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16:42 Sep 29 2011

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Dominic's Diary 3 -- Railway on the Roof of the World
15:34, July 02, 2010  

Xining train station, the start of the journey from Qinghai to Tibet. Photo taken Wednesday June 30, 2010. [Credit: Dominic Swire / CRI.]

By Dominic Swire

I write this diary entry lying on the top bunk of a train carriage rocking gently to and fro with my head just inches from the ceiling. We've just begun our journey on the Qinghai -- Tibet railway, the highest train track in the world.

The train is currently celebrating its fourth anniversary after opening in the summer of 2006 -- or rather, it isn't, as four is not a celebrated number in Chinese culture because the pronunciation 'si' sounds like the Chinese word for death. Nevertheless that did not stop CRI sending us on this adventurous trip to mark four years since this phenomenal engineering feat was completed. And phenomenal it certainly is. Many said the idea of building a train track connecting Lhasa with neighbouring Qinghai province must have come from someone with his head in the clouds. Instead the Chinese government put a train in the clouds to prove them wrong. But the engineering challenges were immense: sending workers up to an altitude so high oxygen itself is in short supply; tunneling through rock at -30 degrees Celsius and laying track on earthquake-prone frozen ground that melts in the summer.

Mountains tower above the 15 dark green cars of the train that we are about to spend 24 hours on. Immaculately dressed guards with white gloves guide passengers laden with luggage to their respective berths. Stepping onto the train and into the narrow corridor we eventually find our compartment -- it's a hard sleeper, which means six beds, three on each side of the room with a window, a small table and thermos of hot water. Not much different from any other night train you may think -- but you'd be wrong because this vehicle boasts many features that would be difficult to find on any other train on the planet.

Perhaps the most obvious sign that this is no ordinary journey are the small boxes found behind the curtains on the walls offering additional oxygen for the higher altitudes. Lifting the flap reveals a small nozzle from which, presumably, the oxygen is released when needed. The windows themselves are also specially made to protect passengers from the ultraviolet rays of the sun that can be harmful at high altitudes. And the train travels through terrain so high and so cold that the water in the toilet has to be heated to stop it freezing.

The train sets off very smoothly and maintains a gentle rocking motion as the sun sets over the jaw-droppingly beautiful green mountains stretching up into the clouds. The track itself is yet another engineering wonder as much of it was laid on frozen ground that melts in the warmer months and would make any structure unstable. To get round his problem special cooling pipes were planted under the track to enable the foundations stay frozen.

The laying of the track was one of the most interesting features of the train for Bernard, an engineering student from Innsbruck in Austria who was smoking a cigarette between the cars as I passed. Bernard was just one of several foreign faces onboard the train attracted by the romance of travelling across the railway at the top of the world.

I have now moved to the table by the window to finish this diary entry. Sitting here is more comfortable than trying to type lying on the bed, but it's much more difficult to concentrate as every five minutes the landscape transforms from rolling grassland to mountains resembling crumpled brown paper to smooth round landforms that appear to have been imported from the desert. As the sun sets the colours grow brighter and the contrast of the shadows even more intense. I'm making the most of this now because in an hour or two darkness will descend and the magnificence of the scenery will be hidden from view as the train chugs along throughout the night.

See you in the morning.

Source: CRI online

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