Human Journey

Geography in the News: China’s Fast Train to Tibet


By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

China’s Ultimate Tourist Adventure

In the summer of 2006, the Tibet’s “rooftop of the world” became more accessible with the opening of a new fast train connecting China with Tibet. Over the previous 50 years, China had envisioned a 1,233-mile (1,972-km) railroad route to Tibet, which required crossing some of the world’s most difficult terrain. Eight years after construction of this high-tech railroad, including the most difficult completion of the last 710-mile (1,142-km) leg from Golmud to Llasa, the engineering feat has made it one of the newest world tourist adventures.

gitn_850_China's Fast Train 2
Map by Geography in the News and
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

The Chinese government has used every technological advance to build a railroad track from Golmud in China’s Qinghai Province to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. The route surmounts 16,640-foot (5,072-m) elevations of the Kunlun Shan (Mountains), crosses a world-record 240 miles (386 km.) of permafrost and has the world’s longest railroad tunnel built on frozen earth.

This railroad is the world’s highest, requiring supplemental oxygen to be supplied to entire passenger cars and in canisters to individual passengers as the train crosses high elevations. The Chinese constructed the passenger cars, while General Electric built the high-tech diesel locomotive engines, capable of running at oxygen-deficient elevations.

It was anticipated that the more than US$4.2 billion Qinghai-Tibet railroad may transport more than 1,000-2,000 passengers daily. Connected to China’s previously existing railroad network, this new railroad makes it possible to travel the nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 km) from Beijing to Lhasa in only two days. Consequently, some passengers might be disappointed with the somewhat spartan accommodations in “economy class,” but others overlook those and enjoy the overall experience.

Now that the project is finished, Tibet is experiencing an enormous shift in culture, as Chinese government agents, military, business people and tourists rush in, particularly to Lhasa.. Tibet, a land separate from China in identity and spirituality, is seeing major cultural consequences. Chinese President Hu Jintao called the new train a “miracle railway, boosting the economy and bringing jobs to the Buddhist heartland’s ethnic minorities,” but Tibetans generally disagree.

Many Tibetans and foreign interest groups worry that the railroad will only hasten the “Chinafication” of Tibet. Many believe that China sees Tibet as a “New Frontier” and are using the railroad to further colonize it. China’s leaders have traditionally seen Tibet as a buffer to powerful India to the south.

Tibet, a rugged country occupying the windswept Tibet Plateau of western China, is located between the Kunlun and Tang-Ku mountains on the north and the Himalayas on the south. The plateau averages 12,000 feet (3,658 m) in elevation. Considerable portions of the plateau and associated mountains are well above the tree line and with extensive permafrost.

With an area of 471,662 square miles (1.2 million sq. km.), Tibet is nearly twice the size of Texas. Deeply eroded canyons cross the unsheltered plateau. Until the fast train arrived, most transportation routes in this barren landscape covered in sand, gravel and rock consisted of winding footpaths and unpaved roads.

Except for the valleys, Tibet’s highland climate provides inhospitable conditions much of the year. In the winter, below freezing temperatures coupled with winds from the north makes the environment extreme. Summers have cool days and cold nights, as heat is lost through clear skies at night.

Most of Tibet’s estimated 6.2 million Tibetans and 7.5 million Chinese live in the south near the Brahmaputra River and the capital, Lhasa. Already Tibetans are a minority in their own territory, because of the massive influx of Chinese. The Dalai Lama leads Tibet’s religion, Lamaism, a branch of Buddhism. He has been in exile in India since 1959, as a result of Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Chinese occupation of Tibet began in 1950 and China’s influence and control in the mountainous region has been increasing ever since. China’s policies towards Tibet include the unity of the Chinese and Tibetan peoples. Sadly, though, the Chinese media launched a campaign against Lamaism, portraying the Dalai Lama as the enemy. China has banned reconstruction of Tibet’s monasteries and has placed an absolute limit on the number of monks and nuns allowed. Consequently, their numbers have fallen.

The Tibetan language may also be dying out in some areas as schools choose to teach only in Chinese. After graduation, jobs in Tibet can be difficult to find unless the applicant is fluent in Chinese. In central Tibet, jobs for the local Tibetans are being lost to the better-educated Chinese immigrants.

While the declaration of Lhasa as a special economic zone in 1992 brought a new wave of Chinese settlers and modern technology into Tibet, it also brought marginalization of the Tibetan people. The Chinese settlers seem to be at the forefront of the economic development, trading in the new modern goods, while the Tibetans struggle. The Chinese media portray Chinese culture as civilizing and modernizing, while describing Tibetan culture as “backward.” As Tibet strives to find a balance between the advances of the new millennium and its historic cultural identity, few analysts believe that it can stop the wave of Chinese culture that soon may overwhelm it.

Nonetheless, the modern China-Tibet railroad is a little-known tourist destination in itself. This once-in-a-lifetime adventure provides tourist experiences that are both physically and culturally unique and instructive to tourists.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 850 “China’s Fast Train to Tibet,”, Sept. 15, 2006; Marquand, Robert, “New train to Tibet will mean influx of Chinese commerce and culture,” Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 2006; “Living high in thin air,”GITN 729, May 21, 2004; “The World Bank and China,” GITN 529, July 21, 2000; “The Dalai Lama’s Tibet,” GITN 404, May 9, 1997; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Liam Marriot

    **** you

  • bob

    Wow what an article, thanks for the insight !

    By the way, you could have easily replaced in this article the words “China” and “Chinese” with “islam” and “muslims”
    And “Tibet” and “Tibetans” with “Native Europeans” or “Indigenous Europeans”

  • Jamaal Gatesworth


About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media