet, with incentives for settlers ranging from generous tax breaks to higher salaries. Already, Chinese settlers and military outnumber Tibetans living in Lhasa: the arrival of the railway may open the floodgates. In 2001, when the railway line reached the remote city of Kashgar (in northwest China), immigration of Chinese settlers increased by 30 percent within a year.

The new railway will definitely boost the number of Chinese tourists flocking to Tibet. Tibet is viewed as an exotic colonial destination, a far–flung corner of the Chinese realm. But lower–income Chinese have been stymied by the high cost by air travel into Tibet, or else by the discomfort and lengthy time required for travel by sleeper bus. The train will change all that. Tibet presently sees upward of a million Chinese tourists a year: that number could potentially soar with the promised comfort and speed of the train.

Urban Lhasa

Trains on the Golmud–to–Lhasa track will travel at speeds of 100–140 km/hr, and will take less than 10 hours to cover the 1,130–km distance. By bus, the same journey would require at least 25 hours. Trials for the new railway commence in mid–2006. There are some peculiar obstacles to overcome. Chief among these is sudden ascent to altitude, which can cause passengers to reach for the sick bags––or turn blue. Most of the track in Tibet is above 4000 metres: along the route is Tanggula Shan station, which at 5070 metres will be the highest in the world. The solution to the altitude problem is to pressurise the railcars, rather like jetliners. This requires high–tech tinkering. Enter the US company General Electric Transportation, which is supplying all the locomotives for the project. Three Canadian companies––Bombardier, Power Corporation and Nortel––are heavily involved. Montreal–based Bombardier secured a deal worth US$281 million to supply 361 special railcars for the Tibet railway. Bombardier claimed it did not see the need to conduct a needs–assessment for the railway because it is a humble supplier and not the main project operator. Bombardier heads a joint–venture consortium that includes Montreal–based Power Corporation. And Ontario–based Nortel Networks secured a contract to supply a digital wireless communications network for the railway.

None of these companies appear to adhere to their own code of ethics when it comes to the Chinese deals. It's as if the Chinese government has put up a sign at the gates of the Middle Kingdom: Abandon company ethics, all ye who enter here. Nortel has worked for a number of years with the Chinese government (along with Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google) to develop filtering technology. China is known to use such technology for rigidly policing the Internet––and for tracking down cyber–dissidents, resulting in stiff jail sentences. This would seem to be at rather large odds with Nortel's privacy statement for the Internet, which swears that it will not sell, rent or share personal data with any other organization or third party. The company's blurb on ethical business practices cites integrity as its cornerstone: "We strive to do the right thing for individuals, organizations, and society in general."

Urban Lhasa Poster

The Dalai Lama doesn't see the railway in Tibet as the right thing––neither for individuals in Tibet, nor for Tibetan society in general. He has bluntly stated that the railway is part of China's plans for "cultural genocide" in Tibet. His personal philosophy is simple: "If you can, serve others. If not, at least refrain from harming them."

This raises the important question: are corporations accountable––and responsible––for potentially harmful actions? When it comes to matters like pollution, yes, definitely––there are laws in place, and severe penalties for offenders in many nations. In the case of internet filtering and surveillance, in February 2006 the US Congress began to address concerns that US–based internet companies are assisting the Chinese government in silencing dissidents. Under consideration is legislation for a Global Online Freedom Act to ensure global access to information on the net. But when it comes to assisting genocidal regimes, it seems that governments are willing to turn a blind eye.

Investigative author Edwin Black documented the collusion of US–based IBM corporation with Nazi Germany. In the 1930s there were no computers in use, but there was a precursor: the IBM punch–card machine. This technology was in fact customised, with IBM's full complicity, to automate persecution of the Jews. In the sole interest of generating fat profits, IBM even carried on with the collusion after the US declared war on Germany in 1942. When WWII ended, IBM rushed to destroy any records of its links to Nazi Germany through European subsidiaries. IBM managed to evade any hint of responsibility for wartime reparations, and evaded any accusation of complicity in war crimes––in genocide, in fact. Edwin Black's findings are documented in his remarkable book IBM and the Holocaust, published in 2001 (the book is supported by a website: www.ibmandtheholocaust.com).

The actions of the Canadian companies involved in the Tibetan railway has raised the hackles of human–rights activists and exiled Tibetans living in Canada. A campaign has been launched calling on Bombardier, Power Corporation and Nortel to withdraw from the railway project. Action has spawned a special website, hosted by Students for a Free Tibet: www.bombardieroutoftibet.org. So far, the Canadian companies have shown no signs of backing off. In the UK, Free Tibet Campaign (www.freetibet.org) has called for a tourism boycott of the rail–line, particularly targeting G.W.Travel Ltd, which is marketing this as "the Ultimate Rail Adventure"––and one with an astronomical price tag.

***

Tibet Railroad

At the end of the line in Tibet is Lhasa Railway Station, which, according to its Chinese creators, incorporates traditional Tibetan design elements––with an inward–sloping facade. Trouble is, there is no traditional model for a building of this kind––because Tibet has never had a railway. Even motor vehicles were rare in pre–1950 Tibet. Wheeled vehicles like motorcycles were effectively banned in the 1940s because the ruling regent and the conservative clergy believed that wheels would scar the sacred surface of the earth.

With the railway project, this notion may yet be proven correct. Over 550 km of track has been constructed over fragile permafrost terrain. A project of this scale over permafrost has not been attempted elsewhere: it is unknown what environmental shocks are in store. An immediate dilemma is posed for migrating animals, like the highly endangered Tibetan antelope. Sections of the line are elevated, with fencing in place to stop yaks wandering onto the tracks: this forms a kind of mini great wall across northern Tibet. To get past the barrier, engineers have thoughtfully built culverts for animals to pass under the tracks. But while yaks can certainly be coaxed through such culverts by herders, wild animals might not be so easily persuaded.



Michael Buckley has travelled widely in Tibet, the Himalayas and Central Asia. He is author of Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World, and Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide. The guidebook is supported by a website: www.himmies.com

Lhasa Railway Station
Lhasa Railway Station

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Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2006. All rights reserved.


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Buy Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Buy Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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