Oliver August in Tuotuohe meets some of the 100,000
men building a 700-mile line across the roof of
XIZHONG needed both hands to explain the most important
skill employed by the 100,000 men building a controversial
railway across Tibet.
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
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.
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.
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.
project is part of Beijing's grand strategy to ensure
central control over the immense country and prolong
its economic boom.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
a commercial service now only two or three years
away, Tibetans regularly gaze down from snow-capped
hilltops on an unlikely spectacle.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
sunrise the next morning, local school children
chant prayers and old women prostrate themselves
by an altar mount that now stands under a railway
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.
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.
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.
More than 1,000
point: 17,146 ft
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
Officially Pounds 2 billion Construction: Started
in 2001. Commercial service should begin in 2006
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
Times Newspapers Ltd, 2004