By Hamish McDonald
Political line … train attendants stand guard.
Kunlun Pass - RIDING in a luxury railcar fitted with oxygen bottles and the comforts of sleeping berths, armchairs and television, China's communist leaders are turning up to survey their boldest engineering work, a railway into Tibet.
Visibly wheezing in the thin air, one senior communist and his wife descended from the pale-blue-and-white railcar at the 4767-metre-high pass through Tibet's fabled Kunlun Mountains to look at a flag-bedecked stone marker built for the traders and pilgrims who once walked or rode their ponies between the surrounding peaks and glaciers.
With two doctors in white coats, several policemen and two young female railway attendants assisting, they tottered back up a stepladder into the railcar and trundled on to the line's next wonder, a long viaduct at Tuotuohe that crosses the headwaters of China's mightiest river, the Yangtze.
Nine months from now, the railway line will be finished, running 1142 kilometres from the present Chinese railhead at Golmud in Qinghai province to the Tibetan capital Lhasa, with all but 180 kilometres of the track at or above an altitude of 4000 metres, and 5072 metres at the highest point.
The economics of the 30 billion yuan ($A5 billion) railway are not a great concern of China's leaders. As construction got under way four years ago, former president and party chief Jiang Zemin said he had been advised by some people it was not commercially viable. He had replied: "This is a political decision."
The line is certainly strategic. It will replace many of the long truck convoys strung out along perilous roads that take arms, oil, coal and food to the huge military force along Tibet's border with India, as well as the garrisons of soldiers and armed police in the interior to suppress pro-independence activity among the 2 million Tibetans.
Golmud, a drab town set amid salt lakes just north of the biggest mountain barriers, has "30 regiments" of troops stationed there, mostly involved in transporting supplies into Tibet, according to Golmud Mayor Du Jie.
Top of the world: the mountains make a dramatic backdrop for the Lhasa River Bridge on the outskirts of Lhasa, for the Qinghai-Tibet railway line.
As well as tying Tibet closer to the Chinese centre in a strategic sense, the line will unleash a new tide of tourists, traders and perhaps ethnic Chinese settlers who currently have to take either expensive flights to Lhasa or boneshaking bus rides from Qinghai or Sichuan.
The Canadian aerospace and rail company Bombardier and its Chinese partners are building special pressurised carriages that will take passengers from the Qinghai capital Xining to Lhasa in 24 hours, replacing a journey that now takes about three days by ordinary train to Golmud and the rest of the way by bus.
China has ordered 371 of these carriages, suggesting several passenger trains a day will run in each direction.
Supporters of Tibetan rights are hostile to the project, fearing it will lead to Tibetans becoming outnumbered in their heartland as they are now in Qinghai, once a Tibetan region called Amdo. They point out that the railway's $5 billion cost is more than total spending on health and education in Tibet since the People's Republic of China took control more than 50 years ago.
Still, the exiled Dalai Lama said recently the railway was one of the tangible economic benefits of being in China, if only religion and culture could be protected. Naasu, a Tibetan woman who has run a souvenir shop in Golmud for eight years, looks forward to using the railway for trips back to Lhasa. "The bus trip is very long and dangerous. There are many accidents on the road," she said.
Environmentalists see danger in the long section of track laid across permafrost (perpetually frozen ground) that could soften under the effect of global warming that is accelerating the shrinking of glaciers all over the Tibetan plateau.
Chinese officials such as Qinghai Vice-Governor Su Sen say environmental concerns have been carefully considered in construction planning. "For example, we have built special crossing points for wild species like the Tibetan antelope," he said.
From the highway up to the Kunlun Pass, which weaves alongside and under the rail line, travellers can see elaborate measures to stabilise the rail-bed and provide safe crossings for humans and animals. Concrete lattice-work or rock surfaces covered embankments, which were also fitted with concrete-lined underpasses and culverts.
Up to 20,000 workers at a time have laboured in the cold and thin air to build the line. "But not a single worker has died of altitude sickness in constructing this railway," said Golmud Mayor Du, echoing the official line.
Li Long, who came from distant Harbin to work on the railway, said it had been dangerous. "There most definitely have been some deaths due to the altitude, but quite few, maybe one in 10,000," he said. "But there have been many deaths from road accidents and trucks rolling off the road."
In Golmud, the effect of a construction boom that has seen the population grow in a decade from 80,000 to 270,000 is starting to wear off.
Wang Jiwei, a former farmer in the central province of Henan, answered Beijing's call to "go west" two years ago. He set up a clothing stall in a Golmud market. "So many other people are moving into these western areas of China there is tough competition," he said. "Business is not very good here, but it's even worse back in Henan."
Zhang Quanguo, from Gansu province, made "good money" — 2000 to 3000 yuan ($A325 to $A488) a month — working as a driver on the railway until his legs seized with arthritis. Now he runs the Good Luck Shop by the highway at 3700 metres elevation, selling cigarettes and soap to drivers. "Business is not as good as it was last year, as the construction has moved further down into Tibet," he said. "I'll probably pack up and go home next year."
Truck driver Mao Quanjun, driving a load of hardware on a week-long delivery from his home in Sichuan to Lhasa, stopped at Kunlun Pass to check his load and cup hands in a quick prayer at the pilgrims' marker. "Our business will decline because of the railway," he said.
Golmud Mayor Du is unfazed by suggestions the railway will lead to his town, which lists a tour of its salt extraction works as its major tourist attraction, being bypassed by cargo and passengers now forced to transfer there. "It will bring new development opportunities and greatly facilitate the development of the city," he insisted.