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Tibet Railway to Fast-Track Political and Economic Goals

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/07/22; July 22, 2001.]

KNIGHT RIDDER in Kunlun Pass
Monday, July 23, 2001.

If the spectacular Himalayan scenery does not leave you breathless, the lack of oxygen will. At 4,340 metres above sea level, the air is thin on the Kunlun Pass that weaves through jagged, snowcapped peaks to Tibet.

The dizzy height is but one of many problems confronting an army of railway builders mobilised by the central Government to construct the world's highest railway. The 1,120km stretch of steel will help advance the Government's 50-year-old goal of linking Tibet - economically, politically and culturally - to China's interior.

The railway, part of it started last month and scheduled for completion in 2007, may be the most difficult attempted. High altitudes, steep grades, plummeting temperatures, howling winds and soils that can rise or sink more than a metre depending on the season all present enormous technical challenges.

Beyond those engineering issues lie environmental concerns for the region's fragile ecosystem, which could be badly damaged if promised protective measures fail. Some Tibetan groups have complained that the railway will also accelerate China's exploitation of Tibet's natural resources and the destruction of Tibetan culture.

Tibet's government-in-exile in India, led by the Dalai Lama, has said the railway will be devastating for Tibet because it will strengthen Chinese rule, swamp Tibet with ethnic Chinese settlers and allow Tibet's natural resources to flow into China.

The line will run from the capital, Lhasa, to the Qinghai province city of Golmud, near the Kunlun Pass. The Government says it will bring prosperity to impoverished Tibet, where average annual incomes are about half of what they are in the rest of China.

Railways in Siberia have been built on deeply frozen soil, and some in the Andes, the Rockies and elsewhere have been built at high altitudes. But no railway project ever has confronted the combination of challenges facing the Qinghai-Tibetan Railway, according to the project's senior engineer, Zhang Xiuli.

The high altitudes, exceeding 4,545 metres above sea level at one point, will require special train engines that can function with little oxygen as well as pressurised cars to keep passengers from suffering altitude sickness.

Some stretches would include the steepest grades climbed by a train, Mr Zhang said, and others would pass over ground that rises in winter and sinks in summer. Fierce winds buffet some spots more than 170 days a year, while other places are vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes. The project will include 286 bridges and 10 tunnels, one of which will be 1.5km long. About 50,000 engineers and labourers are expected to participate, many working just a few hours a day because of weakness and health problems caused by lack of oxygen.

When the railway opens, eight trains a day are scheduled to run in each direction.

"Tibet, with its unique culture and scenery, is everyone's dreamland," Tibetan party chairman Legqog told Xinhua. "Local people expect the most economic benefits will come from the tourism industry."

From the Government's perspective, the greatest benefits may come from easier access to Tibet's timber and mineral resources, and easier military control over a still restive population.

Most goods and materials that flow in and out of Tibet now are hauled in lorries along the bumpy two-lane highway between Lhasa and Golmud. It is a rugged, six-day round trip for drivers who sleep in their cabs and take macho pride in surviving one of the world's most treacherous highways.

"We can eat bitter," a Chinese expression for enduring hardship, boasts a big banner stretched across the front of a lorry driver's petrol station a couple hours west of Golmud.

Golmud claims to be the world's largest city in terms of land mass. Its 200,000 residents are spread across 80,000 square km. The frontier town is already the staging area for about 90 per cent of the goods and raw materials - everything from beans to batteries - that go to Tibet.

The railway, along with other projects planned to help develop China's west, would only make things better, said Vice-Mayor Xia Jiaxiang. "Golmud is already taking on a new outlook. You can feel the change."

Yang Qi, a 57-year-old farmer from Henan province, is now living in a tent outside Golmud and digging drainage ditches for the railway. He has no complaints because he is earning about US$75 (HK$580) a month, twice what he made back home.

Aside from health concerns for workers toiling at high-altitude stretches, there are fears about the environmental impact of the railway.

Project director Zhao Xiyu said extensive efforts would be made to protect the delicate plants as well as the wildlife in the area. He said new technology would be used to stabilise frozen soils, and that some areas of track would be elevated to allow migratory species, including the endangered Tibetan antelope, to pass under the line.

"We are quite confident we can overcome these problems," he said. "We will be environmentally conscious, if only to protect the project."

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