First train completes journey across the roof of the world
MONDAY, JULY 3, 2006
Girls, some dressed in track suits and others in traditional Tibetan robes, draped white scarves, a customary gift of greeting, on arriving passengers in the newly built Lhasa railway station.
Many passengers spent the day coping with the altitude, breathing piped-in oxygen from tubes as the train passed its highest point, the 5,072-meter (16,640-foot) Tanggula Pass. Three passengers threw up, while others had headaches - both symptoms of altitude sickness. Outside, Tibetan antelope and wild donkeys grazed beneath snow-capped mountains and deep-blue skies.
Aside from being a feat of engineering, the US$4.2 billion (€3.4 billion) railway is part of efforts to develop China's poor, restive west and bind it more closely to the booming east. Chinese leaders hope greater prosperity will help to still calls by Tibetans and other ethnic minorities for autonomy from the communist Beijing government.
The line has prompted protests by activists who say it will bring an influx of Chinese migrants to the isolated Himalayan region, threatening its ecology and diluting its unique Buddhist culture.
Trains completed shorter trips on the line between Lhasa and Golmud while passengers on the 16-car train from the Chinese capital were in the midst of their journey.
State media gave heavy coverage to the railway, with newspapers publishing front-page photos of passengers singing and villagers waving to the passing train. The state television midday news showed President Hu Jintao congratulating workers who built the line.
Before the last leg of the trip to Lhasa, the train stopped in Golmud early Monday to switch its standard engine for three powerful locomotives required to haul the train at high altitude.
Passengers included a 2 1/2-year-old boy, a 78-year-old man and a group of ethnic Tibetans newly graduated from the Beijing Police Academy who were headed home to work as police officers.
One Tibetan passenger asked a Western reporter what the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, thought of the train. The man, who asked not to be identified by name, said that with China's Internet monitoring, it was too dangerous for him to search news Web sites for the information himself.
The only signs of human habitation in the arid highlands south of Golmud were traditional herders tending yaks and small train stations that dot the rail line.
After the train climbed above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), ballpoint pens and bags of processed food burst due to the low air pressure. Laptop computers and digital music recorders failed, because moving parts in their disc drives are cushioned by tiny air bags that break at high altitude.
China's government says it is spending 1.5 billion yuan (US$190 million; €150 million) on environmental protection along the Golmud-Lhasa stretch of the railway.
But despite promises to minimize pollution, the sides of the line were littered with plastic bags, bottles and cardboard boxes. Large sections of the permanently frozen earth were grassless, puddled and scarred by vehicle tracks. Damaged permafrost "becomes dark, ugly, muddy water," said Daniel Wong, an engineer based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen who worked on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, also laid over permafrost. "The most unfortunate thing is that such damage will spread," he said.
The railway is projected to help double tourism revenues in Tibet by 2010 and cut transport costs for goods by 75 percent. Until now, goods going to and from Tibet have been trucked over mountain highways that are often blocked by landslides or snow, making trade prohibitively expensive.
New York-based Students for a Free Tibet set up a Web site, rejecttherailway.com, urging the public to wear black armbands in protest of the project, which the group says "is a tool Beijing will use to overwhelm (the) Tibetan population."
"We reject the railway just as we reject China's illegitimate rule in Tibet," the site said.
Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and Beijing says the region has been Chinese territory for centuries. But Tibet was effectively independent for much of that time.
The rail line is a decades-old dream for Chinese officials. But work began in earnest only in 2001, after engineers worked out how to stabilize tracks on permafrost.
The highest station is in Nagqu, a town at 4,500 meters (14,850 feet) in the plateau's rolling grasslands.
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