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QILIAN MOUNTAINS, Qinghai -- Deep in the Qilian Mountains in northwest China, early spring is marked with heavy snow and freezing temperatures.
In this desolate place in Qinghai Province, at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, migrant worker Li Bingui is seldom separated from his jackhammer, which moves his whole body as he works to break apart bedrock.
Li, along with more than 1,800 other workers, are at the mercy of a ruthless environment as they construct the world's highest high-speed railway. HIGHER, TOUGHER
Li and others are carving out a 9,490-meter tunnel through the rugged mountain range, one of the most difficult parts of the building the line to link Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, with Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Started in late 2009 and scheduled to be completed in 2015, the line is designed for trains traveling at up to 300 kilometers per hour, much faster than the current 120 kilometers/ per hour on the existing line, cutting travel time between Lanzhou and Urumqi to about six hours.
Ren Shaoqiang, chief engineer with the China Railway 20th Group Co Ltd, which is in charge of the construction, told Xinhua that compared with the Qinghai-Tibet plateau railway and the existing line between Lanzhou and Urumqi, construction of this fast rail line is more challenging.
"Take the tunnel project for example. There's no precedent to draw from," said Ren, who also played a significant role in building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the highest rail link in the world.
"We have to make innovations, just like when we worked on the Fenghuoshan Tunnel of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway."
In the past year or so, engineers have worked with researchers from several universities in China on natural disaster forecasting, water discharge, measuring of wall rock transfiguration, among other things.
Other worries are more immediately pressing, such as the lack of oxygen in the air because of the high altitude, which poses a threat to the health of workers.
Zhang Hong, a director at the site, said natural oxygen content in the tunnel is only around 65 percent of that in low-lying areas.
"Besides, from October to June, the mountain is frequently covered by ice and snow," Zhang added.
Construction worker Wu Xuelin said working on the tunnel project is far more stressful than working on similar projects in coastal areas like in Shandong Province or Shanghai.
"I could not adapt well at the beginning, suffering headaches, nausea, and had difficulty sleeping," Wu said.
The company has stepped up safety measures to better protect workers, providing them with oxygen tanks and setting up rooms at cave exits for workers to inhale oxygen.
It has also built oxygen-generating stations to provide more oxygen in the tunnel.
Live video surveillance and alarm systems have also been set up.
"We only need to switch on a computer and log in to our accounts to know what's happening in the tunnel, even if we are thousands of kilometers away," Ren said. "We can also remotely control operations."
Despite all these measures, Guo Yuhong, Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Union Committee for the Qilian Mountains Tunnel, said, "Under such conditions, nobody can stand a high workload for a long time."
Guo, 44, has been stationed at the construction site since last year, and his hair has turned gray during that period of time.
MORE EXPENSIVE, MORE CONTROVERSIAL
According to Ren, building the line through difficult terrain like in the Qilian Mountain area requires twice as much investment compared with similar high-speed line construction on low-level flat areas.