Golmud: bleak and beautiful landscape, or soul-crushing oblivion?

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: March 15th, 2012 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
QInghai travel Today, the China Travel staff unearthed a long-forgotten and never published portion of our China Travel Guide that has been languishing in Internet never-never land for at least a year. Written by a long departed and dearly missed member of our staff, the piece is a musing on a little known destination in Qinghai and its existence in a state that would perhaps be best described as Oblivion. Its discovery inspired a little digging into the history and realities of modern day Golmud, and was a reminder to always remember the legendary (and arguably imagined) region of Shaaanxi. Golmud (Gé'ěrmù, 格尔木) is unremarkable in almost every way. The city was officially incorporated in 1980, having grown steadily since the 1950's when it became a stopping point for military surveyors and soldiers traveling westward—not exactly a shining, culturally-rich emblem on the 5,000 year tapestry of Chinese history. But the middle of the 20th century saw massive growth in the country's transportation infrastructure, and the western reaches of what is now China were quickly falling under the law of the central government. The most northwestern province in China, Xinjiang, came under Chinese rule in 1949, and the Beijing sovereignty over Tibet; these two territorial acquisitions make up an astounding 29.9% of modern China's landmass. As the new government looked into the second half of the twentieth century, its eyes were focusing ever westward. Read on for more on Golmud after the jump... So it was in this expansive boom that Golmud was born. General Mu Shengzhong and a regiment of soldiers were tasked with surveying the region for a highway and railway project. The planned road/rail projects would stretch from Xining (in the far east of Qinghai Province and already well-connected with Beijing and other strongholds of government power), to Golmud, before traversing the Tibetan Plateau and coming to an end at the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. What began as a military settlement had, by the mid 1950's, become home to scores of civilian laborers that had migrated to find work either on the Golmud-Lhasa highway or in one of the many mines that were steadily appearing on the flats of the Qaidam Basin. Traveling in Qinghai 1984 saw the completion of the Xining-Golmud railway, but the day's technology prevented construction from continuing westward (an inability to build tracks across the high-altitude, permafrost-plagued plateau) and the Golmud-Lhasa section of the railroad was put on hold until 2001. The project was eventually completed in the summer of 2006, and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Xining to Lhasa) opened to the public with great fanfare. So the Golmud of today is a product of half a century's worth of public works projects and mining practices, and is most often seen by the general populace as a blighted stopping point on a long, otherwise visually inspiring journey to Tibet. The city sits on the Qaidam Basin and is rich with oil, salt and other minerals; as increased transportation channels have made exporting these resources easier, the presence of mining in the region has steadily increased. The city and the surrounding regions are often compared to California's terrestrial oblivion.
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