Tibetan Studies: Riding the RailwayBeijing, Spring 2012
(This is the third post in a three-part summary of the Contemporary Issues Tibetan Studies long trip to the Tibet Autonomous Region.)
While we flew into Lhasa’s airport on our way into Tibet, we took the (cheaper) train back to Beijing on our way out – a trip that involved over 48 hours on the train and a 4-hour layover in the Qinghai capital of Xining halfway through. The first half of our route, from Lhasa to Xining, took us along the famous Qinghai-Tibetan Railway.
The Qinghai-Tibetan Railway, which opened a few years ago to both applause and protests, is a big factor in Lhasa’s recent urbanization and expansion. This section of China’s railroad network overcame many environmental challenges in order to reach Lhasa, and now offers a cheaper alternative to flying and a safer alternative to driving. Because of this, internal immigration to Lhasa increased after the railway opened, causing the city’s population to explode and the percentage of Han Chinese to rise dramatically.
It was very clear to us that the railway had a huge impact. A lot of people rode the train with us, and a lot of them weren’t Tibetan – most of them were Han Chinese who did not live in the region, and were returning from trips both for business and pleasure.
For me personally, riding the train taught me less about the cultural and economic impacts of the Qinghai-Tibetan Railway, as most of those results were obvious based on our time in Lhasa and the articles we read. I was most impressed by the technology and how the smoothly the train transported us across the plateau. None of us could tell when we were on top of the notoriously hard-to-build-on permafrost, nor did any of us notice when we passed through the highest station in the world – in fact, I was sleeping.
The Qinghai-Tibetan Railway is certainly an emblem of new China – advanced technology and increasing disposable income amidst much still-apparent older problems…and some really cool scenery.
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