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19th January, 2004

James Naughtie in China

China is the coming superpower, from which astonishing statistics emerge daily. We know the facts; but what is China like today, and how is it facing the problems that come with success and openness?

See reports and pictures from Shanghai , Yichang, Lanzhou , the train journey to Lhasa and Tibet.

Read Jim's final thoughts on his stay in China.



The Tibet train leaves in late afternoon, with due ceremony. There’s a rush for the seats, a more leisurely boarding for people who’ve booked sleepers (hard or soft), and uniformed guards stand to attention at every door, each with a little square of welcoming carpet on the platform. We settle in, and with appropriate clankings and hootings we’re off into the night, heading westwards to the city of Xixing. Then, sometime in the night, the train turns due south and begins the long run through the mountains and the plains to the border with Tibet, which we’ll cross at about 16,000 feet.

Monks onboard the train to LhasaThe train is a source of Chinese pride. Regular announcements (repeated in English) celebrate the vision of leaders who built the railway (planned in the 1980s). As ever it’s linked to a vision of Mao. It’s part, of course, of the absorption of Tibet, which was first taken by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, then closed to the world. The railway is a spectacular piece of engineering and a traveller’s treat, but a piece of politics too. Though there is a Buddhist monk on board in his maroon robes, and some Tibetans going home from their work in China, most passengers are not Tibetan. This new route – which is intended to bring many more Chinese tourists to Tibet – is seen by those who resent Chinese control as an arm of the occupation, and imperial railroad.

Producer Alexis Condon at work en routeMore of that when we reach Tibet. At dawn, after snow in the night, we wake up at the town of Golmud, soon after our southward turn. We roll through the Kunlan mountains, bare and inhospitable but irresistibly dramatic. They seem incapable of supporting much life but up there somewhere are bears, blue sheep and snow leopards. A couple of gazelles wander down to the trackside as we slide past, quite slowly, but they are the only life we see apart from the odd lorry heaving itself along the road that runs parallel to the railway, belching fumes.

Sleeping train travellerThough the railway to Lhasa was opposed by many environmentalists, we spoke to one British traveller on board (he’s been coming to China and exploring Tibet for more than 20 years) who celebrates the shift of freight from the road to the trains. A few years ago it was a road clogged by filthy trucks, in long convoys, spraying fumes as they went and leaving a trail of rubbish by the side of the road. The landscape looks cleaner without them.

Life on board, for what is supposed to be a 28-hour journey, is pleasant enough. Three of us share a four-bed compartment, which is comfortable, carpeted and even boasting a power supply. The dining car serves simple plates of rice, meat and vegetables at pleasant tables, and there’s a steady supply of hot water at the end of each carriage for tea. I could name the long-distance trains at home that have inferior comforts, but will leave that for another day. We’re drinking a lot. Altitude sickness produces, at best, bad headaches and, at worst, an inability to stand up or to breathe. We don’t want that, so we’re drinking as much water as we can to avoid dehydration. There’s said to be oxygen pumped into the train to counteract the effects of height, but we can’t be sure if it has started. Everyone has been told to stop smoking, which presumably is a sign that it has.

Tibet from the train windowAs I write this, an illuminated screen at the end of the carriage tells us that we’ve reached 4000 metres, and that it’s cold outside. We’ll soon be at the same height above sea level as the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, and outside the landscape is reminiscent of an alpine scene. There’s no break in the snow cover now. Birds are gathered in clusters. The promised yak haven’t appeared yet.

The sun is shining and the temperature is falling. The screen says it’s minus 3 centigrade. During the day we’ll listen to the recordings we made in Shanghai, Yichang and Lanzhou. I’ve brought some decent reading material – Patrick French’s book Tibet, James Kyng’s account of the new China and, for guaranteed relaxation Patrick O’Brian and John Buchan.

View from the train windowAs evening falls the scene is magical. We’ve passed the highest pass on our route, just at the Tibet border, and the sun is slipping over the mountains, which are getting higher. There are herds of yak (should that be flocks?) grazing happily on what seems thin gruel – brown grass on the permafrost. The light is fading, and the sun streaks a last line of light across the tops of the mountains. Soon it will be gone.

Before darkness comes, we see a remarkable sight by the side of our tracks. There are small groups of people crawling along very slowly. We learn that they are ‘prostrators’ performing the most demanding of pilgrimages – getting to Lhasa on all fours, with pads on their hands and knees to protect them. The biggest pilgrimage of all takes six years from the north of Tibet; these people are probably on one that only takes a few weeks. It’s a strange, humbling sight. We’re going to be there in a couple of hours.

View from the train windowIn the carriages further up the train the excitement is palpable. The train officials, after the inevitable flurry of phone calls and detailed examination of our visas and documents, decide that we can talk to some of the passengers. The uniformed staff accompany us, but far from being grim they begin to enter into the spirit of the thing – suggesting likely-looking passengers for interviews, and encouraging them to tell us their stories. Of course, there is no English (apart from a couple of thanks-yous) but it’s a warming encounter. There are Tibetan children, down from a new home in north-western China who’ve never seen their homeland and whose parents and grandparents are taking them on a three-week pilgrimage. They have never seen a microphone before. Why should they have? We part happily, and appear to have made permanent friends with the train staff. They still want us to find any British coins we can. We’ll dig some out.

View from the train windowOutside the window the landscape has turned black. Only the odd pinpoint of light suggests a car or lorry on the road – or much more unlikely – a human dwelling. We’ve only seen a few outposts since entering Tibet. This plateau gets part of its beauty from its bareness. Three or four times on the journey we’ve seen tiny groups of people trekking across the land, neither their destination nor their starting point visible to us. They must be making long journeys. Here and there, there is an outpost for building workers on the railway: a bleak assignment.

We’re slightly late, but the train seems to be picking up speed. Our destination is slightly lower than we are now, at a mere 12,000 feet or so. We’re warned not to rush about expending too much energy, or we’ll get the sickness. But it will be difficult. This is exciting.

Next stop, Lhasa.

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