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Introduction: What do you write about?

It’s a perfectly suitable question. It drives me crazy, though, because I have yet to find a satisfactory response. I can tell you what I am writing about, right now, or what I haven’t yet written about and probably never will. Never done memoir. Haven’t tried poetry, and you’d better pray I never write about fashion. Other than that? I write about what interests me, and what I hope will interest you.

That being said, assembling this collection of favorites from the past decade has forced me to think about the subjects that draw me in. Egyptian revolutionaries. Nuclear waste sites. Spelling reformers. Misunderstood criminals. Genteel doomsayers. Brazen engineers. Autistic activists. Pro-GMO environmentalists. The Illinois man whose left hand was sewn onto his right wrist. There is something about often overlooked people and places that attracts me, doubly so when they represent some kind of opposing perspective—opposing prevailing wisdom, opposing the powerful, opposing what you might have heard about them in the past.

It may be that my curiosity about these kinds of characters and stories stems from the fact that I, too, often feel like something of an outsider, never quite as in rhythm with life as I imagine others to be. Everyone puzzles over his place in the world. Yet something else is going on inside my head. It’s like I’m so constantly, almost frenetically, curious about other people’s lives and how they think about their world that I end up stuck without an everyday equilibrium of my own.

Except when on assignment. Default mode for me is going someplace, notebook in hand. By delving into other people’s experiences, uncovering their obsessions, and searching for some broader significance to it all that doesn’t end up sounding half-baked, I’m able to feel some calm. Purpose, you might call it.

There is a great quote by Joan Didion, one of the gods of this profession, that I often think about:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

I don’t necessarily agree with that last thought. Sometimes writers sell people out, but not always. What resonates with me about Didion’s comment is her thinking about access. I am amazed how readily and willingly sources open up to me, take me under a wing to guide me through some complicated idea, invite me into their homes for dinner and tolerate my pesky questioning. They welcome me into their province based on nothing more than graciousness and a trusting instinct. Why? They want to tell their stories, sure. Some even have ulterior motives—also true.

Yet I think that being small and un-loud helps my cause. If I were a large guy with a penchant for trumpeting my opinions, access into the lives of others would be harder to come by. Even if this notion strikes you as wrong—some of my best friends are tall loud journalists—the execution of the story would be wildly different. My particular brand of meekness, literal and figurative, seems to put people at ease. Rather than sell them out, I try to use that connection and the gift of access to find the essence of a story, or at least a viable version of it.

Firsthand is a collection of stories that attempt to understand why people do what they do and the beliefs that motivate them. To some readers, its unifying message may be little more than an appreciation for variety, hyperactive curiosity, and wanderlust. My hope, though, is that it is a story in its own right, about satisfying that curiosity, and that it ignites your interest in subjects about which you had no idea you were interested. Because that is what I write about.

—David Wolman, April 2014

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Train to the Roof of the World

TO SCORE A RIDE SITTING SHOTGUN IN A LOCOMOTIVE  bound for Lhasa, it helps to like beer. I’ve just ditched my guide and wandered up to an unfinished train. Migrant workers, mostly Tibetans and Hui Muslims, wield sledgehammers, shovels, and drills, hurrying to finish work before midsummer. On July 1, China will celebrate the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the highest rail line in the world. Its 1,200 miles of tracks traverse 342 miles of permafrost, much of it at altitudes exceeding 13,000 feet. The end of the line is Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the restive province China has been trying to subdue for half a century.

As I pace the gravel platform next to the tracks, the locals keep looking my way and I feel awkward and conspicuous. Veiling my nerves behind sunglasses, I keep in mind that, despite their stares, the people here are somewhat familiar with foreign visitors. Western companies involved in the project—Nortel, General Electric, Quebec-based transportation giant Bombardier—sometimes send reps out here to check on progress.

A locomotive emerges from a pass between two mocha-colored mountains. For nearly two weeks, I’ve ping-ponged across China to learn about this train, and now may be my only chance to climb aboard. I find a guy on the platform who speaks half-decent English and explain my interest in hitching to Lhasa. He says the train is still off-limits—the Golmud-Lhasa line isn’t open yet—but I figure it can’t hurt to ask.

When the engine chugs to a halt, I walk to the very front and find the train’s two engineers. With the help of my new English-speaking friend, I declare my unbridled love for trains, show my passport as requested, and make a plea for a ride. The engineers look perplexed. People in these parts get rattled by out-of-the-ordinary occurrences—like an unannounced visit from an American trainiac asking for a ride to Lhasa. Anything related to Tibet can attract unwanted attention from authorities. The subject is a minefield of political, religious, and cultural tension. During my trip, I met foreign visitors who dismissed this concern as paranoia—“the old China,” they said. But the new China hasn’t yet taken hold in the wild west, especially when it comes to the T-word. A few questions here, a license plate number jotted down there, and six months later—after the foreigners have safely returned home—police or state security officials knock on someone’s door, or make a few quiet phone calls that lead to the loss of a job, or worse.

The engineers eventually make a decision of sorts. Because the train doesn’t leave for another five hours, they invite me to join them for lunch in town. “During the afternoon,” the English speaker says, “they’ll decide if you can ride the train.”

Twelve of us pile into a van and are soon seated in a grimy restaurant overlooking the main street, where Tibetans cruise around on colorfully painted motorcycles or play pool on tables set up outside. Wearing a navy-blue cap backward, one of the engineers—I’ll call him Lee—eats only a few bites of pig’s foot stew, tofu and beef, and lamb soup, but drinks cup after paper cup of Lhasa Beer. Every couple of minutes, one of the guys in our lunch party makes a toast, calling out, “Gan bei!” (“Dry glass!”) at which point everyone is obliged to drain their cup. Lee leads another chugging charge precisely when I need a respite from the drinking. The elevation here is well over 14,000 feet, after all. At this altitude, the effect of alcohol is magnified and could do who knows what when combined with the Diamox I’ve been popping. (The drug is the same stuff high-altitude mountaineers take to keep their brains from swelling.) But Lee wants me to drink. Holding up his cup of beer, he looks at me with glassy eyes. If I don’t gan bei, he says, I can’t ride the train. I grab my beer and knock it back, finishing before anyone. 

Photo by David Wolman

Two hours later I’m sitting in the front of the locomotive, my nose no more than 20 inches from the windshield. Lee naps in preparation for his nighttime shift at the controls. The other driver flips open his cell phone to show me pictures of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, the spiritual epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism and once home to the exiled Dalai Lama. Straightening up in his chair, the engineer repositions his logbook on the console, makes a call on his walkie-talkie, and pulls a silver lever. The train engine lets out two jarringly loud hisses, then starts moving. Staring out at the shimmering tracks and concrete-reinforced embankment extending to the horizon, I can’t help but think of the senior Chinese scientist who confessed to me that the rail line he helped build might not be safe for long.

Ever since Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1951, Chinese leaders have dreamed of a railway that would link the mountainous province with the rest of the country. Such a rail line would be a long-distance lasso drawing the people and resources of the far west closer to central control. It would also provide an efficient means of transporting Chinese settlers, troops, and weapons into Tibet and the disputed border with India.

In 1955, Mao Zedong sent a team to the Tibetan plateau to investigate the feasibility of track construction, but engineering obstacles, political upheavals, and funding shortfalls stalled the project. During a meeting with King Birendra of Nepal in 1973, Mao confided, “If the railway is not constructed, I can’t even fall asleep.”

The chairman died in 1976. Three years later, China completed construction on the 500-mile stretch from Xining, in western China, to Golmud, at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains. (Regular service began in 1984.) Not until 2001 did construction start on the much more difficult Golmud-Lhasa leg. But the newly rich, construction-mad Chinese government made up for lost time: In the past five years, 100,000 workers laid about 700 miles of track over some of the harshest geography on the planet. In its entirety, the Qinghai-Tibet railway stretches 1,215 miles, and most of the new portion runs over terrain with elevations between 13,000 and 16,000 feet—cruising altitude for some commuter flights.

It is the largest construction project built on permafrost since the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed in 1977. Nearly half of the new track crosses this permanently frozen subsoil, which can become unstable if it thaws. And if that’s not enough of an engineering challenge, the line also runs over a major fault in the Kunlun Mountains, where a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in 2001. Nevertheless, beginning this month, trial runs on the line will give people from Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities direct rail access to Lhasa.

Proponents of the new railway say it will bring desperately needed economic development—especially tourism—to the hinterlands. Historic Tibet and far-western China lag behind the rest of the country in health and education, and rail connectivity promises to be a crucial tool for closing that gap. Critics say the $3.2 billion line is essentially a political and military gambit, strategically stitching Tibet into the fabric of the motherland and, by facilitating the westward migration of ethnic Chinese, accelerating the marginalization of Tibetan culture, religion, and anti-Beijing sentiment. But there’s at least one thing about this project that everyone agrees on: The Qinghai-Tibet is an engineering marvel.

Straddling the horrendously polluted Yellow River, Lanzhou is a gray amalgamation of chemical plants, oil refineries, billboards for antifreeze, and second-rate hotels and noodle shops. But this city in Gansu province is also home to China’s top permafrost research facility, the Cold and Arid Regions Environmetal and Engineering Research Institute. This is where Wu Ziwang and his colleagues used their knowledge of permafrost physics to figure out how to build on the shifting, fragile ground of the vast Tibetan plateau, which is about the size of Alaska and Texas combined. Without Wu’s team, the Qinghai-Tibet would never have been completed.

Wu, 70, sets down his plastic cup of leafy tea and shuffles through stacks of papers. Taped to the wall of his office is a 3-foot-long elevation profile of the newly constructed railway, with the areas of permafrost most susceptible to thawing highlighted in red. If the permafrost under the train thaws too much, the tracks will slump or tilt, and bridges or other structures could crack. Trains would be forced to slow down or, in extreme cases, could derail.

Wu eventually finds a shiny red folder containing a letter of commendation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences: “For his prominent achievement in roadbed construction technology, and demonstrating engineering construction on permafrost along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.” After 45 years studying permafrost, Wu has a kind of sixth sense for ice. “If I walk on the plateau, I know with about 90 percent certainty whether there’s permafrost below my feet,” he says.

After graduating from China University of Geosciences (Beijing) in 1961, Wu declined a more comfortable living in his home province of Fujian, northeast of Hong Kong, choosing Lanzhou instead. He wanted to do his part to help develop “backward” regions of western China. In the decades before construction survey crews arrived on the plateau, Wu and other geoscientists were assessing the effects of aboveground activity on permafrost and exploring construction techniques that would keep the ground cool.

But now he’s torn between dueling loyalties to state and science. On one hand, Wu the headstrong patriot is proud of the work Chinese researchers and engineers have done to make the Qinghai-Tibet line possible. He inserts nationalistic non sequiturs into our conversation, complaining about American corporate imperialism and claiming that the US routinely puts bugging devices on Chinese airplanes. His patience runs thin when asked about the railway’s stability, or when he reads online mutterings about the line’s potential weaknesses—statements written, Wu insists, by foreigners eager to see China falter.

Minutes later, however, Wu the scientist says he worries that the precarious condition of the permafrost beneath the railway is being overshadowed by the government’s post-construction celebrations. He points to a stack of copies of letters he has sent to the Ministry of Railways over the past few years. The general theme: a sometimes pleading, sometimes stern call for better permafrost monitoring and maintenance along the Qinghai-Tibet. “Every day I think about whether the railway will have problems in the next 10 to 20 years,” he says. The government has thus far only ignored or chafed at his warnings. “When I express concerns to the media,” Wu says, “the ministry and construction companies call to say, ‘Why did you say this? Everything is OK with the railway, so why did you say otherwise?’”

But he has good reason to worry. The ground under this railway is what could be called barely permanent permafrost. Unlike the terrain in Alaska and Siberia, where frigid temperatures typically keep permafrost well below the thawing point, the subsoil on the Tibetan plateau is just a few degrees from turning into a muddy, unstable mush.

So the biggest challenge for the railroad builders was keeping things cool. Construction work on permafrost can heat up the ground, as can the pounding of thousand-ton-plus trains—the added pressure is translated into heat energy. In some places the best solution was to build an elevated track: About 100 miles of the railway is raised, allowing cold air to flow below the track and cool the ground. The sight of these stretches of raised railway in the otherwise untouched vastness of the plateau is surreal—a frozen ribbon of concrete floating above the landscape and disappearing into the distance.

In areas where elevated track didn’t make sense or proved too expensive, sections of the railway are lined with vertical pipes that circulate liquid nitrogen. In other places, hollow concrete pipes beneath the tracks create a reverse-insulating effect. Metal sun shades were also placed in a few south-facing locations to reduce warming from the sun. (Wu says the shades are mostly experimental and that research into their efficacy is ongoing.) Another experimental cooling strategy involved building track foundations with stones of various sizes. When piled together, they create pockets that retain cool air.

But all the engineering in China can’t halt global climate change. “I’m not worried about the construction now,” Wu says. “I’m worried about money for maintenance in the coming 10 to 20 years.” After that, Wu believes, technology will catch up and provide solutions to structural challenges posed by global warming. But by sprinting to build its way into Tibet, did Beijing buy a railroad that could fail within a decade?

What happens, I ask, if temperatures on the plateau increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2021? Assuming there’s no improved monitoring or additional construction to the railway, Wu says that “several hundred kilometers” of track could bend out of shape. “In my dreams,” he adds, “I see trains running off the tracks.”

About 1,000 miles from the railway’s starting point, on the Yellow Sea city of Qingdao, past rank after rank of new apartment complexes, Amir Levin walks through a cavernous factory. At 786,000 square feet, it’s almost as big as 14 football fields. “By China standards, this is small,” Levin says. A tall, Israeli-born Canadian with a dozen parallel wrinkles in his brow, Levin is general manager of Bombardier Sifang Power Transportation, a joint venture between three entities: a Chinese government-owned company, Power Corporation of Canada, and Bombardier Transportation, a Canadian train manufacturer. The factory is building 224 passenger cars specially designed to handle the trip to the roof of the world. Levin says doing business with Beijing is bad for one’s blood pressure. “When China orders, it’s for high quantity in a short time.” (This year alone, the Chinese government plans to spend $20 billion on railway projects nationwide.) BSP received the contract to build the souped-up passenger cars for the Qinghai-Tibet in 2005; the joint venture had just 10 months to deliver the first of these 70-ton cars, each of which includes extra lightning-protective structures, UV-resistant coatings, enclosed underbellies to protect wiring from snowstorms and sandstorms, ecofriendly wastewater storage measures, and an oxygen enrichment system.

Providing passengers with enough oxygen was one of the biggest technology challenges BSP faced. The thin air on the Tibetan plateau contains fewer O2 molecules than the air at sea level. Along much of the train’s route, the altitude is so high and the air so thin that a breath delivers 35 to 40 percent less oxygen to the lungs than at low elevation. People who are not acclimated to high altitudes increase their breathing rate, but that isn’t always enough to bring blood oxygen levels up to normal. The result can be labored breathing, headaches, and, occasionally, potentially fatal conditions in which the lungs or brain fill with fluid.

So BSP is jacking up the concentration of oxygen circulating in the train cabins. Early media reports described the new cabins as pressurized, but Levin says no one at BSP or the government railroad ministry was ever serious about building fully pressurized cars. Doing so would be prohibitively expensive and impractical; the cars would need to be repressurized every time the train stopped to let passengers on or off.

Instead, generators on the trains pull in outside air and separate the oxygen. Nitrogen and other gasses are released back into the atmosphere, while the concentrated oxygen, mixed with some outside air, is pumped throughout the train. When passengers cross the 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—the line’s highest elevation point, about 1,000 feet lower than Mount Everest’s main base camp—the system will provide air that is 23 percent O2 (normal air is 21 percent oxygen). Passengers will feel like they’re at only about 10,000 feet. The 2 percent improvement may sound small, but it can mean the difference between riding in comfort and gasping for air. Cranking the oxygen up too high, though, could be more dangerous than keeping it too low: At a concentration of more than 28 percent, the air could become flammable.

Every passenger will also be able to self-administer oxygen whenever they need to. Woozy travelers can plug the hose of their “individual diffuser” into an outlet anywhere on the train—under every seat, next to every sleeper, in the dining car—and breathe from an air supply that is 40 percent oxygen. None of this is dangerous for healthy people—you simply feel a bit more alert—but passengers with respiratory disorders like emphysema will have to be careful: The extra O2 can trick the brain into shutting off the breathing function altogether.

All of which is to say, these trains get way up there, and even with supplemental oxygen, many passengers arriving in Lhasa can expect a headache or three.

The final 150 miles of the Qinghai-Tibet weave between mountain ranges, through wetlands, and over grassy expanses dotted with grazing sheep and yaks. Occasionally, the train passes groups of three or four Tibetans stringing barbed wire on the new concrete posts that line the railway path. At one point I spot a stoic-looking shepherd taking a break from his windy walk to stare at the machine roaring by. I’m too far away and moving too fast for him to see me, yet I imagine our eyes meeting, and him thinking: What the hell are you doing here? 

At dusk, Lee downs a quick dinner of chicken wings, dried lamb strips, and mandarin oranges, then lights up a cigarette. When we use the last of the water from the electric hot pot, he gets up from his seat at the controls to open a large plastic drum and proceeds to refill the pot, spilling water all over the floor of the cab in the process. His calm suggests the train can manage on autopilot while he tends to our tea-drinking needs.

During the night, as the train pulls into a station still a few hours from Lhasa, Lee motions for me to duck. There’s another train parked in front of us, facing the opposite way, and Lee doesn’t want the engineers in that locomotive to see his unsanctioned hitchhiker. Head resting on my forearms, I close my eyes and listen to the hum of the engines. In a few hours, I will be standing in the plaza across the street from the Potala Palace, where an angular, brazen monument built in 2001 by the Chinese government commemorates “the peaceful liberation of Tibet.”

As we approach Lhasa, the tracks cut downward across steep hills and through a few perfectly elliptical tunnels. The locomotive’s headlight illuminates one precarious-looking curve, and I recall how, in the 1860s, Chinese laborers in the US were instrumental in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, especially its passage over the then-seemingly impassable Sierra Nevada mountains.

You can’t stop this train, one researcher told me a few weeks ago. He meant the Qinghai-Tibet, but he might have been talking about globalization. Inexorably, it is reaching remote places like Lhasa. This railroad could, and likely will, have negative effects on traditional Tibetan culture. But it will also bring the benefits of modern life to more people, and maybe that’s a good thing. Either way, the train is coming and, unless thawing permafrost throws it wildly off course, more tracks are sure to follow. In the coming years, two new lines linking Lhasa with other, more remote parts of Tibet are expected to open. And government planners have already asked Wu what it would take to construct a superhighway to Lhasa.

—Wired, July 2006

Slideshow: Train to the Roof of the World

I knew this story would be DOA if I failed to get on the train. After two days on the chase in the mountains of far western China, I was still coming up empty. But then came a chance. I was very lucky, as the story makes clear. It also helped that the French husband-wife team of photographers working alongside me had insisted on traveling in a separate car. When planning the trip, this struck me as a waste of money and an all-around bad idea. Instead of looking like a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying three tourists, which would be obtrusive enough, we were a veritable caravan. Fortunately, I lost that argument. Had they been with me that moment when I walked up to the train platform, lugging their gear and complaining to their driver about their latest grievance, I doubt I would have successfully talked my way on to that locomotive.

Reader responses to this story were bizarre. There was the guy who wanted to know if I had scoped out any especially attractive skiing routes in the mountains along the way. (I hadn’t.) Another guy said I was “like Jane Fonda sitting on the big gun in Vietnam,” contributing to China’s systematic destruction of Tibetan culture. Still another reader saw mention of the possible negative effects the train could have on the local way of life as an opportunity to inform me that Tibetan culture consists of a “medieval brutal feudal theocracy.” The vitriolic mail eventually canceled out nicely. I was both a shill for the Chinese government and completely ignorant about how desperately Tibet needs economic development.

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by David Wolman from davidwolman

It's time for a nonfiction feast. Peer into the lives and minds of genteel doomsayers, autistic activists, currency rebels and audacious climate engineers. Follow spelling reformers, misunderstood criminals, Egyptian revolutionaries, pro-GMO environmentalists, neuroscientists, and, of course, the Illinois man whose left hand was sewn onto his right wrist. This collection is comprised of fifteen stories from WiredNatureThe Atavist, the author’s books and more. Go ahead, dig in.  (230 pages. ~ 5.5h reading.)