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Riding in a luxury railway carriage fitted with oxygen bottles
along with comforts such as sleeping berths, armchairs and a TV
set, China's Communist leaders are turning up to survey their
boldest engineering work - a rail link to Tibet.
Wheezing in the thin air, one senior party member and his wife
descended from the blue and white carriage at the 4767-metre-high
pass through Tibet's fabled Kunlun Mountains to look at a
flag-bedecked stone marker built for the traders and pilgrims who
once walked or rode their ponies between the surrounding peaks.
With two doctors in white coats, several policemen and two young
female railway attendants assisting, they tottered back up a
stepladder into the car and trundled on to the line's next wonder,
a long viaduct at Tuotuohe that crosses the headwater of China's
mightiest river, the Yangtse.
Nine months from now, the line will be finished, running 1142
kilometres from the Chinese railhead at Golmud in Qinghai province
to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, with all but 180 kilometres of the
track at or above an altitude of 4000 metres. The highest point is
The economics of the 30 billion yuan ($5 billion) railway are
not a great concern to China's leaders. As construction got under
way four years ago, the then president and party chief Jiang Zemin
said he had been advised by some people it was not commercially
viable. He had replied: "This is a political decision."
The line is certainly strategic. It will replace many of the
long truck convoys strung out along perilous roads that take
weapons, oil, coal and food to the huge military force lined up
along Tibet's border with India, as well as the big garrisons of
soldiers and armed police in the interior to suppress
pro-independence activity among the 2 million Tibetans. Golmud, a
drab town set amid salt lakes, has 30 regiments of army troops
stationed there. Most are involved in transporting supplies into
Tibet, says Du Jie, its mayor. As well as tying Tibet closer to the
Chinese centre in a strategic sense, the line will unleash a new
tide of tourists, traders and ethnic Chinese settlers who at
present have to take either expensive flights into Lhasa or
bone-shaking bus rides.
The Canadian aerospace and rail company Bombardier and its
Chinese partners are building special pressurised carriages that
will take passengers from the Qinghai capital, Xining, to Lhasa in
24 hours, replacing a journey that now takes about three days by
ordinary train to Golmud and the rest of the way by bus.
China has ordered 371 of these carriages, suggesting several
passenger trains a day will run in each direction.
Supporters of Tibetan rights are hostile to the project, fearing
it will lead to Tibetans becoming outnumbered in their heartland as
they are now in Qinghai, once a Tibetan region called Amdo.
They point out that the railway's $5 billion cost is more than
the total spending on health and education in Tibet since the
People's Republic of China took control more than 50 years ago.
Still, the exiled Dalai Lama said the railway was one of the
tangible economic benefits of being in China - if only religion and
culture could be protected.
Naasu, a Tibetan woman who has run a souvenir shop in Golmud for
eight years, looks forward to using the railway for trips back to
Lhasa. "The bus trip is very long and dangerous - there are many
accidents on the road," she said.
Environmentalists see danger in the long section of track laid
across permafrost - perpetually frozen ground - that could soften
under the effect of global warming that is accelerating the
shrinking of glaciers all over the Tibetan plateau.
Chinese officials such as the Qinghai Vice-Governor, Su Sen, say
environmental concerns have been carefully considered in
"We have built special crossing points for wild species, like
the Tibetan antelope," he said.
Up to 20,000 workers at a time laboured in the cold and thin air
to build the line. "But not a single worker has died of altitude
sickness in constructing this railway," said Mr Du, Golmud's mayor,
echoing the official line.
Li Long, who came from Harbin to work on the railway, said it
had been dangerous. "There most definitely have been some deaths
due to the altitude, but quite few - maybe one in 10,000," he said.
"But there have been many deaths from road accidents and trucks
rolling off the road."
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