New Rail Link to Tibet Generates Talk, Tourism
Like the Golden Spike that completed America's transcontinental railroad, China sees the recent completion of its first rail link to Tibet as a historic event. Since the railway opened to traffic two months ago, more than 300,000 passengers have traveled by rail to the remote Himalayan region.
A regular seat from Beijing to Lhasa costs the equivalent of just $45. If you don't feel like sitting for 48 hours straight, you can pay $150 for a berth in a sleeper compartment.
The sleeping berths are mostly packed with middle- and upper-class Chinese tourists; in contrast, the $45 seats are mostly filled with young laborers going to Tibet or cities along the line.
Some Chinese and Tibetans are proud of having built the world's highest railway, and believe it will help to pull Tibet out of poverty. But they are also concerned about the railway's long-term impact on Tibet's environment and culture.
"I think to most people, Tibet is a very sacred, very mysterious place. This train will definitely help Tibet to develop. It will bring lots of tourists," says vacationing airline stewardess Lisa Li on a recent rail journey to Lhasa. "But I am concerned that the increase in tourists will have a negative impact on Tibet's environment."
Most of the soil under the railway is permafrost. Chinese engineers have put some of the tracks on pilings sunk deep below the unstable soil. Ammonia-filled, metal cooling rods stuck into the earth ensure that the permafrost stays frozen, while fences and tunnels are in place to protect the migration of rare animals.
Despite press reports of buckling rails and litter on the tracks, the Chinese government has already reached its verdict on the $4.2 billion project. The train's announcer proclaims, "The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is not only a great construction work, recognized by the whole world, but also a great sample of harmonious coexistence between nature and humankind."
The train and its impact on Tibet has become a politicized issue, and many Lhasa residents were wary of expressing their opinions.
One Tibetan woman who would not give her name said, "The train's arrival in Tibet is not a good or welcome event. Many more Han Chinese will enter Tibet and occupy our land. More armless and legless people and beggars will enter too."
The political atmosphere in Tibet is extremely tense. Lhasa residents say the new communist party secretary in town has launched a political campaign to denounce the Tibetan's exiled spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama.
For his part, the Dalai Lama has expressed cautious optimism about the new railway, saying through a spokesperson that he would withhold judgment until he sees how the railway is being used.
Tibetans generally agree that globalization had already arrived in Tibet long before the new railway. The trains will certainly speed up that process, they say. In the future, China plans to extend the railway westward deeper into Tibet, toward the border with India. It's hard to tell now what will happen when tourists and modernity finally reach Tibet's remote interior and its inhabitants.
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