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Protests, Nature Won't Stand in Way as China Steamrolls Rail to Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/07/27; July 27, 2001.]

As published in the Indian Express
Friday, July 27, 2001.

GOLMUD (CHINA), JULY 26: For ethnic Tibetan Tashi, a planned railway line from China to Tibet holds both the hope of a better life and a threat to his spiritual homeland. The 23-year-old Tibetan man, who lives in China, has travelled to the western boomtown of Golmud to find work and earn money for a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism.

He was making the hazardous trip by a 30-hour bus ride across high mountains and some of the most rugged terrain on earth. However, soon the journey will become much easier.

Work has started on a $2.4-billion rail link that will stretch 1,142 km (710 miles) from Golmud in the western region of Qinghai to Tibet's capital of Lhasa, the highest railway line ever attempted.

China has set an ambitious goal to finish the state-funded project by mid-2007, despite the difficulties of working at high altitudes and laying tracks across shifting permafrost. Outside Golmud, coloured flags mark the route of the railway line across barren plateau and snow-covered peaks.

Tashi has mixed feelings about the project, welcoming the development of the backward region but fearing China will use the railway to take wealth away from Tibet. "Taking the railway would be better," he says. "But after it is finished, China will take away all of Tibet's resources."

But Chinese officials say the railway will offer an economic lifeline to Tibet and improve the lives of its people. "When the railway is completed, it will solve transport problems once and for all," says Qinghai vice-governor Bai Ma. "It will solve the problems surrounding the economic development of Tibet and provide an economic artery."

Tibet is a strategic outpost for China and the railway, of course, will allow it to deploy troops rapidly to quell unrest in the region and handle perceived threats on its borders, diplomats point out.

Tibet's government-in-exile fears exactly this. The project, it says, will allow China to tighten its grip on Tibet, which it occupied in 1950, spur an influx of Chinese settlers and strip the region of its rich natural resources.

"China's western economic development strategy is a way for the Chinese government to consolidate political control of the region," says Alison Reynolds, Director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign human rights group. "With more Han Chinese people coming in, that's going to further dilute and undermine the traditional Tibetan way of life."

However, Chinese officials argue that the railway will make freight cheaper and bring more trade, jobs and tourists to Golmud, which now handles 90 per cent of the goods flowing into Tibet by truck. "Transport is the basis of economic development," points out Golmud Vice-Mayor Xia Jiaxiang.

While critics say the railway is an impossible feat of engineering, Chinese officials insist they will prevail over nature. "We are confident we can overcome the difficulties," says Zhao Xiyu, director of engineering for the project. "The facts will speak for themselves."

The railway line will climb to a height of 5,072 metres (16,600 feet) crossing the Tanggula mountains on the border of Tibet, with most of its length laid at over 4,000 metres (13,100 feet). Chinese-made 'Dongfeng 8' diesel locomotives will pull 16 trains a day between China and Tibet, with a one-way trip taking about 16 hours, half the time by bus. The railway will transport five million tonnes of cargo to Lhasa and 2.8 million tonnes from the city annually.

Doctors attached to the project are recommending workers stay on the job only four to six hours a day and six months a year because of the extreme altitude and freezing winters. They plan a network of medical clinics.

Construction will rely on machines as much as possible, but the project will still require 30,000 workers, most from outside Qinghai, making them more susceptible to woes from the altitude.

Around half of the single-track railway will cross frozen earth and planners say they have found "reliable ways" to keep the ground stable during seasonal thawing and freezing. Planners have also staked their hopes on keeping the ground frozen with refrigeration equipment and tunnels to circulate cold air.

Some have raised concerns that construction will upset the delicate ecological balance of the region. Chinese officials admit it will be impossible to prevent some environmental damage but designers have plotted a route that aims to avoid areas rich in plants and animals. The project includes tunnels for the endangered Tibetan antelope and other animals to go under the tracks, they say.

China vows to keep the railway running year-round despite earthquakes, landslides, snowfall and high winds. "We came because we think we can do it. Otherwise, we would not be here," says Chief Engineer for the project Zhang Xiuli.(Reuters)

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