Namtso Lake


Qinghai-Tibet Railway – Sam’s Exotic Travel Photos of China’s Re-engineering of Tibet’s Transportation

 When China invaded (or liberated, depending on your point of view) Tibet in 1950, as far as economic development Tibet was perhaps the most backwards place on the face of the earth.  These deeply religious people had none of the trappings of twentieth century economies: they had no electric power, no automobiles (except for two given to the 13th Dali Lama in the 1930’s which were kept at the Summer Palace in Lhasa) or highways and they rarely used even bicycles or carts as they viewed the wheel as a religious symbol (Darma wheel, prayer wheels, etc.).  In fact, when the British started to use trucks to transport goods between India and Tibet in the 1930’s, Tibetan authorities forced them to stop and revert to yak caravans.

Mountains Tower Above Railway Embankment on Friendship Highway Tibet  Working on the Railroad - Sam's Exotic Travel Photo of Qinghai-Tibet Railway Tibet  Unfinished Business - Sam's Exotic Travel Photo of bridge under construction - Qinghai-tibet Railway

Having visited both Tibet and Nepal in the last couple of years, it is easy to appreciate the historical similarities between both countries.  Nepal had no highways or cars when they finally opened their doors to the rest of the world in 1949, although Nepal did and continue to use their rivers as means of transport.   While the roads continue to be appalling in Nepal, and the main highway connecting Kathmandu to the Indian border is a treacherous route with numerous potholes and washouts, the Chinese have done – and continue to do – a great job (comparatively) in Tibet.  The mountainous route from Lhasa to Gyantse, which by travelers’ accounts had been extremely hazardous, until it was replaced by a new highway which opened in 2003 and much of the infamous Friendship Highway has now been paved as well.  China has also dammed the river on the way to Gyantse to provide needed electrical power to Lhasa and remote villages alike.  City streets have been paved and cleaned up as well in all major cities and for good or bad the rustic charm that was Tibet has been replaced by new Chinese efficiency.

Despite all its progress, the special autonomous region of Tibet, still did not have a single kilometer of rail line within its borders until China embarked on its landmark project in 2001 to extend the railroad to Tibet by connecting Lhasa in the west with Golmud in China’s Qinghai Province – a total distance of 1,142 kilometers over, around and through some of the world’s highest mountains and high plains, most at an altitude of between 4,000 and 5,000 meters – making it the highest railroad in the world.  The total budget for this massive undertaking is 26.2 billion yuan (US$3.16 billion). 

In a 3 August 05 article in China Daily, Cao Desheng quotes Wang Taifu, an economic researcher from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, who believes the railway project will contribute enormously to the region's economic growth. According to Mr. Wang, traffic has been one of the major obstacles to economic development of Tibet, which makes up about one-eighth of China's territory and is the only provincial-level region without a single inch of operating rail track.  More than 95 per cent of the cargo transported in and out of Tibet, and 85 per cent of the passengers, go by road from Qinghai or Sichuan, according to the Ministry of Communications.

Because of high cost of transportation, raw materials in Tibet cannot easily be transported out of the province, and there is a big imbalance in the cargo entering and exiting the region.  "The railway will help relieve the imbalance," Wang said.  Targeting environmental issues of the Tibet Plateau high-altitude eco-system, Liu said the railway has budgeted some 8 per cent of the total construction cost - at least 2 billion yuan (US$ 240 million ) - for ecological conservation, the biggest amount among all China's railway construction projects. 

Since most livestock and sheep are free-grazing, the railroad has been elevated and will utilize fencing and tunnels cut under the tracks to keep animals off the tracks.  As my pictures show, the elevated sides utilize a diamond concrete pattern to prevent erosion.  Special grasses are being planted within each diamond box which can withstand the harsh winters.

This new Chinese “Green Wall” is scheduled to open on 1 July 2006 – one year ahead of schedule.  What an accomplishment!

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Please note that all photographs and text appearing on this site are the exclusive intellectual property of Sam Stearman. No images are within the Public Domain, and no image use is permitted without the written prior authorization of the copyright owner.  If you see any pictures you would like to buy, all the thousands of pictures on this site are available in high resolution digital format, suitable for framing, use in magazines or advertising.  Email me if you would like to know more.

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This site was last updated 08/14/06