The Train on the Roof of the World

and a Blue Pigeon


by Kaye Thomson


The highest railroad in the world is an extraordinary engineering feat.  It cost $4.2 billion to build and began operations on 1st July, 2006, linking the city of Golmud in China’s Qinghai Province with Llasa, the capital of Tibet – a distance of seven hundred miles over 340 miles of permafrost, often at altitudes between thirteen and sixteen thousand feet, built by one hundred thousand workers over a period of five years.  The highest point of the journey is the Tanggula Pass, 16,640 ft above sea level and 1,000 ft higher than Mont Blanc.


Laying rail tracks over permafrost is a risky business because the surface can melt as temperatures rise.  Chinese engineers took innovative cooling strategies by elevating tracks, putting in a network of pipes to circulate liquid nitrogen and cold air beneath the rails in order to keep them frozen throughout the year and they installed metal sunshades in south-facing locations to deflect warmth from the sun.  The carriages were given an ultra violet resistant coating and an eco-friendly wastewater storage system.  Even the undersides of the carriages were enclosed to protect wiring from snow storms and sandstorms.  A complex mechanism draws in outside air and releases nitrogen and other gases while pumping oxygen enriched air through the train, needed for the passengers at the higher altitudes.  The air in the mountains contains 35-40% less oxygen than at sea level. Train tickets for this journey on the roof of the world cost approximately one thousand dollars per day for a private suite of one hundred square feet. 


The railroad has been denounced by critics as a means for the Chinese to erode indigenous Tibetan culture by increasing the region’s settlement of Han Chinese, the largest ethnic majority in China.  The Chinese say it will speed up the modernization of their second largest, most remote and least developed region.  In 1965 the Chinese invaded Tibet, ousted the Dalai Llama, and now control the country which they call the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibet is a country rich in mineral resources, such as copper, iron, lead and zinc, all vital to China’s economic growth and from which mining they now benefit;  another major reason why China will never be persuaded to return Tibet to rule by its indigenous people and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Llama.


Located in the farthest northwest, oil rich corner of China, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) was first formally incorporated into the Chinese empire in 1884. Bordered by eight central Asian countries, it remains a remote outpost of the People’s Republic of China, lagging in many socio-economic indicators and sharing few cultural or historical ties with the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, three thousand miles away.  Much like Tibet, Xinjiang is the only Chinese province or “autonomous” region where ethnic Chinese are in the minority.  Xinjiang has a Muslim majority of approximately nine million people, of which eight million are Uighurs.


The Uighurs have long practiced a moderate, traditional form of Sunni Islam, strongly infused with the folklore and traditions of a rural, oasis-dwelling population.  Their history as commercial and cultural brokers between the different people connected by the Silk Road (through which Buddhism was introduced to China from India two millennia ago) gave rise to a markedly tolerant and open version of Muslim faith and a rich intellectual tradition of literature, science and music.  Nineteenth-century travellers to Kashgar noted that women enjoyed many freedoms, such as the right to initiate divorce and run businesses on their own.  Sufism, a deeply mystical tradition of Islam revolving around the cult of particular saints and transmitted from master to disciples, has also had a long historical presence in Xinjiang.  In daily life, Islam represents a source of personal and social values and provides a vocabulary for talking about

aspirations and grievances. The imam is traditionally a mediator and a moderator of village life and performs many social functions as well as religious ones.


Chinese domination of Xinjiang has never been fully accepted as many non-Chinese fear that the recent massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese will destroy the Uighur culture, religion, language and traditions.  They believe that the aim of Chinese state policy in Xinjiang is to control the region economically and politically.  In spite of a large-scale Chinese migration, more than half the population is Muslim and of Central Asian origin.  Demands for separation and/or autonomy are seen in Beijing as a threat to the continued viability of the Chinese state and Communist Party rule and a dangerous signal to the many parts of the country with large ethnic minority populations. 


Xinjiang Party Secretary and member of the Politboru in Beijing since 1994, Wang Lequan, said in 2003 that “Xinjiang will always keep up the intensity of its crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and deal them devastating blows without showing any mercy.”  


During the 1990s Beijing accelerated the integration of Xinjiang with China by increasing the migration of ethnic Han Chinese and, at the same time, committed major resources to economic growth by exploiting Xinjiang’s natural resources of oil and gas.  New roads, cities and industries were built and a consequent flood of capital and labour to carry out the new projects.  Political tensions increased due to local reaction to integration and because economic gains were unevenly distributed, favouring the Hans and leaving behind the Uighurs who felt increasingly marginalized. 


A peaceful protest in the town of Yining in 1997 requested the provision of legislative autonomy regulations governing all ethnic minority regions in China to be respected. These guarantee the rights of minority nationality populations to set

up “organs of self-government” as well as to retain some control over their local affairs and economic resources.  This was met with a brutal crackdown, a number of unarmed demonstrators shot and three days of rioting ensued during which hundreds were injured and thousands of Uighurs arrested.  The government instituted new, far-reaching policies focused on religion as a supposed source of opposition and closed down mosques and religious schools.


Many Uighurs experience harassment in their daily lives as celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through dress or personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools.  The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held and what may be said on religious occasions.  Violations of these strictures can result in expulsion, fines, entries into the individual’s personal file that the state keeps on every Chinese citizen, harassment of one’s family, and administrative punishments, including short-term detention and administrative detention in China’s notorious and discredited reeducation through labour programme.


Since September 11th, 2001, China has attempted to position its repression of Uighurs as part of the global “war on terror”.  By exploiting the climate that followed the attacks on the USA and the fact that some Uighurs were found fighting in Afghanistan, China has consistently and largely successfully portrayed Uighurs as the source of a serious Islamic terrorist threat in Xinjiang.  This perception seems to be widespread in China thanks to the state controlled media and lack of opportunities for people to make independent judgements about this outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics. 


Chinese authorities now argue that “separatist thought” is the new approach followed by dissident organizations that previously used violent tactics.  This argument allows the authorities to accuse a dissenting writer or a non-violent group advocating minority rights of terrorist intentions and crimes.  In February, 2005, the Kashgar Intermediate Court sentenced Uighur author Nurmemet Yasin to ten years imprisonment for publishing a story allegedly “inciting separation”.  In late 2004, Yasin published “The Blue Pigeon” and was arrested a month later.

His story told of a blue pigeon that traveled far from home. When it returned, different coloured pigeons captured him and locked him in a birdcage. Although the other pigeons fed him, the blue pigeon opted to commit suicide rather than remain imprisoned in his hometown.  Chinese authorities read the story as referring to Uighur resentment of the government’s policies in Xinjiang, partly because pro-independence Uighurs use a blue flag.  The court tried Yasin in closed hearings.  It is now official policy that criticism or minority expression in art and literature can be deemed a disguised form of secessionism, its author a criminal or even a “terrorist.”


For most Tibetans and Uighurs today the paramount issue is the perceived threat that religious repression poses to their distinct identity, coupled with their acute feeling of being colonized.  They view the tight restrictions placed by the Chinese authorities on Buddhism in Tibet and Uighur Islam in Xinjiang as an attempt to debase their very identity, as religion is an essential component of their traditional identity and culture.  Both Tibet and Xinjiang are sparsely populated with vast mountainous areas and deserts, but between them they make up 40% of China’s territory in an area of enormous strategic importance, bordering on South and Central Asia.


However, the July, 2009, sudden outbreak of violent riots in Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi, began as a protest against racial discrimination inflicted by the Han Chinese factory workers against their Uighur co-workers in the southern province of Guangdong, where the economic downturn has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs.  Hundreds of people in Urumqui’s People’s Square moved into Uighur areas, including the Grand Bazaar, a large shopping centre, in an explosion of anger that ended in 156 dead and one thousand wounded.  Some described the scene as reminiscent of the crackdown on Buddhist monks in Llasa, the capital of Tibet, during the run up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, which triggered protests across Tibet and garnered sympathetic responses around the world. 


Reports have been given by overseas Uighur activists that random Chinese were terrifyingly clubbed and stoned to death because the police used excessive force in beating people and firing their weapons.  Foreign journalists found the riot area on 6th July full of broken windows, fire-damaged buildings and scores of turned-out cars.  One local resident spoke of rocks being smashed on the heads of victims as they lay on the ground and even cutting off a girl’s leg.  On 7th July thousands of Han Chinese ignored government warnings to stay at home and flooded into the streets yelling “Don’t smash things, smash Uighurs!”  They carried axes, cleavers, clubs, sticks and iron rods and moved in packs to hunt down their Uighur victims. 


The authorities did little to curb the violence while it was happening, but were swift to round up suspects afterwards.  More than 1400 people have so far been arrested and security is again being tightened across China as they prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding on 1st October.  This will involve a huge military parade through central Beijing, which the authorities fear could become a target for discontented minorities.  The event will coincide with the 60th anniversary of communist rule over Xingjiang

© Kaye Thomson was a resident field director for World University Service of Canada in China, Malawi and Lesotho; for CUSO in Bangladesh and the Tongan Islands; and in the Ottawa office of the Canadian Public Health Association administered an HIV/AIDS programme to assist local NGOs in ten southern African countries. She is retired, lives on Vancouver Island and now writing her memoirs. Contact