Criticism over Qingzang Railway as opening nears

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Cultural/historical Tibet (highlighted) depicted with various competing territorial claims.
            Claimed by Tibetan exile groups.
Tibetan areas designated by PRC.
Tibet Autonomous Region (actual control).
Claimed by India as part of Aksai Chin.
Claimed by the PRC as part of TAR.
Other historically culturally-Tibetan areas.

The Qingzang Railway is a project by the Chinese Government to build a unique railway linking Tibet with Mainland China. The railway will include sections at high altitude, crossing 5000 metre high mountains, long tunnels and lots of track laid on permafrost. The railway is being hailed in China as "an engineering miracle", but has attracted criticism from across the world over fears that the railway, the first to link it to outside the region, will increase Chinese control over the Tibetan autonomous region and will erode Tibetan culture and traditions.

Currently, Tibet can only be reached by air and by road. Departing from lower-altitude airports to fly into Tibet carries the risk of experiencing high altitude sickness, and the landing at Lhasa can be 'hair-raising'. Travelling by road means several days on a bus or hitchhiking on trucks over windy mountain roads. When the Quingzang Railway opens, it is expected that direct trains will run from Beijing and other cities.

China has long received criticism over its treatment of Tibet. The Tibet Autonomous Region excludes many areas claimed to be part of 'historic Tibet', and the former government of Tibet, headed by the Dalai Lama, now live in exile in India. China claims that the railway will bring greater freedoms and economic opportunities to the people of Tibet. For an area that has long been in relative isolation though, the railway is bound to have a profound effect. Locals may worry about what would happen to their trade if they were suddenly forced to compete with businesses from Mainland China. Much of Tibet is also ancient, with old buildings and traditional practices, which may be under threat from the new physical link with China.

There are also concerns from environmentalists. The passage between Tibet and China contains some unique flora and endangered animal species, such as Tibetan antelope, which may be threatened by the railroad. Construction of the railway will generate 7,000 tons of rubbish from 20,000 builders. Some of this rubbish will have been buried on the spot whilst some forms of non-degradable rubbish which may pollute water is said to have been transported to Golmud or Lhasa for treatment. A bridge is also said to have been built at Wudaoliang Basin to enable animals to cross. Once open the railway will generate more waste, and whilst the carriages are said to be enclosed, preventing passengers from throwing out rubbish, it remains to be seen what additional impact the running of the railway will create.

The railway network of China

As well as passengers, the railway will also have a strong use in transporting freight, currently carried on trucks. This will mean that more coal and petroleum-based products will be brought into Tibet. Whilst China claims that this will enable Tibetans to stop logging pine trees for fuel, aiding the local ecology, the railway will accelerate Tibet's use of climate-damaging fossil fuels.

Some Canadian student groups had called for a boycott of the Bombardier Transportation group, who has a contract with China to provide some of the carriages.

Most of the line is now complete, ahead of schedule. Signaling equipment is currently being installed, with trials said to begin in July. The railway is scheduled to open fully in 2007. Luxury carriages will carry tourists, with sleeping compartments and oxygen tanks to enable breathing within the high-altitude areas.

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