A train arrives at the freight depot of the Lhasa West Railway Station in the capital of Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, on June 13, 2018. The freight depot is the largest in the region. Photo: VCG
Nyidron stirs the butter until it completely melts in the pot and then puts the dough inside to fry. When it turns golden and crispy, she takes out the dough and sprinkles sugar over it. The final product is a delicious treat called Kasai, a traditional Tibetan pastry eaten during the New Year.
A local resident of Lhasa, Tibet, Nyidron makes the delicious food for her family every year, but the difference is that the butter she used this year was produced in Shenzhen, a city thousands of kilometers away on the southern coast of China.
As a daily necessity for Tibetans, butter is used to make tea and various types of food. It is in especially high demand on the eve of the Tibetan New Year, which coincided with the Spring Festival this year on February 5.
A freight train with five refrigerator carriages loaded with 184 tons of butter traveled 5,154 kilometers from Guangdong Province to Tibet, enriching the holiday market in the region.
During winter months, the high-altitude region of Tibet is usually covered with snow, and its oxygen content drops. Winter supplies including rice, vegetables and frozen dumplings are usually transported to the region from other parts of the country.
On January 19, Yang Yulei and Wang Gang boarded the freight train carrying the butter. Unlike other trains leaving Shenzhen that are filled to the brim with passengers traveling for the New Year holiday, Wang and Yang were among just a few passengers on the train.
It is a long and arduous journey that takes days to complete, with the train climbing as high as 5,000 meters above sea level up the snowy mountains of Tibet.
The Tibet-bound refrigerator train service was started in September 2015 by the Guangzhou branch of China Railway Special Cargo Services Co, Ltd. For each trip, the company would lock its refrigerator carriages onto freight trains heading to Tibet.
By the end of 2018, a total of 57,358 tons of cargo had been sent to the region.
For Yang, who has been working on the refrigerator carriages since 2015, the greatest challenges on the train are the freezing temperatures and low oxygen environment.
In addition to the feeling of nausea resulting from the lack of oxygen, it is also difficult to cook meals well as the boiling point is lower on the plateau, he explained.
“We also have to check the facilities about every half an hour in case of any breakdowns,” he said.
On January 27, the freight train arrived at its destination in Lhasa with 184 tons of fresh butter.
Wang Cong is the local agent for Shenzhen Jinli vegetable butter. The newly arrived butter is the fourth batch of goods he received since the beginning of January.
“We sold 3,200 tons of butter in 2018, and the sales volume is expected to grow 10 percent this year,” he said, adding that the butter is being sold to places including Lhasa, Nagchu, Ngari and Shigatse.
Lhaba Cering, deputy head of the Tibet Cooking Association, said butter from outside the region has served as an important supplement to the local butter market.
The inflow of supplies is made possible by the rapidly developing transportation infrastructure of Tibet.
As of the end of 2018, the total length of roads in the region exceeded 90,000 kilometers.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, spanning 1,956 kilometers from Xining in the neighboring province of Qinghai to Lhasa, was opened in 2006, linking Tibet and the rest of the country.
More than 48.4 million tons of goods have been transported through this route to Tibet.
Southseas Oils & Fats Industrial (Chiwan) Limited has been exploring the Tibetan butter market since 1998. Before the building of the railway, the company relied on trucks for transport.
Zhang Wei, a transportation employee at the company, said that compared with trucks, rail transportation is lower in cost, higher in loading capacity and is much safer.
“The refrigerator train could help save 200 yuan (about $30) to 300 yuan per ton compared with trucks,” he said. More convenience is expected in the future.
The railway connecting Tibet with Sichuan Province is currently under construction. The country is also planning to build a railway between Tibet and Yunnan Province.
More advanced refrigerator train carriages with intelligent remote temperature controls will be put into use in the near future, according to China Railway Special Cargo Services Co, Ltd.
Yang Yulei is looking forward to that change. “Our carriages can reach any place as long as there is a railway.”