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China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West And The Campaign To Remake Tibet

by Abrahm Lustgarten
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Product Details

  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • Publishing date: 12/05/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780805090185
  • ISBN: 0805090185

Synopsis

?A great yarn . . . [Lustgarten] also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China’s massive schemes.”?The Washington Post Book World

When the ?sky train” to Tibet opened in 2006, the Chinese government fulfilled a fifty-year plan first envisioned by Mao Zedong. As China grew into an economic power, the railway had become an imperative, a critical component of China’s breakneck expansion and the final maneuver in strengthening the country’s grip over this last frontier.

In China’s Great Train, Abrahm Lustgarten, an investigative reporter with ProPublica, explores the lives of the Chinese and Tibetans swept up in the project. He follows Chinese engineer Zhang Luxin as he makes the train’s route over the treacherous mountains and permafrost possible (for now), and struggling Tibetan shopkeeper Renzin, who is caught in a boomtown that favors the Han Chinese. As the railway?the highest and steepest in the world?extends to Lhasa, their lives and communities fundamentally change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Lustgarten offers an absorbing and provocative firsthand account of the promise and costs of the Chinese boom.

Abrahm Lustgarten is a contributing writer for Fortune magazine and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant for international reporting. His articles have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Outside, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic Adventure, Salon, and many other publications, and in 2003 he was awarded the Horgan Prize for excellence in science reporting. He splits his time between New York City and Oregon.

In the summer of 2006, the Chinese government fulfilled a fifty-year plan to build a railway into Tibet. Since Mao Zedong first envisioned it, the line had grown into an imperative, a critical component of China’s breakneck expansion and the final maneuver in strengthening China’s grip over this remote and often mystical frontier, which promised rich resources and geographic supremacy over South Asia.

Through the lives of the Chinese and Tibetans swept up in the project, Fortune magazine writer Abrahm Lustgarten explores the ?Wild West” atmosphere of the Chinese economy today. He follows innovative Chinese engineer Zhang Luxin as he makes the train’s route over the treacherous mountains and permafrost possible (for now), and the tenacious Tibetan shopkeeper Rinzen, who struggles to hold on to his business in a boomtown that increasingly favors the Han Chinese. As the railway?the highest and steepest in the world?extends to Lhasa, and China’s ?Go West” campaign delivers waves of rural poor eager to make their fortunes, their lives and communities fundamentally change, sometimes for good, sometimes not.

"Following the lives of two engineers and a doctor, Lustgarten chronicles an incredible feat of modern engineering: the construction of a railway connecting Tibet to the rest of China . . . Lustgarten translates the palpable excitement of being a builder in a nation where builders rule. He also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China's massive schemes."?John Pomfret, The Washington Post

"Abrahm Lustgarten's fine book China's Great Train is one of the few works to bring the Western reader inside the heads of China's builders. Following the lives of two engineers and a doctor, Lustgarten chronicles an incredible feat of modern engineering: the construction of a railway connecting Tibet to the rest of China. Opened in July 2006, the line is known for its superlatives. It crosses the Tanggula Pass at 16,640 feet above sea level, making that section of track the world's highest; 80 percent of the entire line is above 12,000 feet; more than half the track was laid on permafrost. But for Lustgarten, a contributing writer for Fortune magazine, the building of the railway is not just a great yarn. It's also a microcosm of how the Communist Party has refashioned China in the last 30 years. In chapters entitled 'The Gambler' and 'The Race to Reach Lhasa,' Lustgarten translates the palpable excitement of being a builder in a nation where builders rule. He also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China's massive schemes. Reading China's Great Train, we recognize China's engineers, and by extension its leadership, for what they are: some of the world's biggest risk-takers. Geeks with guts. China's great train project obviously was not built simply to satisfy the ambition of engineers. It was also part of a strategy to bind Tibet to the rest of China for geopolitical reasons as well as for internal security. Since Tibet was first incorporated into Communist China in 1951, the Roof of the World has rested uneasily on the Middle Kingdom. An anti-Chinese rebellion erupted in March 1959, prompting the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, to flee to India. Demonstrations in March 1989 to commemorate the first rebellion resulted in more bloodshed and the imposition of martial law. In the early 1980s, China's leaders experimented with a softer policy toward Tibet, but by the time engineers had taken control in the late 1980s, the policy had toughened. The only way to deal with Tibet, China's engineer-leaders believed, was to develop the economy and encourage Han Chinese to migrate into the region, flooding Tibet's population of 2.6 million with a sea of Chinese. As the GDP rose, they assumed, separatist activity would fade. Following several Tibetan families, Lustgarten shows that equation to be false. In developing Tibet, he writes, China's engineers have helped the Chinese, not the Tibetans. Tibetans were shut out even from the low-paying, back-breaking jobs building the railroad. As for mining and other big-ticket projects that are supposed to enrich Tibet, they are uniformly managed and staffed by Han Chinese. After reading Lustgarten's book, it's pretty clear why another wave of Tibetan protests against China's rule?bigger and even more violent than the protests of 1989?swept through the region this March."?John Pomfret, The Washington Post Book World

"Forget those romantic images of the 'Forbidden City.' These days, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, should be called the 'Globalized City.' The Chinese overseers of the Tibetan capital have transformed its quaint byways and spectacular setting with a familiar mishmash of block apartment complexes, wide highways, strip shopping, high-rise hotels, disco clubs, car dealerships and industrial parks. Immigrants from China have doubled Lhasa's population in a few years to 500,000 residents. More than 70,000 private vehicles clog its streets. One of the primary reasons behind this transformation is the subject of Abrahm Lustgarten's illuminating and disheartening new book?China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet. The timely volume, in the aftermath of this spring's riots in Tibet, is a devastating eye opener, especially for those who give little thought to the embattled country other than when they encounter a bumper sticker urging, 'Free Tibet!' China's go west onrush into Tibet has parallels to what occurred in the American West after the transcontinental railroad spanned the country. Neither the landscape nor the native population was ever the same. The heart of Lustgarten's account is China's decision to build a railroad to Lhasa, a longtime dream of the country's leadership but still a technological nightmare in the 21st century. The railroad had to be built not only over mountainous terrain, with passes up to 17,000 feet high, but also across miles of unstable permafrost plateaus . . . Lustgarten covers considerable territory in China's Great Train, from Tibetan history and culture to train technology to human beings amid societal upheaval. His considerable talents meld these elements into a compelling narrative?even when the transformation of Tibet often seems too sad for words."?John Marshsall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"The Qinghai-Tibet Railway carried with it the promise of substantial economic development for the mystical plateau region. Inevitably, it has brought hordes of Chinese into Tibet, but has it benefited the Tibetan way of life? In this vivid portrayal of the politics and the engineering challenge behind China's fulfillment of its fifty-year plan to build a railway from Beijing to Lhasa, Lustgarten's reporting has the ingredients of adventure, struggle, and bitter human costs. It does lead to an understanding, if not acceptance of the inevitability of 'progress,' with some disturbing truths revealed. A compelling and heartbreaking read."?Mandala

"I can't think of any story that better captures the exhilaration and the agony of our pell-mell globalization. China’s Great Train is a powerful piece of reporting and of reflection, and it never edges away from the tough questions."?Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

"Lustgarten has pulled off something quite extraordinary: by shining a finely-pointed and intimate light on a handful of people directly affected by one of the modern era's greatest engineering feats?or follies?he has rendered a far broader portrait of what happens when two great cultures come into collision. In the process, he not only explores the age-old question of what price progress, but the far more essential question of just how progress might be defined. A must read for anyone who seeks to understand the colossal changes taking place in today's China."?Scott Anderson, author of Moonlight Hote...


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  • Too Little About "China's Great Train"
    From Amazon

    Lustgarten, an American journalist, says his "reporting was completed without [China's Ministry of Railways'] sanction and involvement." He also says the story was "inspired by my early introduction to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture when I was a young boy." These two comments at the end of the book help explain the failure of the preceding 277 pages. Instead of a story about "China's Great Train" - the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a stunning engineering achievement by any standard - the book is little more than invective against "Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet," the book's subtitle. Only two of the book's twelve chapters (8 and 9) are truly devoted to the making of the railway, and they fly by in 45 pages. Too much of the rest of the book is polemic, with page after page going by without so much as a reference to the railway. Take advantage of Amazon's "Search Inside!" feature: the opening tone of the book carries throughout, as does the prose style. (The first sentence on page 6 is a doozy.) Also, "Search Inside This Book" for the word "stringy," go to the page where it appears (179 - actually page 163 of the book) and read the churlish description there of Zhao Shiyun, the man who successfully directed the multibillion-dollar railroad project to completion a year ahead of schedule. Throughout the book, Lustgarten rarely lets an opportunity to be negative toward the Chinese go by. Readers looking for thoughtful journalistic writing about the development of new technology (like Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine") or level-headed historical writing about a massive railroad project (like David Haward Bain's "Empire Express") will not find it here. As someone who drove alongside the full length of this railway (on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway) a year before its completion, and wondered how in the world its myriad challenges were overcome, I found this book to be a major disappointment. UPDATE: On September 2, 2008, the author sent me email responding to the above review. He said I was "not factual in [my] characterization of [his] book" and that if I read it in its entirety I will find it "pretty evenly split between a detailed accounting of the railway and the context of the place to which it goes." He said he "spent considerable time with dozens of key sources within China Railways and China's scientific community" and has "always held them in great regard." He "was surprised" that I "seem to believe that a story of such magnitude should be viewed only in the context of the present, and taken at face value." He also said, "I take umbrage at your suggestion that my early discovery of the Dalai Lama should undermine several decades of reporting experienced [sic] for the worlds [sic] top publications." Finally, he scolded by saying that writing opinions on Amazon is "a priveledge [sic] that should be used responsibly, and that when offering your criticism, it should be justified, and well informed and substantiated, not knee-jerk and pedantic." My reply below to the author, sent two days later, includes a fuller review of his book: I do wish I could have reviewed your book more favorably. Ever since driving alongside the length of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in the summer of 2005, I've looked forward to reading an in-depth account of how that amazing railroad got built. As mentioned in the review, I expected such an account to focus on how its myriad challenges - scientific, engineering, construction, logistical - were overcome, because the railway is by any standard a remarkable achievement. That's why I marked your book for purchase from Amazon before its publication and before its contents could be read online. I did expect such an account to bring up the passions of Chinese nationalists and Western activists over the railway. But I did not expect such an account itself to succumb to those passions. Much of the book is indeed invective against China and the Chinese, with far too many examples beyond those mentioned in the review, small and large, to list here. The world has enough Tibet books like that already, and I had no desire to read yet another one. I just wanted to read about the railway. It's a unique wonder in and of itself, and no strong stand need be taken to write a great report about it. No doubt you disagree. But I think about what John McPhee might have done with this story, and I sigh. That's the kind of account I expected. That a reader might expect a book entitled "China's Great Train" to be primarily about China's great train should come as no surprise. Yet except for brief mentions, 40% of the book passes before the railroad's groundbreaking, 60% passes before the first track is laid, and by 80% the railway's done. That, to me, is a problem. The story of the railroad itself lacks depth. Too much of the book that could have been a cool-headed account of overcoming unique railway challenges is instead just another inflamed account of China in Tibet. Of course some context for the railway is necessary, but not well over half-a-book's worth, and not in such a tone. No doubt you disagree with this as well. But that lack of depth makes me wonder how much the lack of involvement with China's Ministry of Railways adversely affected the book. I did not suggest that your early introduction to the Dalai Lama undermines your decades of reporting experience, if for no other reason than I did not know you have decades of reporting experience. But your statement about that early introduction definitely jumps out after reading the book in full, suggesting an investment in this story beyond the norm and perhaps a source of its spite. Suffice to say that I expected a more dispassionate, more in-depth report about the railroad itself than the one presented in the book - hence my disappointment, and hence my review, to alert others who might expect the same. The review does advise them to read the online excerpts from the book; if they have no problem with its tone or its content as I did, and if they like those reviews from voices far more important than mine, then nothing is stopping them from enjoying your book. Thank you for the opportunity to provide you directly with greater feedback.

  • An Excellent Insight into China and Tibet
    From Amazon

    As a recent visitor to China where I took several trains I look for books about this fascinating country. This book is really a mix of the political history of Tibet and China and the building of the train line. The author gets into the background through the lives of some Tibetan people, by far the best way to help understand the impact on ordinary people. But he doesn't get lost in the details. The other half of the book, the actual building is also interesting, both the political pressure of an impossible building schedule and problems with unproven construction solutions especially of building on permafrost. A quick, easy and interesting read.

  • Fantastic!
    From Amazon

    What a an enlightening read. Brilliant imagery and a wealth of knowledge. This is not one to be missed.

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