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Rail on Track to Transform Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/08/26; August 26, 2002.]

By Jeremy Page

LHASA, Tibet, August 25, 2002 (Reuters) -- For centuries, the nomads of northern Tibet have grazed their herds on grasslands with little thought of the modern world. But Manzom does not want his son raising yaks and goats as his ancestors did. He wants him to work on the railroad.

When he heard last year that they were building a railway to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, Manzom decided it was time to abandon the traditional nomadic life and stake a claim in modernity.

With thousands more herders expected to follow suit, the 710-mile railway is changing the physical and cultural landscape of the Tibetan plateau and sparking fierce debate over China's policies in Tibet.

"Originally, I really wanted to do it myself, but I don't have any education," said Manzom, 34, who roams the land near the town of Nakchu.

"I'm already too old, but I hope my son will go that way," he said. "I want him to be a state worker."

Manzom's son will be 12 in 2007, when trains are due to start running between Lhasa and Golmud in neighboring Qinghai province along the highest--and one of the most controversial--railways in the world.

Local officials say the $2.4 billion railway will bring people such as Manzom jobs and prosperity unprecedented in the region ruled by Communist China since 1950.

Tibetan activists overseas say Manzom's homeland will be flooded with Chinese migrants, plundered of natural resources and turned into an environmental disaster zone.

Either way, life in Nakchu will never be the same.

Rapid Development Expected

The railway will cut across the middle of Nakchu prefecture, a vast swath of grassland, lakes and mountains covering 162,000 square miles--almost twice the size of the United Kingdom.

The prefecture has a population of 370,000 people, of whom 330,000 are herders or farmers, Nakchu Communist Party Secretary Gompo Tashi said.

But the urban population is expected to double to 80,000 in the next five years as herders move to towns to take jobs on the railroad, he told reporters.

"More and more farmers or herdsmen will serve the railway industry in the form of labor, technical support, maintenance work or other kinds of service work," he said.

The government has approved a plan to form 25 new townships, many along the railway, he said.

When completed, the railway will carry 16 trains a day between Golmud and Lhasa, taking 5 million tons of cargo to the Tibetan capital and 2.8 million tons away each year.

For a hint of its likely impact, look no further than Nakchu town, one of two places in the prefecture where trains will stop.

The town is a busy truck stop on the rough highway from Qinghai that brings in 80 percent of Tibet's commodities--from packet noodles and soap to cement and munitions.

It is filled with Chinese restaurants, shops, karaoke bars and brothels disguised as barber shops to cater to the mostly Chinese drivers on the road to Lhasa.

Chinese Looking for Work

Officially, Nakchu is 99.08 percent Tibetan. But officials say it is home to a floating population of up to 100,000 unregistered migrants, most of them Chinese.

Many, such as Wu Jianhua, have come to claim one of the tens of thousands of jobs the railway is expected to create.

"I want a job on the railway," says Wu, 32, a laborer from northwestern Gansu province. "The weather here is bad and there is not enough oxygen, but the pay is better than in Gansu."

Chinese officials say 65 percent of railway workers will be locals.

But the Tibetan government in exile, based in northern India, says most railway jobs will go to Chinese laborers.

"Undoubtedly, the construction of the railway line will provide temporary and token job opportunities to a limited number of Tibetans," it said in a recent report.

"But the majority proportion of employment opportunities will go to engineers and other semiskilled laborers from China," it said.

Growth A Concern

Environmentalists raise another concern: the fragile ecosystem of the plateau, home to rare black cranes, Tibetan antelope and wild horses.

Chinese officials say they will avoid areas rich in flora and fauna and even build tunnels for animals to cross the tracks.

Population growth, however, will take its toll. Nakchu's population has almost doubled since the early 1980s, Gompo Tashi said.

"The growing population has created growing demand for food, and we need more horses and cows and other animals. That puts more pressure on the grassland," he said.

Tibetans in the town of Nakchu have mixed feelings about the railway.

For many, it will be a welcome way to shorten the 30-hour bus journey from Golmud to Lhasa.

But for others, it threatens a cultural identity eroded by half a century of Chinese rule.

"Look at all the Chinese people," said Lhamo, a Tibetan schoolteacher visiting the town for a horse festival. "After the railway, there will only be more."

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