The Chinese have had a history of using rail links and other technological advances to integrate Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia with the rest of China. The purpose of these rail links was to facilitate the voluntary, and sometimes involuntary, migration of Han Chinese to these areas in order to strengthen Beijing’s control over the regions.
China had harboured the goal of linking Qinghai province to the Tibetan Autonomous Region by rail since the early 1950s. At the time, although engineers and surveyors were sent to investigate the potential, both finance and the then-available technology proved insufficient for the task. By the 80s, building the first part of the scheme had become possible and China's rapid post-millennial economic growth allowed the second – and far more challenging – part of the project to get underway.
Tibet, which formally merged into Chinese territory as an administrative region during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), features one of the more formidable natural terrains in the world. An elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama once wrote, "We lived amidst precipitous and dangerous mountains which were clad with snow all the year round. Traveling along the paths by the cliffs of sky-reaching mountains, a caravan could be thrown away by a blast of fierce wind, and even the chill of wind could take the lives of travelers. A journey from one place of stay to the next usually took several days or even several months."
And so, while emperors of feudal dynasties ruled over Tibet, dispatched envoys to Tibet, and conferred titles on local Tibetan religious leaders, Tibet, in most people's eyes, remained a far away, barely accessible place. Even Xu Xiake, a noted traveler during the Ming Dynasty, never set foot on the earth of Tibet. As British writer Peter Hopkirk explained in his book, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, for centuries Tibet remained a remote region barely touched by cartographers. It was, therefore, long represented only as a blank...