BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Into Tibet ...

As I have frequently mentioned in this space, I am greatly enamored of the book section at the dollar store … and used to be totally befuddled at how the nice hardcovers that one can get there found their way to the buck-a-copy shelves (they come from Walmart when they rotate out unsold stock, I've since been told). As you would expect (especially given my disinclination to read fiction), there's not always something there that I want, but every now and again I'll walk out with a couple of hundred bucks (at cover price) worth of books for well under $10 … which is an awesome feeling! Of course, a key thing in play through this channel is that one is not particularly “invested” in a book that has only cost a dollar, so it invites a “what the heck” freedom to pick up something that, while sounding interesting, isn't necessarily on a subject with which I'm particularly familiar.

Which brings me to the current volume, Abrahm Lustgarten's China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet … I'm not one of those with an inordinate fascination with trains (although I take the subway variety frequently enough), but I have read a great deal about Tibet, and China's interaction (oppression?) with that once-inaccessible land, so there was enough going for this upon a cursory examination to toss it into the shopping cart.

Perhaps I was coming to the book in just the right mix of interest and lack of focus, because I found it quite rewarding … largely because its scope was rather wide, and depth – well, enough to get the main ideas across. This book is about trains, yes … with enough detail in parts to make me glaze over a bit. This book is about Tibet, yes … without spending too much time of the idea of the pre-conquest era, it contrasts the changes being brought to it with the world that living interviewees knew in their youth. This book is about China, yes … opening a none-too-flattering window onto the vast, frustrating bureaucracy which runs that massive country. But this book is also about geology, topography, engineering, climate science, and what was needed to make an impractical vision into a functioning resource.

There are two main stories here, however, one about Tibet, and Lhasa in particular, and the drastic changes that the Quinghai-Tibet Railway has brought to this once sacred capital of an ancient Buddhist (/Bon) theocracy … and the other being that of the dedicated engineers who made the seemingly impossible happen by tenacity, drive, and daring.

Being a long-time (informal) student of the Vajrayana path (I've been blessed to have been able to attend initiations by H.H. the Dalai Lama on five occasions), I find it very hard to address the cultural issues involved here dispassionately, and so I'm going to gloss over those to a large extent. Because the nature of the P.R.C., things in China are done a very particular way, and one of these is the insistence that all business, paperwork, exams, and work be done in Mandarin. The Tibetans speak various Tibetan dialects, and have had few resources to learn Mandarin, and wave after wave of Han Chinese have emigrated from the massively crowded coastal cities to seek their futures in the newly opened “western province” of Tibet … taking all the jobs and benefiting from all the economic development that was promised as the result of building the railroad … while the native Tibetans are progressively more marginalized in their homeland. Lustgarten has many interviews with residents of Lhasa, and villages along the path of the train, and the stories are heartbreaking.

Technologically, at least so far, the railroad is a triumph. The challenges of running rails through the Himalayas are, as one would expect, substantial, but the issues faced in establishing a stable route across the vast Tibetan plateau were perhaps even more daunting. Much of this landscape is “permafrost”, but not in the sense that most folks would think when hearing the term, as the temperature in the region hovers around levels that allow for constant melting and refreezing, causing ongoing cycles of surging ground that frequently destroyed roads previously built to reach Lhasa.

If there are “heroes” in this book, it is the many engineers from assorted governmental agencies and universities who fought against the particular environmental quirks to come up with systems that would allow for a train to come to Tibet. Their solution was somewhat counter-intuitive, coming up with a system of “thermosyphons”(“passive refrigeration devices that transfer heat against gravity”), tall closed tubes that use a liquid such as ammonia or freon to circulate, carrying heat away from the ground. These were installed in long lines on the path the rails were to go, solidifying the ground sufficiently that other engineering approaches could successfully be put in place. There is some question regarding the planning models, however, and if “global warming” becomes a factor in the region, these may no longer suffice to keep the route passable.

This, naturally enough, brings up the issue of the P.R.C. bureaucracy … this railroad was a vision of Mao, and it was going to get built, pretty much no matter the cost, and excuses were not something that anybody involved wanted to have to offer. Only the “rosiest” projections for environmental and construction models would be considered, and so the engineers had to both fight against a difficult geological situation, and one where those in charge were essentially demanding the impossible. And this doesn't even get into the incredible paranoia surrounding everything to do with Tibet in the Chinese government … some of the incidents presented here (about, for instance, what is and is not permitted for passengers on the train), are truly bizarre.

I found China's Great Train quite engaging, and the technological elements fascinating … as noted above, if you have an interest in any of a wide range of topics, you'll likely find something appealing here. The book has been out for five years, but the on-line guys have it (at a 40% discount), plus the new/used guys (as is often the case once things have made it to the dollar store), have a bunch of new copies for 1¢ (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping charge) … so if you can't find it at the dollar store, that's your best bet for picking this up!

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Tags: book review
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