Rail Line to Tibet Is a Marvel, but China Is Mum

September 9, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Click to see photos
GOLMUD, China, Sept. 3 – By the time the great railroad reaches this town from the east, it will already have traversed more than half of China, past the high desert of Qinghai, around one of the world’s great salt lakes, through the arid fastness of Gansu and over and around mountain ranges arrayed like endless sets of waves all the way to Beijing.
The biggest challenges, however, lie in another direction altogether, when the line heads south for a 685-mile run to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, over what is often called the roof of the world. For long stretches the railway, which is fast nearing completion, will operate at altitudes higher than many small planes can fly, huffing and puffing far above the fragrant mists that roll down the Himalayan slopes. Indeed, the train, whose engines will need turbochargers just to get enough oxygen to run, will often soar above the clouds.
One day soon, perhaps as early as next year, the train, equipped with cars pressurized like jet planes, will make its maiden voyage on its final southward route, chugging across permanently frozen terrain and making stops along the way at stations like Tangula Shankou, which at 16,640 feet will be the world’s highest. For those bored with the scenery, or perhaps just dizzy, there will be other diversions: first-class accommodations include health spas and fancy restaurants.
When China’s central government embarked on the $3.1 billion project in 2001, it set aside $240 million for environmental protection. When objections arose about plans to build a station within the Gulu Wetlands, in Tibet, a pristine breeding ground for black-necked cranes and yellow ducks, 20 acres of wetlands were created around the perimeter of the original preserve to make up for land lost to bridges.
Yang Xin, a prominent environmentalist in Qinghai Province, called the project one of the “most caring” he had ever seen. “We proposed detailed measures on protecting migrating Tibetan antelopes in the morning, and to our surprise we got the government’s answer back that very afternoon, less than three hours, later,” Mr. Yang said. “This reflects the government’s attitude toward this issue.”
One might expect a country that is pulling off one of the world’s great engineering feats to be eager to show off its handiwork. If so, no one has told the Railway Ministry, which for a full year refused to answer a reporter’s queries by telephone and fax to visit the new line and witness its construction. From the evidence, no one told the local police in Golmud, either.
Normally eager taxi drivers in this poky frontier town, not far removed from the dusty backdrops of American westerns, except for its 9,100-foot altitude, waved off a foreigner, saying they would be arrested if they took him down the highway south that shadows the new railway line.
The local police, too, were apparently left out of the loop. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do to help you,” said a supervisor at the city’s Public Security Bureau, when an outsider asked for a pass so he could drive into the Kunlun Mountains, toward Tibet. Another officer hinted darkly that the foreigner was breaking the law just by being in Golmud.
What could explain such a reluctance to show off this marvel of railway building? As was underscored by events in Lhasa – where Beijing was celebrating the 40th anniversary of what it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region – it had much to do with Tibetan aspirations for independence.
China’s state-controlled press hailed the anniversary with editorials that said things like, “Tibetans bask in the joy of a bright tomorrow.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman praised what he called Tibet’s “democratic reforms,” saying that in the past the people of the province had labored under a “dark serf system.”
The man leading the celebrations, Jia Qinglin, the third-ranked figure in the Chinese Communist Party, hailed China’s army for having crushed an uprising in Tibet in 1959 and rioting in 1989 by Tibetans hoping for independence for the province, which was seized by China in 1951.
By some estimates, the new train will carry as many as 900,000 people to Tibet each year, with the newcomers overwhelmingly consisting of members of China’s Han majority, many of whom will opt to stay, further dampening demands for independence and diluting Tibet’s spiritual culture.
“The Han population is rising and the Tibetan language, our mother language, is losing its position among our people,” said a Tibetan teacher who fled to India in January after being arrested several times for his views. “The road building jobs and the construction jobs are not open to Tibetans, and young Tibetan girls are turning to prostitution.”
If the Chinese wish to help Tibet, said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals against his family back home, “they should stop the immigration and give the opportunities to local people so they can improve their lives, and we can protect our culture.”

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