August 25, 2006

Tibet: New Railway Changing Lives

There are several concerns about the train's impact both on Tibetan culture and the environment. With four trains steaming into Lhasa everyday, more than 2,500 passengers, most of them tourists, have begun arriving in the Tibetan capital creating additional pressure on civic facilities. But it is the influx of the Han Chinese from mainland China that is a long-term concern.
The spectacular Qinghai-Tibet railway is the world's highest and crosses the fabled "Roof of the World" as it snakes its way from southwest China to Lhasa. At the Tangulla pass, it reaches an astonishing 16,000 feet - higher than the summit of Mont Blanc.

For local people traveling to Tibet, the journey has been made possible by this new train to Lhasa. "I had always dreamt of visiting Lhasa. Coming on this train is a dream come true, but since this is the first time, I have come in a group. I want to understand and study Tibetan culture," said Jessie Wang.
Till June this year, getting to Lhasa meant either a long and hard road journey or an expensive air one.

Now the Qinghai-Tibet railway - also known as the sky train since most of its journey is above 4,000m - is allowing curious tourists like Jessie to make their first journey to the mysterious, spiritual land that is Tibet. Built at a cost of nearly $24 billion, the railway line to Tibet is a modern-day engineering marvel. It is the first in the world to be built at such imposing heights; at one point, the train passes through a 16,640 feet pass.

The five-year project has several other firsts, as oxygen is specially released throughout the train and personal oxygen kits are available for passengers who need it.

Cultural impact

But beyond the hype, there are several concerns about the train's impact both on Tibetan culture and the environment. With four trains steaming into Lhasa everyday, more than 2,500 passengers, most of them tourists, have begun arriving in the Tibetan capital creating additional pressure on civic facilities.

But it is the influx of the Han Chinese from mainland China that is a long-term concern.

More prosperous, better connected and definitely more enterprising, the Han Chinese have already begun to control major enterprises in Tibet. Also because of the train, more and more Chinese are making a beeline to the new Eldarado.

With time, many Tibetans fear they will be reduced to a minority in their own land, and thanks to the railway, Tibetan activists say Beijing can deploy more troops in the area with greater ease.

But for now, Chinese authorities are not concerned about these issues. The successful launch and smooth running of the train over the last two months is reason enough to celebrate.