NPR logo Putting the Tibet Train Hubbub in Perspective

Putting the Tibet Train Hubbub in Perspective

NPR's Anthony Kuhn wishes he had taken the train from Golmud instead of all the way from Beijing. Doug Beach, NPR hide caption

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Doug Beach, NPR

NPR's Anthony Kuhn wishes he had taken the train from Golmud instead of all the way from Beijing.

Doug Beach, NPR

On July 1, the Chinese government celebrated with great fanfare the opening of the final stretch of its railway to Tibet. The section runs between the city of Golmud in Qinghai province and the Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Press seats for the maiden voyage from Beijing were under the control of the Foreign Ministry, whose accreditation is necessary for foreign journalists to operate in China. Some 160 correspondents applied for 40 tickets that the ministry had reserved for the foreign media. I was disappointed not to get one.

But the day the press-laden train set out from Beijing, many of our Chinese colleagues were already aboard a train going from Golmud. That's where the real news was. President Hu Jintao had officially inaugurated the new railway there that day. By the time the foreign reporters arrived in Lhasa from Beijing, the news was two days old.

I have no regrets about missing the media scrum. Some Chinese and Tibetans thought the media hype surrounding the train was excessive and only served to politicize the issue. While the railroad has overtaken air and road travel to become the most heavily used form of transport to Tibet, it was hardly the first vehicle to bring modernization to the region.

The train itself was quite luxurious compared with most Chinese trains. The carriages were built by Canada's Bombardier Co., to the dismay of some Tibet activists. First-class sleeping berths each had their own flat-panel televisions and headphones, and an oxygen valve to which you could attach your nose via a plastic tube.

The train is completely sealed off from the outside, except for the airplane-style toilets, where windows can be opened for much-needed ventilation. Electronic displays in each car show the altitude and outside temperature. The dining car offers up standard Chinese fare, including a respectable spicy tofu.

The public-address system blares out tour-guide-like explanations in Chinese, Tibetan and English, reassurances that the train is not destroying the environment, and Chinese songs about the railway.

All this, along with the tourists snapping their camera shutters furiously at the passing wildlife, gives the impression of an amusement park ride.

One thing that I found remarkable about the journey was the hardy optimism of the laborers in the $45 seats, staving off exhaustion with camaraderie and the occasional nap, sprawled across empty seats.

I spoke there with a young worker from northern Shanxi province who had worked on Lhasa's new train station, operating a cement mixer. Previously unemployed at home, he got the job through a relative who was a construction contractor. This time, he told me, he was returning to make some repairs to the station.

He added that he had found the Tibetans who made up most of his construction crew very agreeable people. But he said he was concerned about the effects of the high altitude on his health, and planned to return to Shanxi after a year or two of working in Tibet.

While critics say that Beijing is intentionally encouraging ethnic majority Han Chinese to migrate to and settle in Tibet, all the laborers I spoke to were short-time prospectors. None of these "go west, young Han" types intended to stay in Tibet. After nearly a week in Lhasa, several of them called to tell me that they had failed to find work and were heading home.