Train Heads for Tibet, Carrying Fears of Change; Migration, Tourism Likely to Increase
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/02/25; February 25, 2005.]
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuotuohe, China - In this muddy truck stop along the Qinghai-Tibet highway, Zhao, the Chinese owner of the Lanzhou Handmade Noodle Tavern, reminisced about the good old days.
"If you had been here in 2002 at this time of day, every table would have been taken," he said while surveying his restaurant's empty tables.
When the 695-mile, $3.2 billion Qinghai-Tibet railway is completed, Zhao may have to close his noodle shop. Travelers are sure to shift en masse from riding vehicles over bumpy dirt roads to sitting in comfortable modern railway cars.
But Tibetans fear that much greater changes may occur. Upon completion in 2007, the world's highest railroad, linking Golmud, a major city in Qinghai Province and Lhasa, Tibet's capital, will bring 5 million tons of goods into Tibet and take out nearly 3 million tons annually.
The railway also is expected to generate $500 million in direct and indirect income and bring about 900,000 tourists every year -- mostly Chinese -- to see Tibet's majestic snow-capped mountains and its lakes, wetlands and vast grasslands.
Beijing is eager to finish the huge project -- a centerpiece of China's "Develop the West" program -- and reportedly is ahead of schedule. But critics say the railway will open the floodgates to ethnic Han Chinese from overpopulated urban areas, potentially ending hopes of any degree of long- sought independence for Tibetans, who practice a distinct form of Buddhism. "Migration is the primary concern among educated Tibetans," said Robert Barnett, lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at New York's Columbia University. "In public, they will not voice any criticism. In private, some will tell you that this is the end of Tibet."
Even now, Chinese make up the majority of the population in Tibet. There are 7.5 million Han Chinese and Hui Muslims in the Tibet Autonomous Regions, as it is officially known in China, and only 6 million Tibetans. Other analysts note that the 695-mile railroad could beef up China's already heavy military presence in Tibet as well as help deploy tactical nuclear weapons to the border with India, which fought a brief territorial war with China in the Himalayas between 1962 and 1963.
"With even a single (rail) line, the Peoples' Liberation Army could move about 12 infantry divisions to central Tibet in 30 days," said U.S. defense expert William Triplett.
The railroad also is expected to accelerate mining activities in Tibet, which could help Tibet's struggling economy.
In the past few years, 13 copper lodes have been discovered with an estimated reserve of more than 1 million tons. Two cobalt deposits, with a combined reserve of 20,000 tons, also have been found along the route of the railway. "On the positive side, it (railway) is good, it brings new machinery, and there would be development," Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, told reporters in December. But he expressed alarm at the "demographic aggression" of more Chinese immigration.
To be sure, the railway is one of the most daring engineering projects ever undertaken. About 485 miles of track run more than 14,764 feet above sea level, and 342 miles of track traverse permanently frozen earth. The highest pass reaches 16,640 feet.
There will also be 286 bridges, including a 3,281-foot-long span across the Lhasa River. Due to the high altitude, rail cars will be pressurized much like airplane cabins.
All along the highway from Golmud to Lhasa, work on the railroad is forging ahead as billboards proclaim the importance of the project with slogans such as "Build the Qinghai-Tibet railway, create prosperity for people of all nationalities." The line's seven main tunnels, including the 2-mile- long Yangbajain tunnel 50 miles north of Lhasa, already have been completed.
In Amdo, the first town on the Tibetan side of the Tanggula Mountain pass at an altitude of 15,748 feet, several Hui Muslim migrant workers squatted outside the national railroad company's medical clinic as they waited for $120- a- month jobs of backbreaking work that had been promised them. After a week in Amdo, they were still suffering from altitude sickness, which causes throbbing headaches and loss of appetite. Officially, all workers are required to present a clean bill of health, but one of the migrant laborers said "80 percent of the doctor's certificates are fake."
According to Chinese officials, not a single death has occurred since construction began in 2001. But harsh conditions -- freezing snow and wind is so fierce that construction crews can work only five months out of the year -- render such claims doubtful, some observers say. More than 3,000 workers died during the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet highway in the 1950s, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.
In Zaziqu village in the Qugaxiong Valley some 62 miles north of Lhasa, 18 families make their livelihood by herding 1,000 yaks and 1,500 sheep. The railroad will run through their valley, forcing them to bring the animals to summer pastures in the mountains through a small tunnel under the tracks.
"We don't know whether or not the animals will refuse to pass through the tunnel," said a village leader. "We are not opposed to this project, but it is creating big losses for us" by dividing pasture lands with other farmers.
Back at a construction site framed by the snow-capped Tanggula Mountains, a reporter from Tibet TV interviewed a Chinese engineer with an armband labeled "Communist Party Vanguard Project."
"We lack oxygen, but we don't lack the right stuff," he told the reporter.
Mass migration into isolated regions after railway construction follows a pattern seen elsewhere in China in the past century.
The Han Chinese population of Inner Mongolia increased fivefold after the completion of a railroad from Zhangjiakou to Hohhot between 1912 and 1949. By 1949, Han Chinese outnumbered Mongolians 11 to 1.
The same occurred in Manchuria with the help of railroads built by the Japanese, who seized that region in 1931.
Urumuqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is a predominately Chinese city even though the province is home to several Muslim Turkic groups who, like the Tibetans, have been struggling to maintain their culture. In Kashgar, a vibrant Islamic center in Xinjiang, the Chinese population increased by 30 percent in 2001, the year after the railroad there was completed.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)