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China rails its way to Tibet

The Quinghai –Tibet railway, the world’s longest high altitude railway, and likely most controversial, will make its debut on Saturday. NBC's Derek Levine reports from Beijing.
A train is seen near a board declaring the starting point of the Qinghai-Tibet railway at the Golmud Station in China's Qinghai province on June 29.
A train is seen near a board declaring the starting point of the Qinghai-Tibet railway at the Golmud Station in China's Qinghai province on June 29. AP
/ Source: NBC News

BEIJING — The Quinghai–Tibet railway, the world’s longest high altitude railway, and likely most controversial, will make its debut on Saturday.

The $3.2 billion railway project is 710 miles long, reaches 16,640 feet above sea level at its highest point, and is 656 feet higher than the former highest railway, the Peruvian line in the Andes.

It also marks the first time that Tibet will be connected with China’s nationwide railway grid. Passengers will pay a minimum of $48.65 for a 48-hour trip leaving from Beijing to Lhasa.

But while the new railway is being touted by China as an engineering feat, and a chance to extend economic opportunity to a largely impoverished region, Tibetan rights advocates have loudly condemned the project as an effort by the Chinese to assert greater control over the region. 

Engineering feat
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which first began in 2001, faced enormous challenges during the course of construction, including high altitudes, frigid temperatures, strong winds and frozen earth.

It took the work of 200 scientists, engineers and technicians to construct tunnels, bridges and roadbeds to overcome the incredibly challenging terrain. Numerous innovative engineering methods and technologies never used before were introduced during this project.

In order to keep passengers from suffering from altitude sickness, pressurized cars and special train engines that can function with little oxygen were used to offset the effects of the high altitudes. Many of the engineers and workers participating in the project were only able to work a few hours a day because of health problems resulting from lack of oxygen.

Argument for development
The railway is the focus of China’s ongoing “develop the west program” which promises to bring economic development and prosperity to the impoverished regions of Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, where, according to the Central Government, the annual income is half of the rest of China.

According to the Chinese, the economic benefits of the railway were already seen during the course of construction — 7,000 ethnic minorities from Qinghai and more than 700 Tibetans were employed. In addition, Xu Hao, deputy director of the Tibet regional tourism department, said the railway is expected to have the greatest impact on Tibet’s tourism industry.

More than 2.5 million tourists are expected to come to Tibet this year, despite the rigors of traveling to its remote areas. According to Xu, tourism is expected to double by the year 2010, of which China expects an annual direct income of $725 million, he adds.

Chinese authorities also argue that the railway will help the Tibeten people travel and ship goods over long distances. But many Tibetans beg to differ.

Tibetan opposition
Tibetans have complained that the railway will allow China to exploit Tibet’s untapped natural resources in an area that Tibetans have never had the money or resources to develop themselves.

Opponents claim that oil, natural gas, chromite, gold and zinc will ship to the Eastern part of China, bypassing the many Tibetans who live on the outskirts of Tibet’s centrally controlled economy beyond the reach of the railway.

Tibetan rights advocates have also condemned the project, arguing that, the railway was part of a larger effort by the government to encourage Han Chinese to settle in Tibet in order to dilute the population and to assert greater control over the region.

Many also argue with the cost of the railway construction — while broad sections of the Tibetan population live in poverty, the railways official price tag is $3.2 billion. That’s more than what China spent on healthcare and education combined in the Tibet autonomous region in the last 50 years, according to Kate Saunders, the communications director of the International Campaign for Tibet.

“The railway will facilitate a substantial in-flow of immigrants from China to Tibetan areas, resulting in demographic change and increased pressure on Tibet’s distinct identity,” says Saunders.

The railway is also expected to have a profound effects on the environment.

“The railway will increase the number of visitors to the region, and since there are no garbage management systems in the remote areas of Tibet, the environment will become heavily polluted,” says Xin Yang, chairman and founder of Green River, an environmental organization.

The railway will also trigger “an increase in mining activity in and around the railway, which will impose environmental costs, including pollution and habitat loss,” says Saunders.

Cultural concerns
Tibetan exiles living in India on Monday scaled the fence of China’s embassy in New Delhi and set fire to Chinese flags, denouncing the railway link as a “death knell” for Tibet.

The Tibetan Youth Congress said that building the railway was an act of “demographic aggression,” and that Beijing planned to use it to relocate 20 million Chinese in Tibet over the coming decade.

An estimated 80,000 Tibetan exiles have been living in India ever since the Dalai Lama, their spiritual and temporal leader, fled Tibet in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama warns that the railways will lead to millions of Chinese migrants flooding in and completing what he calls, “China cultural genocide.”

The Chinese argue that the railway will improve the lives of Tibetans and promote the region’s traditional culture.

Starting at a minimum cost of $48.65 for a 48-hour trip leaving from Beijing to Lhasa on Saturday, that benefits of the train are yet to be seen.