Decision at the Top of the World

By Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

“Aren’t we Chinese great? They said it couldn’t be done. And yet, we’ve not only done it, we’ve done it ahead of plan. No other country in the world could do this. Chinese people are so clever.” We are two hours, several beers and half a roasted duck into a journey on the overnight express from Xining, traveling along the completed half of what will soon be part of the world’s highest railroad — the 1,900-kilometer line from Xining across the Qinghai Plateau to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But my patriotic conversation partner, Wang Qiang, is just warming up on his favorite subject: China’s engineering prowess.

“The new track follows the highway built by our soldiers in the 1950s. The terrain is so harsh that three of them died for every kilometer of road. You have to admire their spirit. But now, we’ve built the railway without the loss of a single life. Isn’t China great?”

Jonathan Watts of the UK Guardian files this fascinating report on the building of the Qinghai to Lhasa railway line, an unprecedented feat of engineering that will be completed next month, three years ahead of schedule. The Qinghai/Lhasa railway, Watts writes, is an example of China’s “can-do” spirit proving the experts wrong, the great majority of whom thought building tracks through the Kunlun Pass to be impossible. And this is no ordinary train line:

Luxury trains are being built for the new track. They feature pressurized carriages to minimize the risk of altitude sickness and tinted windows to protect from strong ultraviolet rays. Canada’s Bombardier has won the $280 million contract to build 361 cars, some of which will have deluxe sleeping compartments with individual showers, glass-walled sides to provide panoramic views, entertainment centers and gourmet dining areas, and toilets with sewage and waste-treatment systems. The cars will be pulled by diesel engines capable of maintaining an average speed of 100 kph, even at above 4,000 meters, when the thinness of the air can cut power by almost half.

This is a long piece that is both a fascinating travelogue of an isolated region and a commentary on China’s rise. Watts details the potential positive and negative aspects of the rail line, the fears among some Tibetans that it will increase Han cultural dominance of traditional Tibetan culture, along with the hope of many for much needed economic development. Watts also looks at the environmental impact of the railroad and the consequences of China’s “bigger, faster, higher” philosophy of econonmic development:

The Tibetan dilemma is increasingly shared by other countries as the world tries to come to terms with China’s rise. Everyone wants Beijing’s money and goods; no one wants its ideas.

Economically, China’s expansion is a storming success, with 9 percent growth for each of the past 25 years, lifting hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty, making a fortune for foreign manufacturers that exploit low-cost labor, pushing down supermarket prices across the globe and boosting trade with other developing nations.

Environmentally and spiritually, however, it is a disaster. China’s rivers are drying up, its cities are choked with pollution, the rural healthcare system has collapsed and the cities are seeing record levels of suicide and stress. China is showing all the symptoms of modernity — only on a bigger scale and at a faster rate than the world has ever seen.

But Watts also points out that, like the railroad, cultural transmission goes both ways:

One of the beneficiaries of the boom is Buddhism. This was evident from the mix of materialism, spiritualism and political cheek at the Ta’er Si, one of the great Tibetan monasteries. Set in rolling green hills just south of Xining and famed as the home of living buddhas since the 16th century, it is attracting an ever-growing number of Han tourists. Their chatter and mobile phones disturb monks as they chant tantric scriptures (“During the peak season, there are almost as many tour guides as monks,” complained one acolyte), but, as with the railway, the linking of materialism and spiritualism is not a one-way track.

Outside the monastery, the streets are filled with Buddhist wholesale shops (often run by Muslims) that offer bulk sales of robes, incense sticks, prayer wheels and beads. The customers are not tourists but monks, stocking up on paraphernalia to establish more monasteries. “This is a boom time for Buddhism in China,” says Glen Mullin, the author of several books on the Dalai Lama. “Many of the monasteries that were shut down and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution are being rebuilt, along with new ones.”

There’s a great deal more to Watt’s piece, including evocative descriptions of life in the Qinghai Plateau, the rapid changes due to development, even the attempts by a member of Tibet’s famed “Wild Yak Brigade” to introduce ecotourism into the area (and if you’ve been following that story, as I have, you’ll be happy to learn that the chiru has rebounded somewhat from the widespread predations of armed poaching gangs). His conclusions are intensely sobering. But at the end, he offers a glimmer of hope:

If railway tracks can spread the tools of modern technology and education to Tibet, the lifestyles of some of the poorest people in the world could be dramatically improved. If ideas are allowed to flow freely in both directions along the track, the meeting of Chinese materialism and Tibetan spiritualism could fill a gap at both ends of the line. And if, as some suggest, the tracks are extended farther south to the border with Nepal and then on through the Himalayas to India, it could transform relations between the world’s two most populous and fastest-growing economies.

Present trends, however, suggest a much bleaker future. Fifty years ago, when Qinghai Plateau was part of Tibet, it was a scantly populated wilderness. Now, under Beijing’s control, it has become a land conquered and settled by Han engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. There are few grimmer examples of what Chinese-style development can mean for ethnic minorities and the environment.

In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the United States taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.

If China is the new “can-do” nation, isn’t it possible for all of this energy and spirit to be directed towards this end?

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Whether China’s break neck economic growth can be sustained is highly questionable.

I just went to Saigon for a short break and was struck by the relatively relaxed and less polluted environment compared to Shanghai and Beijing. People seem more happy and content even though their income is lower.

Also read this Economist article at

September 21, 2005 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

Interesting post, Lisa

Saigon? Don’t worry…
It will be the next Shanghai or Beijing pretty soon.

September 21, 2005 @ 11:23 pm | Comment

The “Kunlun Pass” rang a bell. According to Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher; “The saint does not discuss the world beyond Liuge.” Liuge being defined, according to Prof. Lim Hyoung-taek of Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University (who cited Zhuangzi), as “the universe around us…with China at its center, the Gobi Desert to the north, Indochina to the south, the Japanese islands to the east, and the Kunlun mountains to the west.” (taken from his paper: “In relation to the Tradition of East Asia and the Modern World”)

If that is the case, I take it that the classical Chinese viewed Tibet as beyond the civilized world, and therefore outside their area of interest.

September 22, 2005 @ 12:27 am | Comment

I personally would like to visit Hanoi. I hear, no joke, that it’s lovely. Being the enemy of the US for all those years, a lot of ugly development apparently passed it by, and Hanoi is supposed to be this charming city, lots of French colonial architecture and so on.

So maybe in the long run, places like Hanoi will be better off…

I’m very hazy on traditional Chinese mythology, but aren’t the Kunlun Mountains home of the Immortals?

September 22, 2005 @ 1:12 am | Comment

I think Conrad told me Hanoi is his favorite city in Asia. It’s the place I want to visist most, at least in this part of the world.

Great post, Lisa.

September 22, 2005 @ 1:33 am | Comment

awww, shucks.

Actually, it’s a great article. I hope the post inspires people to read the whole thing.

September 22, 2005 @ 1:36 am | Comment

The “can do” spirit shown in many parts of China is a good thing. But to be fair it is shown in many other places as well. We should all try to be motivated and not complain when others get their act together better than we do. Most Chinese have so little and work hard to gain more. Thus we should not rest on laurels and whinge about mortgages and the like – most Chinese would like to be ABLE to afford them.

Funnily enough, I found this article in the Times today. I thought the comment about the translation of Zemin’s name so funny!

September 22, 2005 @ 4:24 am | Comment

girl, hoi an is one of vietnam’s true hidden gems…a world heritage site.
We photographed lunar new year fashion there once.
it was worth the plane ride fom KL to HCM and then Danang…and another long drive from Danang.
the past here – like HCM or Hanoi – is so beautifully preserved in this enclave linked by bridge between the chinese and japanese quarters.
Yet Vietnam is so full of optimism for its future – you can feel it in the spirit of the people.
and i remembered to pray for my godsister Minh in Paris, whose father lost everything when Uncle Ho took charge.

September 22, 2005 @ 5:46 am | Comment

let’s pray that bird flu doesn’t take the steam out of this…

September 22, 2005 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

Other Lisa, Yes, Hanoi is well worth the visit, although we found the food somewhat bland. Hue is also well worth a visit and the local “mam” is both spicy and excellent. Ah, alpha-female, our van (crammed with 12 family members) hit a pothole on QL-1, cracking the oil pan, so we had to spend the day in Danang while it got repaired, and missed Hoi An. We’re off to Nha Trang in a month

September 23, 2005 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Sorta OT, but celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain revealed in yesterday’s Guardian that he’s planning to move to Hoi An. Permanently.

He really, really, really, really likes Vietnamese food! (And who could blame him?)

September 25, 2005 @ 10:10 am | Comment

Yes, Hanoi is my favorite city in Asia. Hell, it’s my favorite city in the world. I’d move there tomorrow if I could find a wa to support myself.

September 26, 2005 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

You can always teach English with Adam Morris.

September 26, 2005 @ 10:59 pm | Comment

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