On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World
Grazing the landscape
At night, entertainment came by book (I tried to get a copy of The Snow Leopard, but Midnight's Children would do) and laptop (there's a standard Chinese outlet in each soft sleeper cabin and along the hallways of each car). One night we watched Kekexili, a hypnotic 2004 film by Lu Chuan that tells the true story of a ragtag militia that protected the endangered Tibetan antelope from vicious poachers.
Conservationists have warned that the train would pose an even greater threat to this and other treasured species. The film's title refers to the region in the historically Tibetan province of Qinghai where the antelope give birth--and where the railroad threatens to keep them from going.
But as voices in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) frequently reassured us over the public address system, authorities have gone to great lengths to mitigate the train's impact on the fragile environment, at a cost of around $192 million.
Wildlife researchers helped engineers install over 30 passageways that would allow the migrating antelope and other animals to pass beneath the train (see one on Google Earth). Despite an uneasy start and a scandal over a faked 2006 photograph (see below) that purports to show antelope and train in harmony, some Chinese researchers say that the animals have actually adapted to their new steel neighbor. In a letter to the journal Nature detailing their findings, the Beijing-based researchers with the government-sponsored Academy of Sciences say that 98% of the antelopes have managed to migrate in spite of the train.
Photoshop to the rescue
Other successful precautions include the introduction of dozens of man-made swamps to replace swampland and endemic plants destroyed by the train, and the storage of waste onboard until the train reaches collection points, rather than leaving waste on the tracks. A US Embassy report tells of workers halting work to accommodate migrating antelope.
But embassy officials recorded no instances of rolling up and preserving grass, as authorities promised. Meanwhile, nomads and herders who live near the tracks have complained that they received minimal compensation for their ruined farmland.
The trucks are moving in too
Some point out that the train was intended as much for transporting people as for carrying valuable natural resources from Tibet to the rest of resource-hungry China, much as the United States' Transcontinental Railroad did in the second half of the 19th century. The resource riches of Tibet's pristine landscape alone seem reason enough for China's leadership to be interested in building more links to the region.
One survey on the Tibetan Plateau found found that the area contains more than 10 billion tons of oil, and preliminary estimates show the plateau has reserves of 30 million to 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc and billions of tons of iron, according to the China Geological Survey Bureau. The rich-iron find could alleviate China's massive dependence on iron-ore imports, which it needs to build factories and cars, while the copper lode in the environmentally sensitive Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge could turn it into the country's largest copper mine.
Dere's metal in dem hills
Last year, Zhang Hongtao, deputy director of the bureau, told the Xinhua News Agency that a new discovery of minerals on the plateau, potentially worth $128 billion, was "significant to regional economic development but China will give priority to protection over exploitation of these mineral resources."
Still, the Gold Rush cannot be good for the land. The landscape outside the train often looked immaculate, but occasionally I saw evidence of new factories or mines growing along the route. And as Fortune reported last year, while "a fresh set of satellite images on Google shows a large increase in road construction branching off the new railway route, education and health care spending in Tibet continue to lag far behind the rest of China, provoking the ire of human rights advocates."
One Tibetan I spoke to said that the authorities had promised the train would make goods cheaper -- food, for instance, is considerably more expensive in Tibet than in the rest of China. But due in part to recent inflation across the country, he said the price of goods has actually grown since the train began service.