There's a heavy air of resignation among the passengers on board the 8am T28 Lhasa-to-Beijing train. Only two hours into the 48-hour journey, many are slumped with the flexibility of contortionists in the four hard-seat carriages - the cheapest seats available. Limbs are bent, necks and torsos twisted awkwardly. Some seek comfort from the passing wilderness: snowy mountain peaks, vast blue skies and yellow, ice-streaked tundra mown by wandering herds. At 5,000 metres above sea level, it is an eerie landscape upon which wild yak, antelope, sheep and, if you're lucky enough to see one, wolves and snow leopards, struggle to survive. Outside, the plateau air is six degrees Celsius below zero, according to the LCD display over the carriage door, and raspingly thin. Despite the no-smoking signs and similar requests over the PA system, blue tobacco fumes are illuminated by streaming sunlight. Elevated luggage racks are stuffed with bags of all shapes and sizes, and numerous uniformed train personnel - including police officers - pick their way through a tangle of legs. It's a mundane scene. Yet amid the passengers lurks a number of foot soldiers from unscrupulous trading gangs. Their bulging luggage contains illegal animal furs and body parts and rare plants. They are travelling - at a steady 90km/h - to the lucrative markets of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taipei and beyond. 'DEAR PASSENGERS,' begins the recorded message on the train's PA system as we shunt out of Lhasa's new train station. 'We would like to welcome you to the wonders of the Qinghai-to-Tibet railway. Like a flowing melody, this new and majestic train line runs above the snow-capped plateau of southwest China, winding its way along the highest railway tracks in the world ...' As the hyperbole continues, I walk nervously through the dining car towards my soft-sleeper berth. Protruding from the top of my backpack is a fake fox fur I bought from a stall in Lhasa's famous Barkhor market. Surely the five policemen smoking and sipping tea in their train seats will react when they see a foreigner with what looks like contraband so blatantly on show. But although I attract curious stares, my 'ni hao' greetings are merely returned with smiles and nods. As I slide shut the door to my four-berth, 1,289-yuan soft-sleeper compartment, I breathe a sigh of relief. For the traders in the hard-seat carriages, the 4,000km-long haul to Beijing may be uncomfortable, but with their precious cargo of pelts and plants, the 389-yuan price of a ticket is a steal. The PA-system commentary describes Tibet's unique ecosystem and the fine balance between man and nature. It advises visitors to Tibet not to buy exotic furs or plants, and how they must respect one of the world's last untouched wildernesses. But the lack of security on China's proud new locomotive is staggering. The traders and their illicit haul - and I with my one, surprisingly authentic-looking, fake fox fur - had no problem boarding the train. We simply joined long queues at the station's security gates, passed our bags through the X-ray machine, had our tickets punched and walked past scores of soldiers, police and railway staff onto the train. According to a welcome leaflet on the Lhasa-to-Beijing railway, the train is 'playing a large role in advancing the economy and societal development ... and promoting the communication of culture in the area of the Qinghai and Tibet province'. It is also acting as a conveyor belt on which the products of some of the most endangered animals and plants on Earth are carried. On their arrival at the capital's west train station, the smugglers will report to their bosses and take a brief rest before trawling the streets of Beijing for wealthy customers. Items on offer might include tiger skins, snow-leopard pelts, bear skins and medicinal caterpillar fungus. Rare Tibetan animals, such as snow leopards, bears, wolves, antelope and wild yak, plus tigers from India, fetch large sums on the international market. And wealthy mainland Chinese are driving a huge surge in demand, causing a catastrophic leap in big-cat poaching in India that has more than halved tiger numbers from 3,600 to as few as 1,500 in the past decade. A 2006 census of tigers in Simlipal National Park, in eastern India, shows only 12 tigers remain against an official count of 102. Those killed are smuggled over the Himalayas to Tibet and the capital, Lhasa, before being transported to mainland China. Traditionally they have been sent by road but increasingly they are being shipped via the new train link. Critics of the monumental railroad, which opened in July, say it will hasten the cultural genocide of Tibet by bringing in carriageloads of Han Chinese settlers. Conservationists now fear the train is providing many rare species a fast track to extinction. 'I sell mainly to rich Chinese. My last customer was a Taiwanese businessman,' says Sa Labong, who tours the streets of China's capital on foot, hawking his illegal goods. Sa, 22, is a Hui Muslim Chinese from Tibet. He has used the train several times to restock his cousin's Beijing warehouse. Last week, he had rare snow-leopard skins for sale at 48,000 yuan each - double their price in Lhasa - several black-bear furs for 2,600 yuan and wolf pelts for 600 yuan. He earns 10 per cent commission on each item. He says an order for a tiger pelt takes about 10 days to fill - significantly reduced from the three weeks or so it would have taken by road. Sa and his bosses are among many from their ethnic minority who have begun running the fur trade, which in the past eight months has undergone great change. Sa is wary, but only naturally so. He carries a bulging sack containing his furs over his shoulder and uses a wolf pelt wrapped around his arm to entice inquisitive potential customers. 'Yes, I can get you a tiger skin for 200,000 yuan,' Sa boasts. 'It will take 10 days to order and bring from Tibet by train.' Believing he is talking to a potential buyer, Sa agrees to a private showing of his wares in a Beijing hotel. On arrival, he nervously spreads two snow-leopard skins and a black-bear pelt on the bed. 'The leopards were shot and the bullet went in here,' he says, pointing to two small stitched incisions in the white, supple leather, 'and came out there. But the fur is in good condition. The poachers are good shots.' He offers a deal of five leopard skins for 'a bargain' 30,000 yuan each. Payment can be made in cash or transferred to a bank account. A brief handshake seals the transaction and he agrees to return the next morning after picking up the order from a secret warehouse. I later cancel the appointment and alert conservation groups to the illegal trade. 'We were not aware that fur traders were using the train link to sell in Beijing,' says Zhu Chunquan, head of conservation operations for WWF in China. 'This has the potential to quicken the extinction of tigers, snow leopards and other endangered species. We will alert our officers in Lhasa and use the evidence you have provided to lobby the Chinese government to enforce strict checks on passengers and their luggage.' But British conservationist Dr Jane Goodall, who recently toured China, says widespread corruption among railway officials and police make laws ineffective. 'It is horrific to learn that this train is speeding up the extinction of these magnificent animals and other endangered species,' she says. 'It is up to the Chinese government to educate its citizens that buying such furs and plant medicines has irreversible consequences.' The mainland boasts a raft of strict laws governing illegal animals and plants. A focal point for conservation is the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which are being hailed as the 'green games'. Indeed, one of the five Games fuwa mascots, Yingying, is a caricature of the endangered Tibetan antelope. The government has promulgated a long list of directives and regulations against poaching, trading, using and transporting wildlife and wildlife products. If anyone violates these laws, they state, 'by selling, purchasing, transporting or carrying wildlife under special state or local protection' and 'if the circumstances are serious enough to constitute a crime of speculation or smuggling', he shall be prosecuted for criminal responsibility 'according to the relevant provisions of the criminal law'. Every so often, state media shows images of a caught trader and his cohorts, their heads bowed in shame at the front of the court as they receive their punishments: a heavy fine or imprisonment. The news footage will cut to show their haul: tiger rugs, bear paws and antelope antlers, and so on. Such images are part of an ongoing public-relations campaign aimed at the likes of the European Union and World Trade Organisation - all proof that China is serious about protecting its wildlife. In recent years, various state departments and ministries have teamed up with international NGOs to offer ecoprotection and awareness on all manner of Tibetan species. The new train is expected to provide a huge boost to tourism in Tibet. In the 1980s, annual visitors, most of whom were from overseas, numbered just over 1,000. In 2004, with the increase of civil aviation and better roads, 1.2 million arrived to marvel at the breathtaking scenery and mystical culture, 92 per cent of whom were mainland Chinese tourists. These numbers are now expected to soar. Like tourists anywhere, many visitors to Tibet seek out the markets, especially those in the capital, to shop for an exotic bargain. They buy handmade rugs, tapestries, decorations, traditional costumes and foods to remind them of the traditions and customs of an ancient land that remains detached from China's metamorphosis into a modern world leader. But there are other goods on offer. Until recently, market traders in the labyrinth that surrounds Barkhor Street and Jokhang temple openly enticed tourists with wildlife products: tiger, snow-leopard, wild-yak, brown-bear, wolf, fox and otter skins; Tibetan-antelope antlers and skins; gazelle horns. Most are under state protection. Wild plants, some protected, are also on offer, including: the tall gastrodia tuber; the figwort flower; the caterpillar fungus - which fetches huge sums on the European market; the fritillary bulb; the sanchi; and the snow lotus. All are used in traditional herbal medicines and all are endangered. Then there are the animal parts - bear paws, gall bladders and other grisly pieces of wildlife anatomy. At the top of the most-endangered list is the tiger. Scores of pelts have been smuggled over the Nepalese and Indian borders in the past decade to meet an explosive demand fuelled by two markets: increasing numbers of Tibetans seeking fur trimmings for their ceremonial chubas costumes; and the mainland's nouveaux riches, wanting ever more diverse symbols of wealth and status. Chubas made from goat, yak and sheep skin were once one of the most common forms of clothing in Tibet. The outfit's origins can be traced back to the military uniform of the old Tibetan empire, when heroes were rewarded with tiger, leopard and other animal pelts. In recent years, chubas adorned with exotic fur have experienced a renaissance among civilian Tibetans, especially during traditional festivals. According to a WWF survey, there were 31 shops retailing clothes made from wildlife skins on Barkhor Street in July last year. On offer were garments, hats, belts and other accessories made from the skins of the Bengal tiger, leopard, snow leopard, otter, lynx, marmot, fox, antelope and bear. Last year, NGOs called upon the Chinese and its neighbours to implement a crackdown to save several species from imminent extinction. Focus groups were formed and money poured in to finance the rescue mission, which included in-depth investigations in India, Nepal, Tibet and China. Shocking pictures showing the extent of the tiger trade - including a ceremonial religious tent made from 108 tiger skins - were beamed around the world. The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency said the tiger trade 'has been spiralling out of control for five years; each year huge consignments of skins have been seized in India, Nepal and China, many of which have provided evidence indicating the ongoing involvement of Tibetans'. WFF signed a memorandum of agreement (MOU) with the Chinese government's Tibetan Forestry Bureau and launched an Asian big-cat protection programme late last year - a scheme welcomed by mainland authorities. But the green lobby was outmanoeuvred early this year by one of the more powerful conservationists of the modern age - the Dalai Lama. From his exiled government's headquarters across the border in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan spiritual leader called upon his subjects to stop wearing traditional clothing decorated with wildlife skins for the annual Kalachakra ceremony, which is held in January. His decree came at a festival in Amravati, southern India, which was attended by thousands of Tibetans. 'When you go back to your respective places, remember what I said: neither use, sell nor buy wild animals, their products or derivatives,' he told the crowd, asking them to 'inculcate love and respect towards all living beings and to conserve wildlife'. Thousands of Tibetans heeded the call. Huge bonfires of tiger, leopard, fox, otter and other skins were lit in India, Tibet and across four Chinese provinces with Tibetan populations. Tibetan-antelope antlers disappeared from market stalls. An estimated US$75 million worth of animal skins were burned in eastern Tibet alone, says a monk, who smuggled out video footage of one blaze. The campaign was welcomed as a Tibetan contribution towards wildlife conservation but the Chinese authorities were incensed. They viewed the action by 2.5 million Tibetans as a public demonstration of allegiance to the outlawed Dalai Lama. They banned bonfires and gatherings, and swamped the streets with police and troops. Conservationists say the Chinese authorities have, in an ultimate protest to the Dalai Lama's prevailing influence, now all but stopped co-operating with the NGOs, including the WWF Asian big-cat protection scheme. 'The change in the illegal fur trade has been staggering in the past few months,' says Dawa Tsering, WFF's Tibetan representative in Lhasa. From his two-roomed office, he and his team of four carry out awareness and education campaigns among Tibetans and the government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. 'We have to be careful with what we say as it's a highly sensitive political issues and we don't want to harm our future work,' says Dawa. He motions to the ceilings and around the room. Is the office bugged? He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. 'The Dalai Lama has stopped Tibetans buying illegal furs. Several poachers and traders I know here in Lhasa have stopped their businesses and have started up other enterprises such as antiques,' he explains. Dawa, 42, has been with WFF for six years, teaching and conducting research at the Tibetan Academy of Social Science. As the only environmental NGO operating inside Tibet, Dawa and his small team represent the vanguard of wildlife protection. It's a tall order and any help they get, says Dawa, is gratefully received. 'However, what the Dalai Lama created at the beginning of this year is a short-term measure. While many of the shops selling furs have closed, the trade goes on,' he says. Hui Chinese Muslims and Han Chinese have filled the void created by the Tibetan traders who obeyed the wishes of their leader. 'Many of the Hui and Han are buying in bulk,' says Dawa. 'One reason is they believe the Tibetans will one day go back to wearing such furs on their costumes. And the other reason is the lucrative trade in China, where the rich are willing to buy such furs, animal parts and plants, and so on, for increasingly high prices.' Dealing with a national government as sensitive as that of China is difficult. 'It has taken us a long time to build up a political dialogue with the Chinese government's environment-protection departments,' Dawa says. 'We have several MOUs and we were making headway with our Asian big-cat scheme. We were hoping the government would take some hardline action. But since the Dalai Lama spoke out, the Chinese government environment-protection agencies are turning a blind eye to the illegal fur trade throughout China.' His findings are echoed by other NGOs. 'If anything, the enforcement regime against smugglers bringing tiger skins into China from India has actually slackened, probably with the connivance of the authorities,' says Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), in New Delhi. 'Information gathered from the 2005 investigation was passed directly to the Chinese authorities but they have taken no action whatsoever. Traders are still promising they can get six fresh tiger skins from India every two months.' In Lhasa, Dawa is anxious about the situation. 'We need to re-engage the Chinese government with sensible dialogue. But at least the fur shops that openly sell skins have gone. But you'll still find willing sellers if you ask. It's just below the surface,' he says. Dawa says the main smuggling method is still by road but the train represents a new threat WFF is hoping to address once 'these difficult times' are over. 'We're hoping we can work with the authorities to raise awareness and security on the new train link,' Dawa says. 'Right now, we're making a video and information pamphlets, which we hope can go on the train for passengers.' November in the Tibetan capital is warmer than in Beijing, thanks to its location 4,000 metres closer to the sun. The winter market of Barkhor Street is packed with Tibetans buying cheap clothes and essential goods. 'How many do you want?' asks Kungal as we walk past Jokhang temple. We duck into a communal courtyard where several elders sit in their sheepskin jackets and yak chubas, enjoying the sunshine reflecting off the whitewashed buildings. We enter a room where a monk in purple robes sits reading. 'This is my cousin Kilu' says Kungal, 22, who is a studying English part-time at college. In one corner of the cramped space, a curtain covers a doorway from behind which comes muffled male chatter and cigarette smoke. 'Wait here, have some tea,' says Kungal, pouring me a bowl of sweet milk tea. He disappears for several minutes and returns. 'We've called someone and they will be here very soon,' he says. Four middle-aged men, three of them Hui or Han Chinese, push back the curtain. They stop when they see the foreigner and, after asking Kungal my business, they leave. 'They are selling coral, from Taiwan I think,' explains Kungal. After about 40 minutes, a middle-aged Tibetan appears from behind the curtain. He carries a sack, which he hands to Kungal. Inside is a young male Bengal tiger pelt. He unrolls it and the magnificent orange hide fills the drab room with colour. '75,000 yuan,' says the middle-aged man. 'How many do you want?' 'Three,' I say. 'But how will I get them to Beijing?' Such a small order fails to raise much enthusiasm and he replies dismissively before leaving: 'You can go by truck or by train. Don't fly, as they check you more at the airport.' I make my excuses and head off to search for a smaller, cheaper fur for my train journey. The shops and stalls that only months ago sold real tiger and leopard skins now sell copies made from cat and dog fur. The pelts are dyed, decorated and cleverly stitched together to resemble the animal in question, or made into rugs and hats. Some two million dogs and cats are killed for fur in China annually, with up to 24 pelts used in the average fur coat. Cats and dogs are rounded up and skinned alive to avoid the cost of humane killing. 'Once it is dyed it is very difficult to tell from just about anything you want to make it look like. Dog is coarser fur and harder to disguise,' says Rick Swain, a researcher for the US-based Humane Society International. Last month, it was announced trading in dog and cat fur is to be banned in Europe after mounting evidence that unscrupulous manufacturers are using cheap pelts from the mainland to line coats and gloves and to make children's toys. Like any Chinese city, Lhasa has an abundance of herbal-medicine shops selling all manner of animal parts and endangered-plant species. Just metres from the Potala Palace, a shop run by Han Chinese has glass jars chained to the counters. Inside are tall gastrodia tubers, figwort flowers and the shrivelled, yellowish stalks of the highly prized caterpillar fungus. Due to a long-held belief about their medicinal powers, nomadic Tibetans have traded caterpillar fungi with neighbouring regions for centuries. But a recent boom in domestic and international demand has turned the annual harvest into a gold rush. Because of the demand, prices have skyrocketed to about 20,000 to 50,000 yuan a kilo - five years ago it was half that and a decade ago, the price was 3,000 yuan. Today, the fungus provides many Tibetan yak herders with about half their annual income. I take a few photos and am bawled out of the shop by the owner. IT IS 8AM AND I'm nervously walking through the carriages of train T28 with my souvenir: the fake fox fur I haggled down from 600 yuan to 200 yuan. For the next two days, I stroll the train. Guards come and go into my berth to check my ticket, ignoring the fur lying next to me. I place it in a plastic bag and wander up the train several times, past the policemen and train guards and into the hard-sleeper and soft-seat carriages. 'Zhe shi shemme [what is this]?' I ask three young men standing between two carriages as the train rattles through the darkness towards Beijing. They peer inside and one laughs, imitating a cat's 'miaow'. The trio burst into laughter. 'You have this?' I ask in my best Putonghua. After a brief silence, one replies, 'Yes,' and nods up the carriage to a huddle of men playing cards. He sways with the train as he takes a piece of paper with my telephone number written on it. 'Wait until you are in Beijing,' he says.