BEIJING—In an occurrence that may dramatically alter the face of isolated Tibet, China has completed a staggeringly difficult railway across high-altitude terrain to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
When the inaugural train leaves Beijing Saturday on the two-day trip, passengers will remain in sealed carriages as the train climbs to the Tibetan plateau and passes delicate tundra inhabited by antelope, yaks and wild donkeys.
Three trains a day, each carrying 900 passengers, will begin what is touted as a journey to and from the "roof of the world." As trains traverse a peak elevation of 16,640 feet above sea level, oxygen will flow into the sealed carriages to keep passengers from keeling over with altitude sickness.
Chinese authorities on Thursday touted their efforts in protecting the environment during the $4 billion project. They also said the rail link would be a huge boon to the economy of Tibet, which now has a single highway that's passable year-round to the outside world.
"The railway will facilitate the movement of people, goods and information," said Zhu Zhensheng, head of the Tibet railway division of the Ministry of Railways.
Activists seeking independence for Tibet warned that the railway would advance a trend already well under way of moving settlers from China's Han ethnic majority into Tibet, which in the past had a population almost entirely made up of ethnic Tibetans. Many Han Chinese in recent years have moved to Tibet by bus and car.
Train travel, however, will make getting there easier.
"It's the first direct, low-cost, quick and easy way for migrants to arrive in central Tibet. This will lead to the overwhelming of Tibetans and competition for scarce jobs. The eventual idea is the dilution of Tibetan language, culture and identity," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet.
China quelled Tibet by force of arms in the 1950s. After a failed 1959 revolt, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's revered religious leader, fled to India, where he has lived ever since. The Dalai Lama has said he seeks greater autonomy for his people.
Nine out of 10 of Tibet's 2.7 million people are Tibetans, according to the Chinese government's data. Some non-government accounts say more than half of Lhasa's population is now immigrant Han Chinese.
The pull of mysterious Tibet, which makes up one-eighth of China's land mass, is strong for many Chinese. When train tickets went on sale earlier in the week for Saturday's inaugural journey, they sold out within 10 minutes, according to state television. By Thursday, eager travelers still were snapping up tickets.
"I am a pious Buddhist," said Du Shaoyuan, a 50-year-old kindergarten teacher. "Going to Tibet has been a dream of mine for dozens of years."
For decades, travel to Tibet has been costly or bone-jarringly wearying. Round-trip air tickets from Beijing sell for about $600. Trips by land can take more than a week over rutted roads hit by dust and snowstorms.
"I came to Beijing four years ago and haven't gone home once," said Zheng Xingqiang, 24, a graduate student buying a $49 one-way rail ticket at Beijing's train station. "The air ticket is too expensive, but I can afford a railway ticket."
It will be no ordinary train ride. The trains are equipped with oxygen-supply systems, coated double-paned windows to reduce high-altitude radiation, special lightning rods, wireless telecommunications networks and systems to compress garbage and contain sewage.
"Passengers will not be able to open the windows on the trains and that will help limit the environmental damage," said Zhu, referring to the temptation to litter.
At peak construction periods, 30,000 laborers toiled on the rail link, constructing lengthy elevated spans above the thick permafrost in the land of the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers. The rail line has 33 special underpasses to permit wildlife migration, particularly antelope, which must cross the rail link to reach mating grounds.
The railway is a pet cause of President Hu Jintao, who once worked in Tibet as a senior Communist Party official.
The rail link allows China to transport troops and armament quickly, projecting military power toward South Asia and ensuring control in case of unrest in Tibet.
Zhu, the railway official, downplayed concerns about the railway's impact on the culture and identity of ethnic Tibetans.
"When the railroad opens the commercial service and more people move in and out of the region, I think it will be good for the outside world to know more about Tibetan culture," Zhu said. "No culture can develop and thrive in a closed environment."
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
Here are some facts about the world's highest railroad, which runs from Xining, capital of China's Qinghai province, to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
_About 345 miles of the 1,220-mile railway lies on tundra or permafrost.
_The average height of the railway is more than 13,100 feet above sea level, running through highland wilderness.
_The $4.2 billion railway has nearly 19 miles of tunnels and 286 bridges, spanning nearly 85 miles.
_The highest pass will take the trains over a mountain pass 16,640 feet above sea level, more than 600 feet higher than the next highest railway in the Peruvian Andes.
_The Tanggula Railway Station, at 16,627 feet above sea level, is the highest railway station in the world.
_The Fenghuoshan tunnel, at 16,092 feet above sea level, is the world's most elevated rail tunnel on tundra.
(Source: China's government-run Xinhua News Agency)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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