Taking the High (Rail) Road

ARTICLE: “Last Stop: Lhasa: Rail Link Ties Remote T1bet to China,” by Joseph Kahn, The New York Times, July 2, 2006

BOOK: Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose, New York, Simon & Schuster, August 29, 2000.

BOOK: Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad by David Haward Bain, New York, Viking, November 1, 1999

With no other intention than pure escapism, about six weeks ago I finally pulled off of my shelves two unread books about the building of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. I’ve finished Stephen Ambrose’s highly readable work, and I’m now deep into David Haward Bain’s well-written, far more scholarly tome on the subject. In retrospect, the timing could not have been better, as global coverage begins on the opening of the final 712 mile section of the Beijing-Lhasa railroad.

The parallels are compelling:

• The Pacific Railroad (as the transcontinental railway was called in the 1860s) was a dream almost as old as the American Republic, having been a matter of discussion for nearly 50 years before it was realized. Similarly, the Lhasa railway has been on and off of the national agenda in China for over 50 years.

• The political reasons given to justify the expenditure in both cases was “to tie the nation together” by linking a remote region with the rest of the country.

• The Pacific Railroad could never have been completed without Chinese help (in particular, the effort to get through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.) Similarly, the Lhasa railway relied on western help to address some critical challenges.

I could go on, but you get the point.

More important, perhaps, is contrasting foreign coverage of the Lhasa link with the coverage given the Pacific Railway some 140 years ago.

Perhaps in the age of air travel we’ve all grown a bit bored by railroads, but I think that’s because in an age of air travel and truck transport, railroads seem a bit quaint. In regions like North America and Europe, with their wealthy economies and dense populations, freeways, autobahns, and discount airlines railroads seem relegated to hauling coal or commuters. (They aren’t, but that’s the subject of another post.)

What we lack, therefore, is an appreciation of two things: how hard this was to do, and what effect this will have on Xizang.

A Engineering Feat and a Human Achievement

Ambrose and Bain both make visceral the science, craft, and sheer physical effort it takes to build a railroad across a mountain range. You need to find an “alignment,” a course for the road that does not rise more than about 100 feet every mile, but that is as straight as possible because every foot of railroad in terrain like this costs a small fortune.

You then need to dig, chip, and blast the grade through cuts and tunnels through mountains of solid granite. You need to fill or bridge rivers, canyons, gulches, and even little dips and do it in a way that won’t be washed out by floods, avalanches, or made impassible by high mountain winds.

And if you think that’s easy in the 21st century, remember that you need to do all of this in some of the most remote territory on earth, hauling men, machines, material, and the food, energy, and fuel to keep all of them working up a narrow artery of steel.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing. You’ve got to do all of this at an altitude considered too uncomfortable or indeed unhealthy for a sleeping airline passenger, much less a manual laborer.

But with few exceptions (notably Rui Xia’s superb late-2005 Asia Times article) you’ll see very little credit given to China’s engineers and workers for accomplishing this task in the international media. That’s a shame, not only because these hardy souls deserve it, but because the failure to give such credit causes the Chinese and foreign engineers who know how tough it was to build the Lhasa road causes all of them to question the balance of the international media on Chinese topics. In addition, it allows observers to underestimate the innate capabilities of Chinese engineering in spite of the kind of big-ticket-project related shenanigans we’re used to hearing about in China.

The Great Wall Builders are back. All of us should be contemplating the implications.

Linking Lhasa

Joseph Kahn has put forth a yeoman’s effort covering the story from his chair in Beijing, as much as I’m sure he’d have rather been covering it from the train itself. It’s left him taking a more political take on the road, which is a shame. I won’t go into what he wrote – you should give him a read yourself.

Given the sheer volume of hyperbole from both proponents and opponents of the line, it is impossible to capture with any justice the essence of either position, much less debate it. But a few thoughts to contemplate as you weather the barrage of coverage.

Expecting a single rail line passing through a small part of a province larger (and less accessible) than Alaska to bring fundamental economic change to the region stretches the bounds of credulity. Certainly, those living it Lhasa and its environs will experience some quality of life improvements based solely on the fall in the cost to schlep goods up the hill. It also opens the region up to a class of tourist or traveler who cannot afford an air ticket.

For the line to deliver any significant economic benefit (or harm, depending on your point-of-view,) its Lhasa terminus must become the hub of a transportation and communications infrastructure that links all of the cities and villages of the region. That’s the sort of nitty-gritty investment that is difficult to justify when sitting in Beijing, but that will become necessary if the nation is truly serious about including the Xizang province on the benefits of the China’s economic development.

As to whether the road will Sinicize the local culture, that is a far trickier question that in the end is determined more by one’s political and ideological viewpoints than on anthropology. There are some who see Xizang as the Shangri-la of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon and thus see any intrusion of modernity as the functional equivalent of genocide. Fair enough.

Yet in no small part, the matter remains in the hands of the locals themsleves. It is instructive to note that in the face of globalization we live in a world where a wide range of distinct cultures and ethnicities have survived or even flourished.

For what destroys cultures is not the coming of railroads, but the departure of relevance. History demonstrates that a culture that is deeply relevant to those who treasure it will survive. As long as a culture remains meaningful, assimilation will be held at bay.

(None of this, of course, is likely to mollify someone (like that deep political thinker Richard Gere) who maintains a canonical belief in the value of turning the Xizang province into an isolated mountain theocracy. For those folks, I’d suggest that a review of the histories and status of Nepal and Bhutan serve as good examples of the direction such an experiment might take. They invite pondering.)

On to India

One last thought about the railroad. Throughout history, railroads have also served to pierce and bridge borders between nations. In my view, the High Road to Lhasa is half a road that will accomplish its greatest historic purpose when it can form the bridge between Delhi and Beijing.

Contemplate that.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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