Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tibet and Railways

Until recently there hadn’t been railways in Tibet. Now there are two railways: the older Qinghai-Lhasa and the newer Lhasa- Shigatse or Lhasa–Xigazê railway. A third is under construction.
“The railway network will accelerate the mass movement of Chinese migrants into Tibet which will threaten the unique cultural identity of the Tibetan people through forced assimilation,” comes the criticism by exile Tibetans. There are also military aspects to be taken into account, but there are also advantages by new networks.

The Lhasa-Shigatse railway (拉日铁路) faces lots of technical problems as the Yarlung tsampo is a fierce river and the valley at times is very narrow, so that roads are often washed away. The railway is safer in this aspect as it is higher above the river, which means having to build lots of bridges and tunnels. It has a length of 253 km.

There’s another railway in planning and execution: the Yunnan-Tibet railway (滇藏铁路). This line will connect Kunming (昆明) and Lhasa (拉萨) with a length of 1573.3 km. The stretch between Kunming (昆明) and Dali (大理) is already open. In between Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江) there is already work being done, which should open the line to Shangri-la (香格里拉) in 2020.
The Chinese Wikipedia article mentions the political, economic, and military significance of this project. The Central Government makes it clear that there is no room for an independent Tibet (and there’s also no room for an independent Xinjiang!). I think that the plans include more tourism going beyond Shangri-la. As Shangri-la is already at an altitude of above 3000 m, people can get acclimatized there and cross the 4500-5000 m high passes on their way to Lhasa.

And then there is the Qinghai–Tibet railway (青藏铁路), which has a length of 1,956 km; the section between Xining (西宁) and Golmud (格尔木) was completed by 1984. Even Mao Zedong was involved, as he told the Nepalese King, that he couldn’d sleep as long as the railway isn’t repaired/built (青藏鐵路修不通,我睡不著覺。). The plan is to connect Kathmandu with China. Maybe this plan can only go as far as Zhangmu (樟木) not because of political problems but because of the frequent landslides on the Nepalese side. In 2006 the section between Golmud (格尔木) and Lhasa (拉萨) was opened; it has a length of 1,142 km. I took the trip in 2009 (from Lhasa to Guangzhou) and I enjoyed the first 2000 km and the last 500 km because of the wonderful landscapes. There are several passes and Tanggula Pass is the highest at an altitude of 5,072 m above sea level, which makes it the world's highest point on a railway. The line has lots of tunnels, at lot is above 4,000 m and it crosses 675 bridges.



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