If all goes according to plan, travelers will be able to reach Shangri-la from Kunming by rail, albeit six years from now. Ground was finally broken on a long-planned train track connecting Lijiang to its northern neighbor, with the ultimate goal of one day linking Kunming to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
First announced in 2001, the 1,600-kilometer Kunming-Lhasa Railway (滇藏铁路) was originally expected to take ten years to build. Plans have changed significantly since then and the line is now being built piecemeal — from city to city — instead of all at once. Next up for engineers is the 140-kilometer section of track connecting Lijiang to the city renamed after a mountaintop utopia from the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon.
The Lijiang-Shangri-la project's 10.4 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion) price tag represents construction costs of 74 million yuan (US$12 million) per kilometer. Such expenses are due to the mountainous terrain through which it will pass. In total, 73 percent of the line will consist of tunnels or bridges as it winds its way north and crosses the Jinsha River.
When finished in 2020, the Lijiang-Shangri-la Railroad (丽香铁路) will accommodate both passenger and freight trains. Provincial planners say it should further expand access for travelers while also opening up mineral-rich areas to further development. These somewhat divergent objectives will "speed up healthy and sustained regional economic and social growth".
The era of slow but steady rail network expansion in northwest Yunnan began in earnest when the Dali-Lijiang Railroad (大丽铁路) opened in 2009. At that time, work was expected to commence immediately on an extension to Shangri-la — a city once known as Zhongdian. Unexplained delays postponed construction for nearly five years and now Shangri-la is in the process of a wholesale rebuild following a devastating fire earlier this year that destroyed most of its historic old town.
The extension of the Kunming-Lijiang rail line to Shangri-la brings an eventual connection to Tibet once step closer. However, no timetable has been announced for when work on tracks connecting Shangri-la to Deqin, and eventually the Tibetan cities of Bomi, Linzhi and Lhasa, is expected to commence.
It could be quite some time, as China has exercised tremendous patience regarding rail connections to its second-largest administrative region. Originally proposed by the central government in 1950, railroads into Tibet began running more than half a century later when then-president Hu Jintao became the first man ever to arrive in Lhasa by train.