On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World
To many the world’s most daring railway is a blessing for Tibet — or for those who want to behold or perhaps control its remote landscape. But it is also a curse, some say, for the place it’s meant to serve. As we barreled into the mysterious region, half a year after capital Lhasa was beset by deadly political turmoil, I wondered how the train was changing Tibet.
[...] Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost, a feat that required a system that keeps the ground frozen year-round to prevent the rails from sliding. Engineers also had to anticipate the long-term effects of global warming, which are melting Tibet’s glaciers at an alarming rate. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called the railway “an unprecedented project in the history of mankind,” a typical unvarnished government boast that for once, wasn’t hyperbole.
But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world’s longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags.