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Train Rides High Into Tibet

The inaugural trip of China's extended rail service rolls into Lhasa, after a few minor upsets.

July 04, 2006|From the Associated Press

LHASA, Tibet — The first train from Beijing to Tibet finished its journey along the world's highest railway Monday, as pens spit ink and packaged foods burst in the low air pressure.

Laptop computers and digital music players failed because the tiny air bags that cushion their moving parts broke as the train climbed 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass.

Some passengers threw up. Others took Tibetan herbs or breathed oxygen through tubes. Outside, antelope and donkeys grazed beneath snowcapped mountains.

Many Tibetans loyal to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, say the railway is part of a Chinese campaign to crush Tibetan culture, and a still-simmering separatist movement, by encouraging a huge influx of majority Han Chinese migrants.

The Dalai Lama has said that the railway is neither good nor bad but that it remains to be seen how it will be used, and whether it will benefit Tibetans.

China says the stretch of track that links Lhasa to Golmud, which had been a final stop on China's vast network, is an unparalleled engineering feat.

The $4.2-billion project was built over four years on delicate permafrost, marshy ground easily damaged by human encroachment. Engineers used sunshades and high-tech cooling columns to help ensure that the ground stays frozen.

China has earmarked $190 million for environmental protection. But plastic bags, bottles and cardboard boxes were scattered along the railway, and large sections of earth were scarred by the tracks of vehicles.

The government acknowledges that Tibetans have so far been largely excluded from the project but says more of them will be hired.

Chinese state media says the railway will help double tourism revenue in Tibet by 2010 and cut transport costs for goods by 75%.

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