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The People from the World's Highest Railway

Text & Photo by Wu Zhen

Track-laying on August 24th, 2005 at the construction site of the highest railway in the world, of which the China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd. was responsible.
Track-laying on August 24th, 2005 at the construction site of the highest railway in the world, of which the China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd. was responsible.

Seven years ago, China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd was appointed to build the world's highest railway, namely Tanggula part (5072 metres above sea level) of Qinghai-Tibet Railway. In August of 2005, Liu Zhijun, the Minister for China Railways, announced that a link had been completed in the line at Tanggula Station. From here on, China Railway was to realize its dream??a railway at the summit of the world, through the efforts of Chinese workers in China Railway system. 

This part of the railway is situated in an uninhabited land in Northern Tibet's harsh climate and sparse oxygen supply??just 50 percent of the oxygen at sea level. The weather "changes every minute in a day and five kilometers" and the lowest temperature is minus 45oC. What a forbidding area it is! On the occasion of the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to traffic, we interviewed some of the people who had contributed and heard about what they did in the process of construction. The following excerpts from the briefing and interview.

Memorable Experiences on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Han Liming is the engineer of China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd. and director of Qinghai-Tibet Railway headquarters. To date he has won the "Youth Contributive Award for National Key Projects", "Exemplar amongst Labour Workers in Qinghai Province" and National Exemplar amongst Labour Workers". 

As early as 20 years ago I had my first memorable experience in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. When I studied at the Southwest Jiaotong University, my dissertation was about the design of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in which I chose the most stable and suitable area to build a railway. I could hardly believe that, many years later, I had participated in the construction of the highest railway in the world. This was the opportunity of my lifetime and also my good fortune. I am so honoured to have had this opportunity. 

Tanggula Music band
Tanggula Music band

In view of the particular environmental situation in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, I asked my staff to investigate permafrost technology and any other valuable technologies, such as construction of concrete bridges in order to guarantee quality in such an unusual natural environment. On August 23rd of 2003, during a comprehensive evaluation of engineering quality at the northern part of Mt.Tanggula, we won a remarkable score and ranked as the top team on this railway project.

I often returned to headquarters from the construction site in the middle of the night. After working about 17 to 18 hours a day, I preferred to read materials and documents at night. I was always exhausted. Sometimes I did not even have time for dinner. Often, we felt that a meal was not important to us. I usually had insomnia due to overwork and had to use medicine to get any rest. 

At the railway construction site, I went through fire and water. Once while I was supervising the site, the jeep in which I was being driven got bogged in a marsh. The more we tried to get out the deeper it sank. The driver and I waited helplessly for rescue. In the grasslands of northern Tibet, there was no mobile service. All night long not a single vehicle or person passed by. We ran out of food and water and were both hungry and exhausted. It was the noon of the second day before our department sent people to look for us. 

An expression prevailed at the construction site. It went: "No matter how big the sky and the earth is, high altitude sickness is incredibly severe; no matter how close we are to our parents, oxygen is our greatest need." Oxygen shortage naturally handicaps the ability of the body to take in oxygen. One example is that at one time, in order to save time, we rushed our meals. Because it was too rushed, we became physically run down and short of breath.

Han Liming(right) is working with staff on railway technological issues.
Han Liming(right) is working with staff on railway technological issues.

Another example was, when one day we held a birthday party for a staff member, we sang a popular song about the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Everybody was so happy. All of a sudden, a staff member fainted and was sent to a clinic for artificial respiration. Facing such difficulties, we had to schedule changes of work shifts to every four or five hours. Oxygen shortage also made us unable to be as active in all circumstances. We suffered loss of memory and even forgot what we had done during the day. In order to overcome these difficulties, we had to produce written reports every day to fulfill our duties. 

At the highest part of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the wind blew harshly and it was incredibly cold. Clothes with down padding were useless. The labour workers had to put on clothes made of combinations of leather and wool; they were fully equipped with cotton hats, wind glasses and soldiers boots. In a storm the wind and snow combined to beat on our faces like piercing needles. We put on gauze masks, but the masks froze and made it difficult to breathe. People had to expose their noses and mouth to the cold. So his or her nose and mouth were surrounded by ice and everybody looked like Santa Clause.  

The ultraviolet radiation at the plateau is several times stronger than on the plains. Staff, recently arrived on the plateau, soon experienced severe sunburn. Their faces turned as red as an apple. Even their lips were dry and bleeding. However, experienced staff liked to tease each other. One joked that the other's face looked like a monkey's bottom. The other, in return, laughed that the first had "the mouth of rabbit." No matter how funny it might be, to laugh was still a difficulty for them because their lips were dry and bled easily. 

Having observed this situation, I felt for them very much. Hence, I ordered the supply department to purchase hats, sun protection lotion, and colourless lipstick for everybody. 

My biggest regret was concerning my family. I was so incredibly busy everyday I had no time to make a phone call to my wife. Before I set off to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway construction site, my house was being decorated. I handed over all my family responsibility to my wife. It was her support that enabled me to get fully involved in the construction of the railway. Half of the credit for my success should go to my wife. 

The Ideology of Environmental Protection in Construction

Liu Xiangrui was the director of the Department of the Sixth Project and had won the award "Eagle of the Plateau".

In the middle of July 2006, I returned to Golmud from Nagqu by train. This was the first time for me to take a train on this line. Like every other passenger in the compartment, I let myself curiously touch everything inside. When the train moved onto the plateau, the compartment began to supply oxygen. The oxygen density inside was little bit higher than outside and people felt nothing in the way of altitude sickness. An oxygen supply was also installed at each seat to provide extra service whenever the passenger needed it. 

Although I had bought a sleeping berth, I was too excited to sleep; I knew I was going to leave the area where I had served for several years. While the train entered into the watershed of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, I stared out the window and my eyes filled with tears.  

The train came to the big bridge on the Qingshui River in Wu Daoliang, and the setting sun shone on the grassland of Hoh Xil. In front, a flock of Tibetan wild antelopes were grazing at the sides of the bridge. Occasionally, they raised heads to look around, while others were passing through the tunnels made for them. The passing train did not disturb the fauna in Hoh Xil and therefore the wild animals outside the train windows were a wonderful sight. 

I was extremely impressed. The construction was incredible in terms of its size, but the plateau still kept its original quality. As is well known, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is the origin of many of the world's rivers. Citing its primitive, unique, and fragile ecosystem, the World Foundation of Natural Science claims that it is a priority area to be a "global diversified protective ecological environment". It is hard to image what could happen if the ecosystem of the world's roof was destroyed. 

In 2002, my company set off to Amdo County of Tibet Autonomous Region for the heart of Mt. Tanggula at 5000 metres above sea level. Considering the fragile ecosystem on the plateau, we installed our tents away from those areas with rich green sward. For those turf areas that we could not avoid, we usually removed the turf to a special zone to take care of it and eventually return it. Totally we transferred about 140 thousand sq. metres of turf, and all of it was replaced to its original areas after the end of construction. In addition, we assisted the locals to carry out a turf reproduction research project in which we cut turf into two parts (15 centimetres of each) and then planted them in the original earth to make it possible to grow again in order to reduce grassland degradation.  

Salary card of a Tibetan labor worker for the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
Salary card of a Tibetan labor worker for the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is home to Tibetan antelopes, a rare and nationally protected animal. Every spring and summer, a big group of the animals transmigrates from the south to the north in a long journey; in order to safeguard the journey of these wild animals, the railway design included 33 special tunnels along the railway line to let the animal pass through. 

I still remember one day we were shocked when, on returning to the tent for lunch, we found a flock of sheep dozing in the tent. They gazed at us unconcerned and it seemed this was now their house. We found it funny but also annoying. One worker joked:"They were quite polite and understanding; at least, they did not occupy our beds." 

We have already determined in advance to build an environmentally friendly railway. During the process of construction, we paid great attention to protection of the ecosystem of the plateau. We took special care of the flora and fauna and tried hard to make it possible to co-exist with nature in a harmonious way, easily observed in this plateau. 

Currently, I am involved with a new project on water supply in Gannan Tibetan inhabited area of Gansu Province. I will certainly bring the ideology of environment protection to the new project. We will apply our experience, accumulated from the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, to all our projects in the coming future. 

Gebin and his vehicle bogged in a marsh.
Gebin and his vehicle bogged in a marsh.

During the process of railway construction, I was very active because I could play various kinds of instruments and composed music as well. My strength in music benefited me a lot to learn Tibetan music. I made efforts to study Tibetan and communicated with the Tibetan labour workers or herdsmen in the area of Mt. Tanggula. I enjoyed my most happy years in Tibet. Everyday, we worked together with the local Tibetans.

We shared leisure time together to sing songs, drink tea and chat. At the construction site of the sixth department I organized a small music band. The young Tibetans who previously liked to drink alcohol were attracted to join the club where the band performed. Every night, people naturally convened at the club to light a fire around which they sipped tea and either sang Tibetan songs or listened to the oral epic about King Gesar. Whenever a holiday came, we liked to present gifts to herdsmen such as rice, wheat flour and vegetables. The herdsmen living close to the railway line would bring their fresh milk and yak meat to us. They also brought their hopes and blessing to us. Sometimes, we liked to put on our Tibetan clothes, boots, broadswords and leather hats that we bought from the downtown of Amdo and danced together with local Tibetans. The words "we were relatives" and "brothers" have become common terms between the local Tibetans and us.  Lozang is a young herdsman living in Kangnyi Township, 80 kilometres away from the railway line. In 1998, he became the recipient of a poverty relief project because his sheep and yaks were killed by a big blizzard in 1998 in the area of Mt. Tonggula.

Constraction site of the China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co.Ltd.
Constraction site of the China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co.Ltd.

The party secretary of the township committee was isolated and died in these snow disaster relief activities. We were impressed by this story. Once I was assigned with the team leader to discuss with Mr. Nyima (the new party secretary of the township committee and a graduate of a hinterland university) about employing four locals who were under the care of the poverty relief project. The duty of the four employees would be to take care of the base and equipment when the workforce was not at the construction site. Lozang was one of the relief recipients chosen by Nyima and then worked at the construction site with a payment of 700 Yuan per month. When a majority of the workforce came back next spring, the three others could go home apart from Lozang because he was an orphan without a family. "Usually, the government's township location was his family", Nyima said. Therefore, I told Lozang that he could adopt China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd as his family too. Hence, Lozang became the formal casual worker of our headquarters and was in charge of environmental sanitation. With a secure income, Lozang became a happy guy and got along with everybody. He adopted us as his real family. 

In order to increase the locals' income, the Sixth Department arranged for over 500 local Tibetans to get involved in railway construction through learning new skills, aiming to enhance their income.  With my proposal, the staff from the Sixth Department spontaneously donated cash and living necessities to local herdsmen. On Children's Day, we presented school and living necessities to Kangnyi Primary School and celebrated the holiday with locals as well. The children's holiday usually became another local grand jubilation like the horse race festival.  While I was recognized as a caring person I generally forgot to take care of my family. The year 2003 was a key year for my daughter because she was going to participate in the national university entrance examination. But I could not get back home to assist her?? instead, I just made a phone call to encourage her. Anyway, she was a good girl and was enrolled by Guangxi University. 

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway Did Not Forget Female Workers

Sun Xuemei was the deputy director of the Sixth Department and a female exemplar in China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co. Ltd.  She always felt nostalgic after she came back from the construction site of the railway. She said: "Everybody commented that it was not a particularly easy job to work for the railway, but I would like to say our female workers accepted the challenge."  At the very beginning, seeing the gorgeous landscape of the plateau, where the snow covered land was bathed in brilliant sunshine that was perfectly integrated with a blue sky decorated by subtle white clouds, I was very impressed. However, the coming of altitude sickness brought us down. We joked with each other saying, "Your eyes are on heaven but your hearts are in hell."  We undertook construction at an uninhabited place that was quite close to the Tonggula watershed. It was the highest part of the railway and the oxygen level was less half of that at sea level. Here the atmospheric pressure was lower than 11kpa which was recognized as the critical point for life. Even as a tough lady, I didn't finally escape from severe altitude sickness.   When we arrived at the plateau, our accommodation was really poor. There were no heaters and the only space for sleeping other than a tent that was less than 20 sq. metres. Without a water supply, we had to fetch ice from the valley two kilometres away. We usually brought yak dung as fuel from the downtown of Amdo County, 130 kilometres away. Rainfall on the plateau was high and it was humid. The yak dung was hard to light and smoke got in our eyes, making them sore. The smell of the dung was not too pleasant either.

Sun Xuemei with the Tibetan children whom she has been helping.
Sun Xuemei with the Tibetan children whom she has been helping.

When I first slept in the tent, the male colleagues voluntarily left the only bed for me and they slept on the floor themselves. We usually slept in our clothes, but everybody liked to chat about their families and children. It seemed we had all participated in the military training program when we were at university. In the night, I barely slept and often reminded myself of my home and comfortable bed in Tianjin, which was 3000 kilometres away. 

One day, having drunk a lot of water, I had to go to toilet in the night. At the construction site, there was only a toilet for men, but none for women. Wolfs and rats ran everywhere in the dark. I was so scared. Rats suddenly ran in front of me and I shouted in fright. On hearing my shout, people ran out of the tents. In the beams of their touch lights, I saw a wolf dashing away?? What a dangerous situation! The wolf might have taken me if people had not come immediately. Returning to the tent, I could not sleep anymore that night and the image of the wolf stayed in my mind.  

Mt. Tanggula is not a suitable place for anyone to live. It is a windy place with a severe shortage of water and receives strong ultraviolet radiation. As a female, I always dream to have a shower. How could that be possible under the circumstance that our drinking water has to come from melted ice! In addition, the climate during winter was minus 30?C so it was impossible for us to have a shower in the mountain area because we might catch cold, resulting in a complication to our altitude sickness. Taking the staff's health into consideration, the supervisors stipulated a policy of "having no showers in the mountain area but the company would arrange for groups to have conventional showers in downtown Nagqu on a regular basis." 

However, as colleagues aimed to realize their target to fulfill the construction tasks at Mt. Tanggula, they didn't like to be interrupted to take a shower at Nagqu. Without showering for a long period, our bodies itched badly and we had to use dry towels to relieve the irritation, being referred to as a "dry shower".  

The machine we used in our department for crushing rocks did not work well and daily production did not meet requirements. Hence, the department planned to make improvements to this machine. In June of 2002, I had just arrived at the construction site and was appointed to do research on this. I had taken all my time overcoming high altitude sickness before turning to study the problem of this machine. The weather in the plateau was unpredictable; it would rain but soon changed to sunshine. My clothes were wet and then dry again. After two consecutive days' of observation, I got sufficient first-hand knowledge of the machine and could repair it. Finally, the daily production of the machine was increased by eight times. 

Environmental protection was a priority during the construction of the railway. In particular the headquarters of Qinghai-Tibet Railway ordered that during railway construction any damage to the grassland on the plateau was not allowed. 

Transplanting turf.
Transplanting turf.

Once, a local truck passed along the road where the turf was under protection by our department. I saw an area of turf had been crushed by a truck and I was so annoyed and upset because this vegetation had been growing for a thousand years and once damaged it was lost. All a sudden, everybody gathered around to criticize the truck driver. However, the driver didn't recognize his mistake. I slapped him because of his ignorance. Later I heard his boss had dismissed him. 

While missing home, we all liked to sing the song entitled Visiting Home Frequently; of course, it was just a dream because it was impossible. Having left Tianjin two years ago, I have not been back. My mother-in-law has serious heart disease while my father-in-law has restricted movement because of foot disease. I also could not take care of my daughter in kindergarten. My husband had to shoulder all my responsibility to look after the family. He gave up a good job to work for an agency that was closer to our house. 

I brought several beautiful skirts with me when I came to Tibet and presumed I'd have a chance to wear them. However, not only the unpredictable climate but also the work environment made it impossible to wear them. Living in the hinterland, I was so afraid of having long hair but my husband liked it very much. In the construction site of Tibet there was no hair-cutting service; I could leave my hair long. Frankly speaking, I was not a good wife. Since graduation I have spent very little time at home. Most of my time was spent on construction. When I married, I only had one week with my husband. However, my husband never complained to me. Instead, he always said: "Good health is of utmost importance". During the two years at the plateau, I overcame severe high altitude sickness. I didn't mention any difficulties to my family in case they would worry too much about me. 

The lovely face of my daughter often came to my mind. I could only call her twice a month because of difficulties in tele- communications. With every call, the first words of my daughter were "Mummy, I miss you! When will you come back home?" My eyes filled with tears and I said: "When Qinghai-Tibet Railway opens to traffic, I will come back to get you and take you to visit the Potala Palace and the snow-capped mountain ranges." When I returned home in the Spring Festival, my husband hardly recognized me. He joked: "My Goodness, I married a Tibetan girl." Yes, I was so proud to be a Tibetan girl. 

Nowadays, it is easy to get access to Tibet. I plan to take my daughter there by train and let her know what her mother did on this plateau.

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