"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 staff
"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 Hotel and The Man Who Tried to Save the World
"China's Great Train is a wonderful account of a project that combined technological ambition, nationalistic and ethnic hubris, and individual determination, cunning, and vision. It is a saga in the spirit of David McCullough's accounts of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal --but about a project happening right now. Its implications aren't all positive--about China, Tibet, or the process of modernization--but Abrahm Lustgarten does an admirable job of leading the reader to surprising understandings of all those topics." --James Fallows, author of Blind Into Baghdad and Looking at the Sun
"Lustgarten lifts the rug off the grand national project of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. His compelling descriptions of bureaucratic struggles and bitter human costs are contrasted with the great Chinese national pride and the heroism of those who tried to solve the problems to make the train work. This is an insider's view and an important contribution to understanding the enigmas of China." --James R. Lilley, author of China Hands and former U.S. ambassador to the People's Republic of China