Train to Tibet saves the best views for last

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am

The last leg of the first Beijing-Lhasa express train journey started before dawn, at 5.20am, when the train arrived at Golmud, the starting point of the new 1,142km stretch of track across the roof of the world to Tibet .

It was one hour ahead of schedule, which Zhu Zhensheng, a vice-director of the Tibetan Railway Office under the Ministry of Railways, said was partly to allow passengers more time to enjoy their first view of the mysterious skyline.

'With the beginning of the final leg, the real test has just begun to a certain extent,' he said.

The train, which had travelled nearly 32 hours and 3,000km since leaving Beijing on Saturday night, changed engines again, this time to three 3,800-horsepower models that were made by General Electric.

Liu Changping, one of six drivers on the train from Golmud to Lhasa, said the engines were among the most powerful in the world and ideal for the high altitude.

He said an engineer from the American company was travelling on the train to provide technical support.

'To make it absolutely successful, we are using three locomotives, with two drivers on each working a four-hour shift,' he said.

Although he had to work on the plateau for months on end with about 16 hours' rest between each journey from Golmud to Lhasa for about 6,000 yuan a month, he is obviously proud to be one of the first drivers on the line.

Mr Liu was also one of the drivers on the first passenger train from Lhasa to Golmud on Saturday.

There are 109 drivers employed on the section between Lhasa and Golmud, responsible for freight and passenger trains.

After working on the section between Golmud and Xining, Qinghai, for six years, Mr Liu said he had become used to the high altitude and did not need to take medicine or breathe oxygen during the trip to offset altitude sickness.

But for 41-year-old Zhang Xingkui, who has worked at the Golmud station for 20 years, the opening of the railway means a lot more work. 'I am working a 12-hour shift until eight in the morning,' he said. 'It is really hard to work here.'

More than 300 staff are employed at the station.

'Golmud has changed fundamentally in the past two decades,' Mr Zhang said. 'In the past, we only had trains from Xining, and Golmud was the terminal.'

His long exposure to the harsh ultraviolet radiation has left him with clear signs of ageing and a deep tan.

He said it was not an easy decision for him or his family to stay in the poor mountain city, but to leave was even more difficult.

The train rapidly ascends from 2,800 metres to 4,200 metres after leaving Golmud, climbing the Tibetan plateau, which averages more than 4,000 metres above sea level.

Puddles of melted permafrost and glacier were seen along the rail line, and snow-coated mountains merged into seas of cloud.

Man-made barriers blocked wild yaks, donkeys and Tibetan antelopes on patches of high plateau grasslands.

Highlighting the special nature of the inaugural Beijing-Tibet train, armed soldiers were stationed every 500 to 800 metres to provide extra security.

The train traversed the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve - known as Keke- xili (no-man's land) in Putonghua - home to Tibetan antelopes and other endangered species and standing an average 4,600 metres above sea level.

Even though enriched oxygen was pumped into the carriages, altitude sickness still took its toll on many passengers, with medical staff kept busy and extra oxygen being in great demand as the train kept climbing.

But some were still having fun.

Chen Ling, a Tsinghua University student, was busy collecting signatures from other passengers.

Walking through the carriages, the 21-year-old from Changchun said it would be the best way to help her remember the fantastic journey.

Ms Chen said she borrowed the idea from several other passengers and train attendants who had started similar collections on postcards or first-day envelopes.

Displaying two T-shirts full of names and another 20 white T-shirts bought at Lanzhou station, she said: 'Please help me sign your name on the T-shirt. I know there is still a long way ahead.'

The train arrived in Lhasa West Station at 8.30pm.