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A Steel Road to the Heavens


To access Tibet, taking a train trip is a major alternative to traveling by the highway routes and by air. Tibet had used to be China’s only provincial-level administrative region that had yet to be connected to its national railway transportation network. This remained the fact until July 1, 2006 when the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened to regular service.


The Railway, popularly known as Qingzang Railway in China, stretches from Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, to Lhasa with a full length of 1956 kilometers. The Xining-Golmud section (814 km)was completed in 1984, and construction of the remaining 1142 km section between Golmud and Lhasa was completed in 2005.

A land full of mystery, Tibet appeals to travelers from all corners of the world thanks to its numerous tourist attractions – the snow capped mountains, the crystal clear lakes and rivers, the vast stretches of grasslands dotted with herds of antelopes and yaks, the picturesque blue sky and white clouds, the monasteries, temples, and palaces, etc. And the Railway now serves as the main artery taking tourists into Tibet. 


However, as might be easily forgotten, the Railway per se, with its own uniqueness and value, is more than a mere means of transport, but a major tourist attraction in Tibet travels. It is a high-tech railway tailored for the geographical conditions of the world’s most elevated plateau. Considered one of China's major accomplishments of the 21st century, it is dubbed an “engineering marvel” and a “gang-tie-tian-lu” (钢铁天路),literally meaning the steel road leading to the heavens.






An Engineering Marvel of the 21st Century


“The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.”

--- Paul Theroux, Sailing Through China

Theroux, the American modern train traveler, made the above judgment upon his firm conviction that building a railway on the world’s most elevated plateau would be an insurmountable engineering challenge.


The Plateau poses a series of geological difficulties for a railway, the permafrost soil conditions being the most immediate problem. Around 550 kilometers of the track is over permafrost soil. People used to think that perennial ice and slush along the route could never support tracks and trains. The permafrost soil expands under freezing temperatures and shrinks as ice and slush thaws in the summer, making the ground muddy and endangering the road base. In some areas where the seasonal temperature difference is too big, for example the Qingshuihe River regions, small pools or even subterranean rivers may form 20 to 30 meters underground in summer by the melting slush. And in winter, when the temperature plummets, the pools or subterranean rivers may form big ice balls that makes the ground heave in all directions.


The second challenge was health. The Railway was a project on the world’s highest plateau, and eighty percent of the track was laid at altitudes of 4,000 meters or more. The Plateau’s climate was a real harsh test for the construction workers. Along with its high altitude are the freezing weather, the thinner, low-oxygen air conditions, and strong ultra-violet radiation, to name but a few. Concrete placed at excessively low temperatures (below 5 degrees Celsius) may easily form cracks, and when the water contained in the concrete freezes, it expands, damaging the concrete’s inner structure, and affects its strength. Oxygen content at altitudes of 4,000 meters is only 60% that at low altitude plain areas. Such air conditions, as medical scientists point out, are an adverse factor for health in a number of aspects – vision, sense of hearing, the nervous system (esp. brain functions), memory, etc. Penetration into human skin by ionizing rays and ultra-violet rays at altitudes exceeding 3600m is three times as strong as that at the sea level. This is further compounded by the snow on the Plateau, which reflects 90% of the ultra-violet rays back to the ground, as compared with 9~17% by grassland.


YET, THE CHINESE ENGINEERS DID IT ANYWAY. The railway was completed, one year ahead of schedule, much to the credit of the whole engineering team to this grand, seemingly-ambitious project.


While the Swiss engineers who were consulted for their experience in engineering in the Alps advised that laying the track on so much permafrost soil was an unworkable proposition, Chinese engineers never gave up the search for a solution which started in as early as 1961 when the world’s only plateau permafrost soil observatory .was founded After forty years of observation and study, with twelve million data collected over the preceding four decades, they managed the job finally by securing the rails with spikes piled 108 feet through the ice to solid ground below, aided by a homegrown method to harness cool air and keep the ice from melting. Elevated tracks were built with foundations sunk deep into the ground, hollow concrete pipes were beneath the tracks and metal sun shades were used to keep the rail bed frozen. Portions of the track were equipped with ammonia-based heat exchanging systems feeding ammonia through tubes deep underground.


As for the other difficulties encountered regarding the health of the workers, the supervisors gave full play to their innovation and devised various effective measures during construction. Steam was piped into and stoves were lit outside the formwork to keep a warm temperature during concreting. When curing the as-placed concrete, cotton quilts and awning cloth were used. To ward off the negative effects of low-oxygen, most workers had to carry an oxygen bottle in the first months of construction. Oxygen respirators and antihypoxic medicines were distributed to each camp room. At certain construction sites, Oxygen generating stations were set up to fill oxygen into the tunnel to keep the oxygen content above 80% of that in plain areas. Sufficient high pressure oxygen canisters were set up, and a complete system of health care comprising a total of 144 clinics, hospitals and aid centers were devised, along the route to guarantee that any worker suffering from high altitude sickness can be taken to the nearest first-aid clinic within ten minutes.






The Train Carriage: a Trip of High-Tech and Comfort


Just like some other railway lines in China known for their engineering difficulties, e.g. Baoji-Chengdu Line, the hardship of Qinghai-Tibet Railway construction project is enough to justify its reputation of being a tourist attraction. Yet, what adds extra credit to this Railway line is the trains running on it.


The trains are different from those running on China’s national rail network. They had been specially designed to fit the Plateau’s conditions. "Each detail of your normal [train], you need to challenge," says Emmanuel Verhoeven, an engineer who led the Sino-Canadian consortium called Bombardier Sifang Power (Qingdao) Transportation Ltd. that built the trains. (Bombardier Inc., along with General Electric Co., provided the key equipment to make the train run: the former making carriages, and the latter diesel locomotives.) The manufacturing price for a single hard-sleeper carriage amounted to RMB 7.5 million, as compared with the price of two or three million for a common carriage running in China’s rail network.


The first element that distinguishes the train carriages is the oxygen supply. In each carriage, there are two systems of oxygen supply. The first system boosts the oxygen levels to 25% of the breathable air (from the normal 21%), by pumping air through a membrane that works like a tiny net and allows nitrogen molecules, which are smaller than oxygen, to escape, trapping a mixture with more oxygen that is then circulated through the carriage. The second system is just like that in an airplane. Each seat in the carriage is equipped with an oxygen mask where oxygen is readily available whenever the passenger needs. While oxygen factories were built along the railway for the train to make up its oxygen stock, the train has its own oxygen generating mechanisms, too, comprising a double guarantee of oxygen supply.


While looked at from outside, the carriages are green in color just like the ordinary train carriages running on other lines in

China, they look somewhat “fatter”. As much of the trip passes through the moonscape province of Qinghai, sand needs to be kept out. Every carriage is enclosed in a cold-resistant steel bubble with few exposed parts as possible and special rubber and extra grease is applied throughout the trains. The roofs of the carriages are painted with special silver paint to protect them from the sun. And passengers are shielded from ultraviolet rays with filmed, double-paned windows. 


Bumping bag-based damping mechanisms were designed to each carriage to absorb the shocks when traveling on the plateau, making the trip more comfortable.


The train trip would pass through state-level nature reserves of Sanjiangyuan and Kekexili, as well as hundreds of kilometers of permafrost, which do not allow pollution from the passing train. The designers gave sufficient consideration to protecting the Plateau’s environment. The carriages are fully enclosed. In each carriage, trash and excrement are collected into two sealed containers, which are not to be disposed on the tracks, but taken out at big stations like Golmud. Likewise, sewage water from the lavatories is collected and discharged only when train stops at certain stations. The collected trash is even compacted and ultra-violet disinfected before they are disposed.


The design operational speed of the train is 120 km/h, 100 km/h over sections laid on permafrost. Signs in the carriages are in Tibetan, Simplified Chinese and English. Staffs on the trains know basic knowledge on high altitude sickness and can speak some English.






A Road to Prosperity for Tibet



In the twilight, I stand on the high slope,

Watching the railway that stretches to my home.

It looks like a dragon that

Winds through the mountains

And brings welfare to this snow-capped plateau.

Oh, it is a marvelous road to the heavens,

That brings warmth to the remote borders.

The mountains are no longer insurmountable, and

The road no longer too long.

People of all ethnic groups get merrily together.



The above lyrics are excerpted from a song by the famous Tibetan folk singer Han Hong, which praises the Qinghai-Tibet Railway as the road to the heavens which brings prosperity to Tibet while opening Tibet to people of the whole world.


The Railway links Lhasa to China’s national rail network, greatly improving Tibet’s road communication to the in-land. The economic impact of the Railway can never be overstated. While people outside Tibet crave for making a trip to this mysterious land, Tibet, with limited industrial capacity, relies heavily on products from more developed regions of China. The bulk of cargo transport in and out of Tibet used to be made through the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, which, being limited by its length and terrain, transported less than one million tons of goods each year. The Railway greatly reduced the cost of both passenger and goods transportation, allowing for a leap in volume. It was calculated that the cost per ton-kilometer was reduced from 0.38 RMB to 0.12 RMB. According to official statistics, by the end of 2010, the Railway had completed transportation of over six million passengers and thirty-five million tons of cargo. In 2007 alone, the year after the Railway opened to regular passenger service, tourists entering Tibet totaled four million, 1.5 million higher than the predicted figure.


There might be a controversy around whether economic development is desirable in Tibet, as worries abound regarding the possible “damage” to Tibet’s local culture and environment. However, it is bare fact that the Railway has manifested its magic in boosting growth, making this land more prosperous and improving the people’s well-being. Tibetans’ lifestyle is certainly subject to influence from outside, but likewise, the Railway enables people from outside to have a taste of this great land.


It is noteworthy that the Railway will probably be extended in near future to other remote areas of Tibet, from Lhasa to Napal via Shigatse to the west, and Dali via Nyingchi to the east, which is planned to be completed and put into operation before 2020. The extension to Nepal has long been a proposal welcomed by successive Nepalese governments as it will cut the time and cost of traveling from inland China to Nepal from two weeks previously to within one week, a definite boost to bilateral trade, and will surely improve the economic development of Nepal’s northern mountainous regions.






Attractions along the Railway


The railway trip is also a scenic trip accompanied with breath-taking natural scenery. 


As the train moves on, the landscape gradually becomes picture-postcard-perfect, with snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance rising against blue sky, vast grassland sometimes filled with flocks of sheep and yaks.


Sights of interest seen from the train on the way include: Qinghai Lake, Chaerhan Salt Lake, Kunlun Mountain Pass, Holxil Depopulated Area, home to Tibetan antelope, Tanggula Mountain Pass, source of the Yangtze River, Changtang Grassland, the Grand Bridge on Lhasa River, etc.



Tips for Taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway


All travelers are required to complete a heath report on the train to Tibet. After leaving the train at Lhasa station, take care to move at slower pace to avoid a sudden increase in the load burden of your heart. The train carriages are an air-tight environment with relatively higher air pressure and oxygen content than outside, and it takes some time for the passenger to get acclimatized to the atmosphere on the Plateau.


Sight-seeing train service has yet to open to public, though it is still unknown when. While the regular trains only stop at the few designated major stations (eg;. Golmud, Amdo, Nagqu, Damshung), the sight-seeing trains are expected to stop at more stations to offer the passengers a better opportunity to enjoy the stunningly beautiful scenery along the way Scenery-view platforms were built at nine stations: Yuzhu Peak Station, Chumaer River,Tuotuo River, Buqiangge, Tanggula Mountain, Lake Namtso, Nagqu, Damshung, Yambajan. The train will stay for around 15 minutes at each station


Time-table of Trains to Lhasa


Code No.
Origin Station
Time of Departure at the Origin Station
Time of Departure at Xining West
Time of arrival at Lhasa
14:55(the next day)
14:55(the next day)
20:09(previous day)
16:00(the next day)
19:10(previous day)
16:50(the next day)
20:59(previous day)
16:50(the next day)
12:19(previous day)
18:30(the next day)
19:52(previous day)
19:15(the next day)
21:40(the next day)


Train travel to Tibet has been so popular that the demand for train tickets is huge. It is fairly difficult for individual travelers to get a ticket on their own. Reliable travel agencies cannot even guarantee successful booking of the tickets. As a result, a lot of people end up fying.








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