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New Railway Links China and Tibet

On July 1st, The Qinghai-Tibet Railway made its first passenger trip from Xining, the capital of northwest China’s Qinghai Province, to Lhasa in Tibet. Called the “sky train,” the 4.2 billion dollar railway was built by the Chinese government to “promote stability” and boost tourism.

Construction for the project started four years ago. Now complete, the railway is 1,142 kilometers long, has four platforms and 10 rail tracks. It’s also now the highest railway in the world, over 200 meters higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes.

The Chinese government considers the railway a great achievement, and the State Railways Minister, Fu Zhihuan, called the project “100% successful.”

According to Chinese officials, the intent is to increase prosperity in Tibet and China in general. The government predicts an increase in tourism income to $725 million by 2010.

As the train’s popularity grows and overall travel to Tibet increases, other industries are also expanding. The number of flights from Tibet has already increased, as companies expect visitors to ride the train to Tibet and return home via airplane. Others don’t think travel will have as large of an impact as many project because transportation will simply shift from air and bus to rail.

While the railway is hailed as a great feat and step forward for China, many have reservations about the impact the railway will have. Some feel the increased attention and access to Tibet will give the government a chance to crack down on separatists in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Critics argue that the rail construction is part of China’s “Great Leap West” campaign and that there will be a greater military presence in the area.

Critics also say that families along the route have been displaced to make way for train stations, most jobs related to the railway will go to Chinese immigrants rather than residents of Tibet, and the development will lead to a loss of Tibetan culture, citing the train to Kashgar as precedent.

Environmental issues have also been of concern to both critics and supporters of the railway. Tibetan rights groups are calling on travelers to boycott the train because of the potential damage to wildlife, pollution, and exploitation of minerals along the route.

Global warming could become an issue, as well. Because the railway is built on frozen ground (called permafrost), rising temperatures will melt the ground and compromise the structure. The engineers accounted for such an effect and liquid nitrogen now circulates in pipes to keep the ground cool. Nonetheless, some predict irreparable damage to the railway within the next 50 years.

Chairman of the regional government, Qiangba Punco, said that 4.8 billion dollars has been invested to guard against erosion, protect forests, and create nature reserves along the route. He promises, “The Tibetan people have been living here for generations and we will protect this land just as we take care of our eyes.”

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