Monday, July 03, 2006

Altitude Sickness Sets in as "Sky Train" Reaches Tangula Pass

By Mark Chisholm

TANGULA PASS, China, July 3, 2006 (Reuters) -- China's inaugural train from Beijing to Tibet passed its highest point on Monday, with many passengers reaching for oxygen tubes to ward off altitude sickness.

As the train climbed, many passengers attached the tubes to their nostrils and announcements warned passengers to avoid sudden movements that could trigger sickness, even in the pressurized cabins.

About a third of those traveling in the cheaper cabins, mostly Tibetan students, appeared to be feeling ill.

"Now we've reached the top, I feel sick and nauseous and have headaches," said Wu Jia, 32, a Chinese tourist.

Older passengers, looking uncomfortable, were lying down, children were crying and some were being sick in the bathrooms.

The train left Beijing on Saturday evening and was due to arrive in Lhasa on Monday night after a 4,000-km (2,500-mile) journey, capping three days of official propaganda about the rail link binding isolated Tibet to the rest of China.

Just after midday, the train rumbled toward the Tangula Pass which, at 5,072 meters (16,640 feet) above sea level, is the peak of the world's highest railway running across the barren Tibetan plateau. The Tibetan capital, Lhasa, which leaves many visitors gasping for breath, lies at 3,650 meters (11,976 feet).

President Hu Jintao called the railway a "miracle" of railway engineering when he officially opened the new line, the China Daily reported on Monday.

But the railway has drawn criticism from advocates of Tibetan autonomy who say the trains will bring an influx of tourists and long-term migrants who threaten Tibet's cultural integrity.

"This railway is really comfortable. You can see beautiful scenery, white clouds, herds of yaks and lots of wild animals," gushed Tibetan Mima Cering, attending the Police Academy in Beijing.

"This railway means that Tibet will be less mysterious to outsiders. Of course, it will have an impact on our culture, but that will happen one day anyway."

China's Communist army occupied the mountain region in 1950. Nine years later, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India after a failed uprising. Ever since, Beijing has maintained tight control of Tibet, fearful that the restive region will challenge Chinese control.

Troops from China's armed militia stood on guard every 500 meters on both sides of the track, as the train sped past snow-capped mountains, barren plains and clusters of yaks and Tibetan antelopes.

Convoys of military trucks and other security vehicles also watched the train pass.