China's Great Train Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet

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  • Edition: 1st
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  • Copyright: 2009-05-12
  • Publisher: Griffin

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Over the Past Three Decades, China Has Emerged as an economic superpower while Tibet has struggled to exert its autonomy. In China's Great Train, Abrahm Lustgarten, an investigative reporter with ProPublica, uncovers the audacious project to build a railway into this rich frontier-as a means to fuel China's breakneck expansion and to strengthen the country's grip over the land and its people. Lustgarten follows Chinese engineer Zhang Luxin as he makes the train's route over the treacherous mountains and permafrost possible (for now) and Tibetan shopkeeper Renzin, who is caught in a boomtown that favors the Han Chinese. As the "sky train"-the highest and steepest railway in the world and the culmination of a plan first envisioned by Mao Zedong-extends to Lhasa, the lives of both the Chinese and the Tibetans fundamentally change, sometimes for good, sometimes not.

Author Biography

Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for ProPublica, the not-for-profit newsroom launched in 2008, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant for international reporting. A former contributing writer for Fortune magazine, his articles have also appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Outside, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic Adventure, Salon, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

A Fifty-Year Ambition
Now Is the Timep. 3
A Sometime Buddhistp. 25
A Bigger Stagep. 47
Stray Dogsp. 70
Go West
Moving Heaven and Earthp. 99
Free Tibetp. 116
Under a Han Sunp. 143
The Gamblerp. 160
Treasure House
The Race to Reach Lhasap. 185
Paradise Rebuiltp. 205
When the Wang Family Came to Townp. 229
Hu's Westp. 252
Epiloguep. 274
Notesp. 279
Bibliographyp. 289
Acknowledgmentsp. 294
Indexp. 297
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


China's Great Train
Far above the earth, into the blue, You, wild Kunlun, have seen All that was fairest in the world of men. Your three million white jade dragons in flight Freeze the sky with piercing cold. In summer days your melting torrents Flood the streams and rivers, Turning men into fish and turtles ...
To Kunlun now I say ... Could I but draw my sword o'ertopping heaven, I'd cleave you in three: One piece for Europe, One for America, One to keep in the East. Peace would then reign over the world, The same warmth and cold throughout the globe.
--Mao Zedong, "Kunlun," 1935
DIMLY LIT CORRIDORS SNAKE THROUGH IMPERSONAL AND inconspicuous government buildings in downtown Beijing. These are China's true halls of power, remnants of a twentieth-century China that is increasingly becoming outdated--an architecture of communism, of pale, outsized bureaucracies. Inside, voices and cigarette smoke ricochet off the cold polished granite. Fluorescent lights accentuate the faded lichen-colored paint. Behind the doors, endless and unceremoniously numbered, the big decisions about China's future are made.
Outside, the city of Beijing has moved on. It buzzes with the optimistic temperament of 15 million people and its pole position in China's breakneck race for economic greatness. In just one short decade, its streets have been transformed into broad avenues packed not with bicycles and rickshaws but with hundreds of thousands of cars driven by newly affluent and unabashedly proud middle-class workers. There is little of the developing-world chaos of Delhi or Kathmandu. Audis and Ferraris zip past the Cartier store on Beijing'smain shopping avenue. Overpasses and exit ramps are lined with green and purple neon strips of light, lending a tacky but futuristic feel. Across downtown, mammoth plates of polished glass encase brightly lit storefronts--designer leather handbags (real ones), flat-screen TVs. The lines outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks franchises swamp the occasional corner noodle shops. This is the new China.
Old hutongs, the quaint thin alleyways full of traditional courtyard homes, have mostly been torn down to make way for the new. Those that haven't are being restored with a vigor grown from a newfound sense of tourist-market potential rather than of valued heritage. This urban, and for the most part eastern, China has already made the leap into the twenty-first century global economy and is joyously consuming the goods its factories once only exported for the rest of the world. The booming middle class, with its cars and skyscrapers, is self-perpetuating, a ravenous appetite that energizes the breakneck Chinese economy. This cycle demands fuel on a level unprecedented in world history--more land as well as grander cities, a politically willing citizenry, ever more consumer hunger, and a still larger middle class. It also, of course, demands the natural resources to construct it all.
Fortunately for those piloting the vast experiment, China today is nouveau riche. Mao Zedong's iron-fisted Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution drained Beijing's government accounts, but Deng Xiaoping's "capitalist road" has brought China back to solid financial footing and economic growth through a paradoxical jumble of expansion and Communist-era ideals and social policies. While most of China's 1.3 billion people still struggle in poverty, the nation's coffers are finally overflowing--much at the expense of western regions that provided the labor and resources for the east.
It's that cash that has emboldened China's leaders to think theycan extend prosperity by simply manufacturing more growth on a massive scale, and financing it all from their hive of offices in Beijing. Across the country, whole cities are being rebuilt with seeming disregard for demand; dozens of sky-rises are erected almost overnight with no clear indication of who will inhabit them. The western outposts are linked by an expanding transportation infrastructure--roads, power transmission lines, pipelines, and railways--built at a rate that makes Dwight Eisenhower look lazy. China is in the throes of an industrial revolution that can only be compared to America's great expansion in the late nineteenth century.
By the year 2000, the construction of the unprecedented Three Gorges Dam was well under way, the country had launched spacecraft and planned to send astronauts into orbit, the World Trade Organization was preparing to open its door, and Beijing was on track to win the equivalent of international knighthood, an Olympic bid. It looked clear that China could do almost anything it wanted. Its momentum appeared unstoppable. Social unrest and environmental catastrophes, the makings of what China expert Bruce Gilley fears will be a "metastatic crisis," lurked in the remote and destitute agricultural provinces, but these were far from the eastern megalopolises that were driving the country's emergence in the global economy. China's leaders were taking full advantage of a historic opportunity to reinvent itself as an economic wonder and bring its full society into the fold of success. Its continuing growth simply depended on making smart strategic decisions that would bring business and investment while maintaining stability and control.
So it was especially curious in the fall of 2000 when a seemingly obscure development puzzle emerged from inside Beijing's halls of power to become a paramount national priority: how could a train be built to Tibet?
WINTER WAS DESCENDING UNDETECTABLY THROUGH THE THICK ATMOSpheric haze of soot and sand that obscures Beijing's seasons on the day in October 2000 when the conversation again turned to Tibet, the far-flung and controversy-riddled region in China's westernmost frontier. Behind one of the anonymous doorways inside the Ministry of Railways compound, thirty or so scientists, engineers, and politicians were assembled around a stately wooden conference table to talk about the possibility of laying rails to the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, the fabled city of Lhasa. Among them was a fifty-four-year-old junior career engineer, Zhang Luxin. Soft-spoken and slightly built, and with his dark wispy hair combed over a thinning top, he physically embodied the lack of authority he possessed in a room full of more senior technocrats.
Zhang had spent a career on China's railways, much of it in Tibet. But he had not yet made a mark in the railway bureaus' vast hierarchies. His involvement in the meeting was owed to his solid engineering skills rather than any sort of political agility. In fact, he was among the lowest-ranking men in attendance, and therefore the least likely to speak up. Ministerial-level officials and regional leaders who had traveled cross-country from Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces crowded the room with a heady mixture of power, ego, and scientific knowledge. They had been bandying around ideas about a railway to Tibet over the previous year, but with little headway. A senior scientist present at many of the ministry's meetings on Tibet could not recall Zhang being present at any of the previous conventions; he mostly sat quietly off to the side and listened. Yet by the end of the day, Zhang would speak out boldly, even inappropriately given China's strict etiquette for respecting authority, giving shapeto what would become the distinctive first project of China's new century.
Tibet accounts for more than an eighth of the land mapped today within China's borders, yet in 2000, it was the only region in the country without a rail link to connect it to the east. Almost as soon as the Chinese army entered Lhasa in 1951, building a railway became a top goal. But at the time there was no money to pursue the project, which required the invention of new engineering tactics for crossing the lofty mountains and unstable frozen tundra. In many ways, Tibet's infrastructure in the decades since had remained more tied to India and Nepal than to Beijing--something Chinese nationalists found excruciatingly untenable.
For many people in the boardroom that day, this in itself was the motivation to finally get the railway done. The vast 1-million-square-mile plateau that makes up most of the TAR is an ecological wonderland, but it held little obvious value for China as a nation. Tibetans did not have much industry or trade to offer--they dealt in yak tails, fur, and salt--and were mostly engrossed in their own cultural values. China had made scant investment in elevating Tibetan society--through education, health care, or an improved standard of living--never reaching a point where the people there were interested in or able to engage fully in China's economic machine. Yet China was suddenly willing to invest years and billions to lay railroad tracks into what many eastern Chinese view as a wasteland of formidable desert and mountains. Of course, there was the strategic military importance of Tibet, which borders China's economic and political rival, India, and had been used as a base for Allied air operations during World War II. But modern defense technology seemed to make Tibet less essential as a staging ground than as an old-fashioned natural buffer.
The Chinese hoped there were mineral resources to be discovered under the Tibetan Plateau, the highest region on Earth, but the number-crunching bureaucrats had determined that the cost of bringing anything over the rough land to China's eastern industrial centers, even on a train, was financially impractical. One large copper deposit had been found years earlier, but its development had lagged because it was many rugged miles from a viable road. A single railway line that would overcome such obstacles, it seemed, could not be drawn. Beijing's last great railway extension to China's remote provinces, to Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwest, had been completed a year earlier. Xinjiang, however, boasted extensive lands fit for agriculture and forestry and large mineral lodes and water resources. It also was predicted to deliver 37 percent of China's internal coal supplies and 25 percent of its oil and natural gas.
A train to Lhasa had defied fifty years of efforts to build it for good reasons. Tibet, which stakes the full southwest corner of China, is bounded by the world's largest mountains on all sides: in addition to the Himalayas and the Karakoram on the borders with India, Pakistan, and Nepal, the Kunlun Mountains divide the Tibetan Plateau from the lowlands of the northeastern province of Qinghai, and the jagged Nyenchen Tangla range separates it from Yunnan and Sichuan to the east. At the heart of this geographic sanctuary is the Chang Tang, a formidable plateau region four times the size of France, stretching fifteen hundred miles east to west and five hundred miles north to south. The plateau is home to the largest subarctic permafrost region on the planet, a delicate frozen soil that becomes treacherous when it melts. The geographic difficulties defied the best science and railway engineering China could devise. International experts said the railway simply could not be built, and China's railway engineers were considered by many to be the most capable in the world.
No matter how a visitor enters Tibet, the roads climb to altitudes higher than any mountain in the continental United States. They twist and wind through steep gorges loaded like cannons with unstable rock and snow at their peaks and flushing with torrents of interminable water in their troughs. Passersby must weave somewhere in between, on paths frequently swept out of existence by the mountains' hazards. One route from the north, from Qinghai, offers the only exception. There are the usual deep gorges and glacier-capped mountain ranges rising out of China's hinterland into Tibet's northern steppe, but they span a short distance compared to any other gateway. Once you breach the first main pass of the Kunlun, the plateau extends for hundreds of miles in what seems at first glance to be docile flatlands and rolling hills, a relief from the violently savage protrusions and peaks of the region's other borders. But then the route crosses the Chang Tang and presents other problems. The flatlands are congested with huge expanses of intermittently frozen marshes, lakes, and soggy permafrost that heave and shift more actively than almost any other geologic environment on Earth. In places it is wrought with quicksand deep enough to swallow a tank. As if to add insult to the injuries of the trek, the endless fields sustain an elevation of around fifteen thousand feet--an altitude that would require pressurization in an airplane and where a breath of air contains half the oxygen it does at sea level.
Yet, the Chang Tang was the path of least resistance should a railway ever be built. Starting from the northern outpost of Golmud in Qinghai, it is nearly a straight 710 miles south to the Lhasa Valley. It was roughly the route Tibetan traders and dignitaries had used for centuries to reach the Mongols and the Chinese via foot and on horseback, the first route the Chinese army pounded into a road in 1951, the route Mao had hoped to turn into a railway before the CulturalRevolution crippled China and made such an effort impossible. It was also the place in which Zhang had spent much of the three previous decades, stationed in tents and a forlorn metal trailer, virtually banished from China's mainstream scientific community, researching the frozen soil and preparing the country for a railway that until that October morning looked like it would never happen.
In the decades since the army's capture of Lhasa, discussions of a railway had proceeded in fits and starts. More often than not, plans were abandoned--sometimes for the lack of money and technology, sometimes for the lack of political will, even once for the lack of food. But the underlying problem was always the ability to engineer a system that could cross either the mountains or the endless plain of frozen soil, a puzzle that had fallen in a small way to Zhang, among others. He had been jerked through most of the false starts--on the verge of conducting breakthrough research, with nowhere to go and nothing to do when work was stopped. By the 1990s, he no longer believed he would ever have a chance to ride an engine into Lhasa, to prove himself as an engineer.
An old Chinese cadre who had been stationed in Tibet since the start of the occupation, and who had at one point risen to become the TAR's party secretary, was, however, pushing a plan. In 1951, Yin Fatang had been assigned by Mao to serve as a secretary of the working committee in what was called, before the creation of autonomous prefectures, the Tibet Military District. It was likely then that his portrait was taken in front of the revered Potala Palace wearing his government-issue canvas uniform and cap with the trademark red star, a spindly beard hanging from his chin to his sternum in a combination of Fu Manchu and Fidel Castro. Yin built his career as a party cog in Tibet. (His whereabouts during the Cultural Revolution remain a mystery.) During much of his time as a bureaucrat inthe region, Tibetans suffered under ruthless policies. When reformminded Secretary-General Hu Yaobang visited the region in early 1980, he was appalled by what he saw. "We feel very bad. We have worked for nearly thirty years, but the life of the Tibetan people has not notably improved. Are we not to blame?" Hu's reign was widely seen as sympathetic to Tibet, a brief window of liberal-leaning policy, and when he came to power one of the first corrective measures he took was the installation of Yin as secretary-general--the province's first leader to speak Tibetan. Yin had been an underling and loyalist of Deng Xiaoping, and Deng reportedly had recommended him for the post. In 1981, Yin proposed to restart the stalled Lhasa railway construction at a working meeting of the central government in Beijing. A railway would tie Tibet more closely with the rest of the nation, he suggested, and it would make it possible for the industrial machinery needed for the development of minerals and resources to be brought to Tibet. As he would summarize in later interviews, the "reason was politics and economics."
Yin soon grew frustrated. "The constant changes and delays in the decision making had greatly harmed the Tibetan people's confidence and enthusiasm in the railway," he wrote in a high-profile 1982 letter circulated to, among others, Secretary-General Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping. "We feel now that everything is ready." Despite a series of personal conversations with Deng on the costs and routing, Yin's arguments were unheard. By the mid-1980s, the party leaders had decided to connect Tibet to the rest of the country in less ambitious ways. Money was flowing to building roads and, eventually, a flurry of airports.
Then, in 1999, President Jiang Zemin launched a monumental campaign to develop China's west, and prospects shifted. His deputy, Hu Jintao, was a former secretary of Tibet, and momentum for projects seemed to grow in earnest. As talks about World Trade Organizationmembership unfolded, U.S. president Bill Clinton warned China that its chances ultimately hinged on the country's ability to equalize standards of living between those in the eastern cities and those in the western rural provinces. The political opportunity seemed ripe.
THE LONG JOURNEY FROM BEIJING TO LHASA AT THE TIME OFFERED A miniseminar on Jiang's ambitions. The Xi'an line toward Tibet--the railway link that swerved closest to the TAR and ended abruptly in the wasteland province of Qinghai--originated in Beijing's western train station. There, monumental twin towers sheathed in bronzetinted stone and glass are joined by an elevated bridge and a hundred-and-fifty-foot archway that evoked awe from a full mile away. The trains lined on its platforms were far less noteworthy. Many of the cars were at least twenty years old, a green paint fading on their walls. A small red scrawl,Xian,in both pinyin and Mandarin characters, marked the line west. The rush to boarding was mayhem, with throngs of people dragging duffels and sacks and boxes, pushing and shoving their way to the mouth of the funnel--a shoulder-width door. There was a frantic sense that those who did not fight their way onboard within seconds would simply be left behind.
Inside, the interiors were utilitarian, and uncomfortably bare, like a jail cell. The numbered bunks, thin slabs of sparsely padded steel, were stacked three to a side, six to a cabin, and braced on clunky steel triangles anchored to the wall. When it wasn't time to sleep, travelers assumed that the upper beds would be folded up and all six passengers in the car would cozy up on the bottom bench to chat. As the train rolled lazily toward Beijing's suburbs, the soot-coated window displayed a stream of monochromatic freeways, transformer stations, and shabby condominiums, and the jolt and clink of hundreds of trackintersections ricocheted through the car. The midafternoon sun disappeared into atmospheric haze, beginning a roughly six-hour period of dusk. Everyone sipped black tea from plastic mugs and played mah-jongg, filling the cramped cabin with raucous noise and cigarette smoke. The men chewed the skin off the roasted knuckles of chicken feet and spat the wet remnants onto the floor by their beds. A woman scraped at the wax inside her ear with a small metal spoon attached to her keychain.
Gradually, over three nights, the train crossed a thousand miles, traversing the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu. As urban Beijing sprawled into the countryside, the landscape was converted to a procession of midsized towns and big cities, all apparently covered in a thin layer of ash. Near Xi'an, a city of 6 million people, the train passed the giant cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, surrounded by huge apartment blocks that stretched for miles. Farther west, a group of people sat around the rim of a decrepit Olympic-size swimming pool while a man fished from its earthbrown water. In Beijing, the trains seemed dilapidated, antique. But with every rhythmic rotation of the locomotive's giant steel wheels, the wealthy east slipped away, and the train transformed into an ever more modern icon against the panorama of China. China's railways, if you take them west, are a time machine.
Jiang's development initiative--"Go West"--was plain to the naked eye. As you headed west, the obvious dilution of wealth coincided with a sharp increase in construction: new roads, factories, airports, cities. In places, earth-moving equipment seemed to outnumber people, and the pace of change left much of the countryside looking ravaged and raked over. Poorer villages were being razed so that cheap modern buildings--blocky, dormitory-style structures with identical tinted glass and generic white tile work--could take theirplaces. At Lanzhou, which in thirty years had bloomed from a poor village to a teeming city almost the size of Chicago, the construction, with the look of temporary solutions, nudged up against the shoreline of the polluted Huang He, or Yellow, River.
On a map, Lanzhou is scarcely halfway across China, yet it flirts in the periphery of ethnic Tibet, an area twice the size of the TAR. A few hours' drive southwest of the city is the Chinese town of Xiahe, home to the head of the Geluk order of Tibetan Buddhism and Labrang Monastery, the sixth most important in the faith. Grasslands begin, a rolling carpet of lush, gentle green dotted with roaming herds of yak and the black tarpaulin tents of the nomadic Tibetans who have lived there for centuries. As you gaze over the slopes, it seems as though Lhasa, still many hundreds of miles and a rugged mountain range west, is just over the next rise.
But to get there from Lanzhou, travelers to Lhasa first had to take the train to the end of the line, in Golmud, a bleak city in the forlorn west of Qinghai Province, and then continue over the plateau by bus on a notoriously slow and uncomfortable journey. For foreigners, this rarely used route was the only legal overland way to get to Tibet from China, and it subjected them to fleeting changes in permits and restrictions that tended to vary like the plateau's weather and could suddenly shut them out of Tibet altogether. Most travelers, except for the poorest, preferred to fly from Chengdu or safari past Mount Everest from Nepal.
If the rural expanse of Gansu and southern Qinghai are idyllic, the reaches of Qinghai past the provincial capital of Xining--three hundred square miles--are not. The rivers and mountains, and the infamous tunnels through them, give way to nothingness. Somewhere to the north lie the colossal prisons that at one time housed as many as 10 million Chinese and Tibetan prisoners--a "black hole," in thewords of a 1979Timemagazine article, "from which little information ever reached the outside world or even the rest of China"--and then the ancient Silk Road and the towering dunes of the Gobi Desert. The monotonous view from the train was peppered with backhoes scraping the caked surface of salt-crusted plains and dumping it into waiting trucks. After six hundred miles of desolation, the train passed a coal mine, followed shortly by the flaring towers of a distant refinery that lit up the night sky, and finally reached Golmud station.
Golmud, which was founded in the early 1960s as a forced labor prison for Tibetans, had grown into a small city. On the west end of the town, where most of the commerce took place, pavement gave way to potholed dirt streets and a poor shantytown centered on a large mosque. Hui men, wearing white skullcaps and long goatees, worked as traders and drivers. As the highway portal to Tibet, Golmud had a thriving trucking industry. Construction materials, clothing, grain, and manufactured Chinese goods, ranging from PVC piping to cooking woks, were stacked in teetering piles and roped to the beds of an endless string of big rigs, which coughed black clouds of diesel smoke as they sputtered up into the mountains to Tibet. Trucks coming down were usually empty, or loaded with minerals and Nepali goods. A tsunami of imports headed to the TAR, but not much was brought back out.
Golmud's bus station consisted of yet another muddy lot on the south end of town, the kind of place that, were it in the Bronx, you would avoid even in daylight. Three to four beat-up buses served the town. A crowd milled around a long purple one, with worn tires and a dashboard altar of colorful Buddhas and silk cloth, headed to Lhasa. Han Chinese men dressed in torn pants and bad shoes heaved burlap sacks to a man on the bus's roof. A couple of tough-looking young Tibetan men with cowboy boots and thick leather motorcyclejackets smoked cigarettes and kicked at the tires. Several Tibetan nomad families, identifiable as being from the region of Kham because of their traditional dress and long horsetail-like hair adorned with quarter-size sparkling turquoise and amber beads, crammed themselves into their seats for the chilling thirty-two-hour ride on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway.
A dust storm kicked up the plains above town, and as the bus started its four-hour climb onto the plateau, the air hung thick and oppressive. The blanket of earthy brown sky draped a fine layer of silt over the dead hills so that they looked like books that had been shelved and forgotten for thousands of years. The bus weaved through a constricted canyon and then navigated the fifteen-thousand-foot Kunlun Mountain pass, at which point the plateau opened into a glorious panorama befitting the "roof of the world" and the uninhibited infinity of heaven. Here, the highway diminished into an insignificantly thin strip of pavement, a line of thread strung across the wide-open tundra that looked as though it might easily be whisked away--by the wind, the harsh land, or man himself. In places, the permafrost-riddled highway, which had been rebuilt perhaps a half dozen times since the 1950s, was broken and cracked. It heaved up and crashed down in naturally formed speed bumps and was deeply rutted. The road was the only sign of humanity. This portion of the high plateau, the vast Chang Tang, is one of the least populated places on Earth. But it may also contain, China hoped, the richest untapped resources on the planet.
JIANG S GO WEST CAMPAIGN WOULD GUIDE MUCH OF CHINA S DEVELOPMENT for a decade. In the early stages, it was little more than a vague set of guidelines, left to dissipate slowly through the seemingly bottomless layers of staff, authority, and corruption with each mile ittraveled from Beijing. China formally recognized the need to address the unstable poverty that existed outside the modernized east, but while fixing the imbalance was declared a priority, making specific plans to do so was not. Self-interested proposals began to matriculate from the far provinces, and local officials jockeyed for pet projects, seeking a share of Beijing's wealth. By the early spring of 2000, when Yin circulated another letter about the railway to Tibet, it was clear that the train stood its best chance if it made it onto the amorphous Go West project list. Meetings of the Ministry of Railways were called to evaluate the options for connecting Lhasa to Beijing by train, and if one was marginally suitable, to recommend the train, along with a plan and a budget, by the winter.
To reach consensus, though, the Ministry of Railways had to determine which of its experts had the most persuasive case for grabbing some of China's development money. Zhang and his fellow engineers at the ministry's First Railway Institute had focused forty years of research on the route south from Qinghai, but special interests were lobbying hard to earn the chance for the railway to be laid through their districts. Five proposed routes for a train to Tibet--all varying greatly in difficulty, estimated cost, and practicality--were competing for the shot to be built. Zhang had a stake in only one.
The rival plans had their own appealing and quixotic qualities. The Gansu route would lead from the club-shaped territory wedged neatly between Xanxi in the east and Qinghai and Tibet on the west. Its largest city was Lanzhou, an established base for railway and scientific research and an easy starting point for the line. Tracks from Lanzhou would cover more than thirteen hundred miles, following the Yellow River into the idyllic grasslands and ethnically Tibetan areas before climbing through the Qilian Mountains to the plateau. Eventually, this route would intersect with Zhang's north-south routefrom Qinghai at the dusty outpost of Nagqu, a tiny blip on the map of Tibet where truckers filled up on gas and food and where the Northwest Military Command kept a foothold and operated China's largest nuclear facility. The cost estimates were five years old--from 1995--but pegged at roughly $8 billion.
Running a railway along the existing Sichuan highway, from Dujiangyan station near Chengdu, was another tantalizing alternative but, at a cost of nearly $10 billion, impractical almost from the start. The highway's winding curves reached stratospheric heights amid glaciers and rocky peaks, and it had been difficult to keep the route open since it had been built in the 1950s. Indeed, though two highways to Tibet had existed since then, people tended to remember mostly the road from Qinghai. A more fantastic route would circumvent the mountains entirely by looping around China's far west border, meeting the Silk Road in Kashgar, and heading south along the Indian and Pakistani borders before tracing the northern flank of the Himalayas to Lhasa--an eight-day trip. If anything, the design showed how strong was the desire to find an alternative to crossing Tibet's main ranges.
The most serious contender with Zhang's Qinghai route was a path from Yunnan Province, in China's south, that would branch off the Guangdong-Dali Railway and cut west, at times along the Mekong River north of the Myanmar border. Twice as long as the link from Golmud and estimated to cost $7.5 billion, the railway would provide crucial transportation and communication infrastructure to a bustling province and had substantial lobbying support behind it. But Zhang's route straight south from Qinghai, by comparison, was only half the length, seven hundred miles, and was estimated to cost just $2 billion. If the permafrost issue could be solved--a huge "if" in any scientific judgment--the Qinghai route was shorter, cheaper, far better studied, and generally the most attractive--at least to Zhang Luxin.
As the argument unfolded around the conference table, the political and power maneuverings were set aside. The ultimate question was whether building on permafrost would be easier and cheaper than bringing a train through ragged mountains. The central committee would not spend its entire Go West development budget on one project. The Ministry of Railways' no. 2 bureau battled for the mountainous Yunnan route, citing the reputed fact that at least once when Yin Fatang had met with Deng Xiaoping about the Tibet railway connection, Deng had said it was his preferred path. Far less work had been spent developing a Yunnan plan, but at the meeting, according to Zhang, "very strangely, a majority supported the Yunnan-Tibet route."
On the face of it, a route into Tibet from the southwest seemed more strategically useful to China. Running along the region's disputed border with India, it would give the military added transportation access and flexibility, and it would draw near the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River (a great rugged gorge in Tibet, where it is called the Yarlung Tsangpo), which was suspected to hold undiscovered mineral resources of its own. And while it was not an open topic of discussion among the scientists and engineers that day, any southwest route would undoubtedly appeal to the Chinese army's powerful Southwest Command, which though still based in Chengdu had recently expanded its base in Lhasa and had been locked in a power feud with the Northwest Command ever since the Long March, five decades earlier. The swell of professional evidence was bolstered, perhaps even overshadowed, by deep personal and political desires that had little to do with the best route, or even Tibet's development. "Look, we try to base our arguments on technical terms, but underneath, inevitably," said Zhang, "everyone wished the project was in his own area so that he can be involved. This is so important."
As Zhang listened, he felt threatened. If the Yunnan routewas chosen, he would be relegated to the life of an impoverished researcher in some dank hallway of a remote Lanzhou University office complex. After a lifetime of wishing beyond his wildest hopes for acceptance into the Communist Party's power structure, he would remain unknown and unacknowledged. For all the sacrifice--years spent away from his wife, a skeletal relationship with his son--he would have nothing to show for it. He had given his life to building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. If a train to Tibet never happened, he would lose all pride. If it happened somewhere else, that would be even worse: his ambitions would be hijacked by someone else's success.
As the supporters of the Yunnan-Tibet Railway became more vocal and aggressive, Zhang saw the Qinghai-Tibet route slithering away from him like a rope coil falling over a precipitous edge. "These experts," Zhang said, "most of them had never been to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Many had not even traveled through the Yunnan-Tibet route that they proposed. Their arguments were not based on experience. They were based on theory." Opponents to Zhang's route were loudly mulling over a disturbing letter from an engineer Zhang had never met named Wong. The letter had been circulated--through some unique access or influence of Wong's--to the highest levels of the Chinese government, not just the Ministry of Railways but to the State Council directly. Wong argued that attempting a railway on the Tibetan Plateau was a huge mistake.
"It is impossible to solve the permafrost problem," read the letter, recited aloud according to Zhang's recollection. Wong asserted that the science for dealing with permafrost terrain was not suitable for investing billions of dollars in, and added that the altitude and harsh conditions made the plateau inhospitable for construction. "And more importantly, workers could not survive the building of the railway on the plateau." That last claim struck a nerve because when the first legof the Tibet railway, connecting Xining with the ramshackle outpost of Golmud, had been attempted in the late 1970s, more than a hundred people had died building the infamous Guanjiao tunnel alone. The railway to Lhasa would entail dozens more tunnels, all on that impossible terrain. Wong's reminder eroded support for the Qinghai option immediately--the construction would be tough enough, but what if workers succumbed to the fatigue and illness caused by altitude, and then after all the effort, the railway broke down because the experimental permafrost engineering was faulty? All good questions, but they endangered Zhang's future.
WITH THE QINGHAI ROUTE IN JEOPARDY, ZHANG GRABBED WHAT SEEMED a last opportunity to adjust fate in his favor. He took the platform from his colleagues and engaged the senior officials in debate. He does not remember how he managed it, just that at some point after he stood, the room grew startlingly quiet, and he began to speak. "The route from Yunnan," he began, "many parts of it, no one has ever been there. We don't know anything about it. But the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, we've been traveling it for forty years, we know every inch of it." For forty-five minutes, Zhang, the unknown but ambitious engineer poised at the door of old age, explained that scientists had studied the plateau's permafrost for years. "Among all those experts, I was the only person who had actually worked on the plateau for almost thirty years," said Zhang, "so I was the one who had the right to say something in this dispute." Yet, that wasn't quite true. Hundreds of engineers had worked hard on the plateau, but Zhang would readily inflate his own persona if it would save his pride, and his career. He explained that the work of these researchers, among whom he proudly if not accurately depicted himself as quitesenior, had become renowned worldwide for their understanding of frozen soil and arctic conditions--even more advanced than the Russians, who had built some of the earliest pipelines and the Trans-Siberian Railway on frozen ground. He methodically countered the criticisms heard that day: people died in the 1970s because there was little food, because the machinery was primitive; the tunnel collapsed because it was dug by hand. But in twenty-first-century China, he promised, "we have made great progress. Now is the time." Technology, machinery, and other equipment were now advanced; not only could the economy feed its workers, it would pay them well enough to attract an overflow of labor.
As the room grew restless and tired, Zhang's fervor intensified. He leaned forward, bracing both palms on the table, paused, and sought eye contact with his peers and his critics. "Wong says that no one can work at such high altitude because people can hardly breathe," he told the silenced group. "I just came down from five thousand meters [sixteen thousand feet] yesterday. I not only live there, but I work there, and I have for thirty years. I am fifty-four years old, and I am healthy as I stand here. I promise you that we have solved the problems relating to permafrost on the plateau, and I have proved that people can work at such altitude."
When he finished and returned to his seat, the silence continued uninterrupted. Then a single person slowly started clapping his hands.
By the next meeting of the Ministry of Railways, the Qinghai route had been named the presumed choice. Zhang's impassioned speech seemed to have convinced the senior officials. With the debate dispelled, the ministry group focused on the details of making the railway proposal attractive to the State Council, which was considering Go West projects by year's end. A few days before the New Year, officials from the Ministry of Railways approached Zhang during abreak as he was delivering a conference lecture to fellow engineers. "Did you know that President Jiang has approved the project?" they asked a breathless Zhang. "He has signed the documents."
Like most people of his generation, Zhang thought of Tibet as a backward place populated by desperately poor people who could not muster the intellect or the technology to bring their province into the modern age. They seemed barbaric in their centuries-old costumes, and their preoccupation with religion and custom was often interpreted as a lack of motivation and work ethic. This was an embarrassment, not because Zhang cared particularly how a Tibetan lived his days but because he considered the region as much a part of China as Louisiana is to the United States. Tibet reflected poorly on him, and on modern China as a whole.
So Zhang, like so many of the nationalistic--and often blindly idealistic--men who drove China's push for a railway to Lhasa, saw the project as a paternalistic mission of great generosity, a philanthropic endeavor to give Tibetans a fighting chance in China's new economy. "Xibu Dake Fa:the great develop the west," explained Charlene Makley, a professor of anthropology at Reed College, of the mission of twenty-first-century China. "Some people want to translate it asKai Fa,as 'exploit the west,' but really it means to open up and unleash potential." Zhang believed his work was making the social enterprise possible, even if the larger questions of what a Tibetan economy--based in a fruitless wilderness--could contribute remained unanswered.
On the morning of March 5, 2001, Premier Zhu Rongji convened the Fourth Session of the Ninth National People's Congress in Beijing. Before an audience of 1,100 officials from throughout the country, he outlined China's Tenth Five Year Plan. The decree articulated China's goals in only slightly less obtuse terms than the Go West campaign's announcement, offering mostly platitudes and optimism.Prosperity will sweep across the western regions. Poverty will be diminished. Water and energy should be conserved. Oil is of special importance--more is required. And so on. Anchoring the wispy rhetoric were a series of more than a thousand minuscule development projects grounded in four major initiatives to address the most crucial needs of the nation. They provided a map forward, but also a window into the otherwise illusive strategies of the State Council in shaping the future of a modern China.
The projects were lofty and in most cases reflected red-tagged development issues. Possibly the largest irrigation project in world history was hatched to supply water to the northern half of the country, where nearly half of China's farming is based and desertification is gobbling land at an alarming rate. Nearly 50 billion cubic meters--roughly equivalent to the annual flow of the Yellow River--would be diverted from the south in a project one Chinese scientist said would "break the bottleneck hampering economic and social development in China." A pipeline and transmission lines would be run, at an estimated cost of roughly $15 billion, to carry natural gas and power from the Tarim Basin in the western Xinjiang region to Shanghai. A modern Japanese-style high-speed railway would be built between Beijing and Shanghai, an artery deemed essential to consolidating and strengthening China's eastern economic hub.
The fourth project on the list of national priorities--and illogically so, in the view of those members of the People's Congress who wanted measurable economic benefits from the plan--was Zhang's train to Tibet. The purpose of such a train, Zhu and the State Council declared, was economic well-being and equality for the Tibetan people, hardly a policy goal consistent with China's treatment of the region in the preceding decades. Zhang would have known better.
Copyright © 2008 by Abrahm Lustgarten

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