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A Rail Through the Roof of the World

As China inaugurates a train link with Tibet, natives bemoan effects on the environment and what they see as Beijing's effort to exert control.

July 01, 2006|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The inaugural journey for the world's highest railway began today, a technological feat improving China's access to one of the most forbidding corners of the Earth.

The quest to link China to the snow-covered plateaus of Tibet, known as the roof of the world, had been a dream of Chairman Mao's that dates back five decades. Technical difficulties in laying tracks over frozen mountain paths and on oxygen-starved peaks made it an impossible task at the time. But the Chinese government took up the challenge about five years ago and turned it into the centerpiece of a new drive to modernize western China.

For the Tibetan people who have been fending off Chinese cultural and political infringements since they lost their independence, the iron tracks mean something quite different.

"The Chinese see it as a great technical achievement. We see it as a very sad moment in our history," said Tsering Jampa, a Tibetan who fled her homeland with her family after the 1959 uprising and now works as executive director of the Netherlands-based International Campaign for Tibet. "It's the final nail on the coffin to bring Tibet under Chinese control."

To pacify potential local opposition, Beijing has been drumming up support for the new train and touting its ability to bring progress to the poor ethnic enclave.

"Tibetan culture needs to move forward and spread, and to do that it needs contact," said Zhu Zhensheng, vice director of the Railway Ministry's Tibetan Railway Office, at a news conference this week in Beijing. "I'm sure that an isolated setting doesn't help a culture to develop."

Chinese officials are billing the $4.1-billion project not as a commercial venture but as a public works endeavor designed to boost local development. Sun Yongfu, vice minister of railways, told the official China Daily that it would help improve the competitiveness of Tibetan products by cutting transportation costs and also make Tibetan-bound consumer goods less expensive.

For example, he said, cement costs three times more in Tibet than anywhere else in China because it is shipped by highway rather than rail.

One of the new train's biggest draws, however, will be Chinese tourists. Initial runs are expected to ferry about 2,700 passengers a day and could help double tourism revenue by 2010. The train enables travelers in Beijing to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in 48 hours.

Critics say increasingly populating Tibet with ethnic Chinese has been one of China's key strategies in gaining control over this impoverished and restive territory. In Lhasa, Han Chinese outnumber Tibetans. The natives live primarily in the rural areas and have the highest illiteracy rate of all major ethnic groups in China.

Activists complain that any economic opportunities that might come with the new locomotive have not gone to Tibetans, who are often hampered by their lack of skills and inability to speak Chinese.

"When the Chinese talk about development, it's not development that benefits the Tibetan people," said Yael Weisz-Rind, campaign manager for the Free Tibet Campaign in London.

Impact on the fragile ecosystem is another reason the railway has been controversial. The new 710-mile stretch from Golmud in western China's Qinghai province to Lhasa traverses some of the most pristine landscapes on Earth, as high as 16,640 feet above sea level. Some of the ground is so frozen and unstable that engineers had to build elevated bridges to ensure a smooth ride. In other places, they had to install cooling elements to prevent the ground from melting.

The government says it has done everything it could to minimize environmental damage during construction, which involved about 20,000 workers. Authorities also created special passageways for native animals to continue roaming, and set up special garbage collecting trains to make sure rubbish from the new trains was not cast to the winds.

Windows on the train making the trip to Lhasa are equipped with ultraviolet filters to protect passengers from the sun at high altitude. The train's windows are also sealed shut to prevent the thin air from getting into the oxygen-regulated cabins.

Such preparations have not swayed skeptics, who note the problems associated with global warming, which some environmentalists say could melt the frozen ground beneath the railway and threaten its viability in as early as a decade.

"The government says they've taken all possible means to monitor the system, but we don't think it's sustainable in the long term," Jampa said. "It's too early to rejoice."

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