Sunday, July 02, 2006

1st Train to Tibet Chugs Along

By Alexa Olsen (Aboard the Beijing-Lhasa Express)

China; July 2, 2006 (Associated Press) -- China's first train from Beijing to Tibet zipped past coal country and farm fields Sunday, turning farmers' heads while making the slow climb to the Himalayan region's forbiddingly high Tanggula Pass.

Heading west at about 75 mph, the train raced past factories, coal mines and squat, red mountains neatly terraced with plots of corn, fruit trees and bright yellow sunflowers.

The $4.2 billion railway which left the Chinese capital Saturday night and was to arrive in Lhasa, Tibet, on Monday is part of government efforts to develop China's poor west and bind restive ethnic areas to the booming east.

Critics warn it will bring a flood of Chinese migrants, diluting Tibet's culture and threatening its fragile environment. Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and the Dalai Lama has campaigned for autonomy to protect its culture.

Beijing says the region has been Chinese territory for centuries, but Tibet was effectively independent for much of that time. China says the railway is projected to help double tourism revenues in Tibet by 2010 and cut transport costs for goods by 75 percent.

Its cars' special features include anti-lightning equipment on the roof, outlets for oxygen masks beside every seat and oxygen-enriched air to help passengers cope with the altitude as the train crosses mountain passes more than 3 miles high.

Unlike most Chinese trains, this one has flushing toilets that collect waste instead of leaving it on the tracks. The roughly 500 passengers were served stir-fried greens and chicken for lunch as they looked out at low, undulating hills of barren yellow sand and rock in the western Gansu province.

Many passengers passed the time by playing cards, singing Tibetan folk songs and discussing the latest World Cup results, which they received via text message on their mobile phones.

Many Tibetans on the train spoke glowingly of the project, but it was unclear whether these were candid answers, as dozens of Foreign Ministry officials also were on board.

The passengers included some 150 Chinese and foreign journalists.

A 23-year-old Tibetan who gave his name as Suoping was returning home to look for a job after graduating from the Beijing Police Academy. He said the train would bring economic benefits to the Tibetan region."Our biggest problem has been the transportation issue. With the opening of the rail, there should be lots of new business opportunities," he said.

Railway official Zhu Zhensheng said Sunday that out of the 100,000 people who worked on building the railway between 2001 and its completion last year, only 10 percent, or about 10,000, were Tibetan.

Chinese officials say the number of Tibetans working on the railway should increase. Before the last leg of the journey from the far western frontier town of Golmud to Tibet's capital, the train will switch from an ordinary single locomotive to three specially imported General Electric-manufactured locomotives to aid the final climb to the 16,640-feet high Tanggula Pass, Zhu said.

The 710-mile final stretch of the line linking Golmud with Lhasa crosses some of the world's most forbidding terrain on the treeless Tibetan plateau.

The railway's highest station is in Nagqu, a town at 14,850 feet in the plateau's rolling grasslands. China says this stretch of rail line is the world's highest.The line is the realization of a decades-old dream by Chinese officials and engineers.

Abandoned plans were resurrected in 2001 after engineers came up with solutions for stabilizing tracks on permafrost.