For many years the investment was like a dream of power - an outstanding but unfeasible technical undertaking. Finally, the project succeeded. In 2006, the first section of Golmud-Lhasa, 1,142 km long, was opened.
The route leads across bridges (more than 670), through tunnels, viaducts, permafrost and snow. Landscape changes with altitude, starting from vast meadows, characteristic of Mongolia, with single tents and shepherds grazing yaks and sheep, through crystal blue lakes to endless mountain ranges - initially brown and finally white - covered with snow.
When white is predominant outside the windows passengers begin to realise where they are. The line is the highest railway route in the world. 960 km runs at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. Temperature changes with altitude. First, it is so hot that you can wear a T-shirt. It gets cold only on the second, that is, the last night. The route from Beijing to Lhasa is 4,065 km long and you need to spend two days on the train.
On the launch day the railway was called the “Chinese wonder of technology” and the “window onto the world” for the backward Tibetans. The slogans concerning the “great exploit of the Chinese people” spread by the Communist Party of China sound strangely familiar. However, not everybody was happy. The Dalai Lama claimed that the day on which the railway was launched was one of the worst days in the Tibetan calendar. The opening of the highland road for the first time provided a railway connection between Tibet and the rest of China. He treated it like a blow to the heart: a vision of further strengthening of Chinese influence and, as a consequence, the loss of a national identity that was at risk anyway.
Every bed on the train, plus corridors and windows, are equipped with an “oxygen supply” - devices pumping a mixture with oxygen - and the pressure is artificially maintained to make it similar to that on lowlands. Also, a doctor and a nurse employed by the carrier travel in every carriage.
Chinese railways seem to develop even faster than the economy of China. During the first two years the connection was used by more than 5.5 million passengers. In addition, more than 4 million tonnes of cargo were carried. In the face of such a success, expansion was only a matter of time.
To date the route has been extended considerably, and this is not the end. Currently, a 402-kilometre section from Nyingchi to Xierong is under construction. So far it has been the most expensive section as specialists forecast that the project will cost about 40 billion dollars! Further sections are also planned - to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Tibetans are cautious about the investment. They consider such as dense network of Chinese railway lines in their country Chinese expansion in Tibet.
Ticket offices are as a rule situated in a different place from the railway station, sometimes at a considerable distance. In the largest cities foreigners can make use of special ticket offices which are also available to the locals. Ticket prices depend on the class of the train. Likewise in Russia there are four classes - from comfortable sleeping carriages to hard seats. The customs procedure is onerous, and the checks are similar to those at airports. One should turn up for the check 60 minutes before the train departs at the latest. All passengers travelling to Lhasa are also required to fill a declaration of good health that is a requirement for altitudes above 3,000 m above sea level.