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Visions of the Qinghai-Tibet railway

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Han Song, a science fiction writer and Xinhua journalist, writes a fascinating blog that mixes political commentary, deadpan humor, and speculative fiction. Danwei previously translated a piece of his on non-reading government officials. Below are some excerpts from his reaction to the opening ceremony of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad:

Even on the tickets, Tibetan was "forgotten," Chinese characters and Pinyin glosses were "格尔木(Geermu)-拉萨(Lasa)." In my understanding, to respect minorities, the place names of minority areas have always rejected Pinyin. For Geermu, for example, Golmud is used, and Lasa uses Lhasa.

No matter how other tickets are printed, the Qinghai-Tibet railway is such a special case that I think there should be attention to detail.

...another story said that the Qinghai-Tibet railroad will bring myths and stories "closer" to the common public: entering Haiyan in Qinghai, people will recall Wang Luobin's "In that far-off place"; at the Kunlun Pass, they will be able to see the "Ancestral Mountain" of "Chinese ethnic cultural history"; passing the Sea of Stars, they will extol Louis Cha's Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils; nearing the Tongtian River, they will recall Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West, where Tang Seng and his disciples laid out the scriptures to dry.

Tsongkhapa? Atiśa? King Gesar? Tsangyang Gyatso? We can't find their names here!

So we unleash our anger on the heads of the foreigners. We criticize them because they have said that the Qinghai-Tibet railroad is the destruction of Tibetan culture. However, I wonder whether this isn't in fact because our publicity efforts have been too clever by half, giving those folks this kind of feeling.

Han Song addresses similar issues in fiction. He recently posted an excerpt from his story "A Special Train Ticket to Tibet." Here's a translation of the post (untranslated are his characteristically cynical photo captions):

A Special Train Ticket to Tibet

by Han Song

Beginning on 30 June, there has been a "collective publication" of articles on the opening of the entire Qinghai-Tibet rail line — things have been quite lively. Reading the reports sent back by journalists, I feel strongly that they are highly inauthentic. Back in the last century, I wrote a few words describing how a train of the future would enter Tibet (the noun 'Qinghai-Tibet Railway' did not exist at the time). I imagined the railroad would open in 1999, with the starting point in Chengdu. When a young national government official committed a murder in Beijing, he decided to flee to Tibet and bought a "special train ticket." The truth of what he saw on his journey into Tibet is as follows:

"Snowland" sat silently, a massive vessel moored at the station, so new that no one dared touch it. The gleaming, streamlined silver body was a relative of high-speed trains in Japan or France, and resembled some computer-designed science fiction tool powered by nuclear energy or antimatter that arrived via wormhole. The front of the train was painted to resemble a black demon mask, a mixture of ferocity and naivety. It certainly stood out, standing next to a conventional train and inviting suspicion and envy.

"Snowland" was one of five new tourist trains that belonged to the Chengdu Rail Bureau. The others were "Snow Mountain," "Snow Peak," "Snow Lotus," and "Snow Lion." These advanced models used hydrogen power systems. Together with maglev trains, they were the cleanest, fastest, and most practical systems for ground travel.

It was said that each car could carry 108 individuals, a number that happened to be a special constant in Buddhism. In addition to the tourists, the train held monks, Buddhist worshipers, businessmen, students, reporters, and Aid Tibet cadres. A large number were Tibetan. Seven or eight Khampa men carried a dozen cases of barley wine, and after boarding the train they divided it up and and were soon hard at it — no snacks, either — drinking amid incessant laughter and commotion until their faces were fiery-red.

Swiftly, the train snaked its way into the Tibetan Plateau, raising no clouds of dust as it traveled. The dazzling white mountain range spanned the horizon like a fortress, or like a specimen of some ancient beast that lounged indifferently, unafraid of man. An explosion of fresh flowers, rivers that ran deep, shimmering snowcaps, and the sky an unnatural retina-piercing blue. With a rush, a fiery-red fox leaped up beside the rails and madly chased the train for an hour.

"The snow is fake. Due to the greenhouse effect, peaks below 6000 meters on the Tibetan Plateau are snowless this season. Artificial snowfall has been implemented to attract tourists from the interior. This is supported by the Tibet military area," the voice of Yangjin, the tour guide, chirped gently.

Owing perhaps to the perfect magic of Yangjin's explanation, the scene outside the train windows vanished. Then came armies of amber hills that thundered by, set against a glittering wilderness and streams so clear you could see the bottom. A heavy wind brought the remains of a savage fortress flickering into view, as if its spirit was even now being erased from the pages of history. Was this the true face of the world, reflected by the train entering Tibet? It felt like traveling through Xinjiang, or on Mars, where no one had ever been.

Yangjin's voice once again echoed softly: "Look, to the left is the Sichuan-Tibet Highway! Our country's increase in national might made construction of the Sichuan-Tibet highway possible. What glad tidings for the Tibetan people!"

The voice of surrealism, to be sure. But the passengers were already susceptible to the allure of those words, and like dolls they turned their eyes to the heralded Sichuan-Tibet highway. What they saw was desolate and abandoned, a road edged by deep black gorges, white bone shards scattered like flames, and the rusted skeletons of Toyota Land Cruisers and Blackhawk helicopters.

The train stopped at a station every two hours of travel, on average. On the platform, elderly people wearing Tibetan cloaks offered tsampa, eggs, and butter tea for sale to the passengers. And children extended their hands to beg for money. There was even a begging lama asking for "just one jiao." If passengers gave him one yuan, no doubt he would give back 9 jiao in change.

Before long, twilight fell. Night on the plateau was unearthly cold. Starving wolves emerged, a thousand to a pack, racing like mad against the stars blanketing the sky, their innumerable eyes flashing green before watching in despair as the train leaped away like a tiger.

At dawn, the Potala Palace appeared at last, hazy, as if built of blocks. At the foot of the red mountain, there was an enormous, strange man-made structure that became clearer on approach — it was the famous M of McDonald's.

Rising like a luxuriant forest at the bank of the long-dry Lhasa River were two titanium-steel skyscrapers more than 100 stories high, topping even the highest snow-capped mountain. The passengers gaped in amazement. In the valley created by the two peaks, the horns of innumerable luxury cars sounded like the sudden roar of a tsunami, tossing the city of Lhasa like a small boat on the waves.

Tibet had transformed at the end of the century into the most popular tourist destination — was this not due to the common guilt shared in the heart of us all? This is the ticket you must buy to go to Tibet.


Note: The "special ticket" (特别火车票) in this story was originally "guilty ticket" (罪恶火车票) when it was first posted. The title was revised a short time later.

(Copy-edited 2009.11.24 --JM)

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There are currently 4 Comments for Visions of the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

Comments on Visions of the Qinghai-Tibet railway

Interesting post. But should "Golmund" (second paragraph) be Golmud?

Corrected. Thanks. Now in line with your bracketed quotation...

In further pedantry, I think the usual romanisation of 'Camyang Gyaco' is 'Tsangyang Gyatso', if we are talking the Sixth Dalai Lama

Thanks, Jim. I picked up my Tibetan phonetic transcription from mainland materials, so it didn't register as being off (despite the int'l standard usage earlier in that line). I've put the fix in for posterity.

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