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The Railway to the "Roof of the World": Wealth and Worries
2007-09-18 00:00

   Zhaxi Wangzhag prostrated himself on a month-long pilgrimage from his remote village at Nagqu County in northern Tibet to Lhasa, crawling on hands and knees and refusing to walk upright.

   He was fulfilling a dream and honoring a commitment to his father, a devout Buddhist who insisted every man in the family should perform the ritual.

   The pilgrim says his knees were swollen and his back ached at the end of the 400-kilometer trek. But he was content even as trains rumbled past several times a day, with passengers smiling and waving through the windows.

   The Lhasa tour did not just take Zhaxi Wangzhag to the famous monasteries, but also to herbal markets where he was convinced the wild caterpillar fungus from his hometown promised another fortune this year.

   The lucrative Tibetan medicinal cure-all doubled his family income last year.

   As Tibetan medicine gains popularity, nearly 1,300 tons of caterpillar fungus and other Tibetan herbs were sold to the other parts of China last year, up 7 percent year-on-year, the regional government says.

   It attributes the growth, in part, to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has carried 44,000 tons of Tibetan products to the rest of China in its first year of operation since July 1, 2006. These include organic farm produce, adornments, herbs, incense, dried yak meat, barley beer and even mineral water from an altitude of 5,100 meters.

   Meanwhile, the 1,956-kilometer railway has boosted Tibetan markets by bringing in 620,000 tons of supplies, says Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the regional government.

Changing Lives

   "Unprecedented economic growth, rising living standards, and job creation… are transforming life, work and attitudes, especially of the young, in sparsely populated Tibet. And the railway is making a big difference," wrote journalist N. Ram in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu.

   More than a half century ago, Liu Guangfan trekked three months on camelback from Golmud City of Qinghai Province to Lhasa in order to build the first ever highway on the "roof of the world".

   With the railway, the same 1,142-kilometer journey is covered in just 12 hours. Even Beijing is only 48 hours away from Lhasa.

   "It's brought in tourists and a better life," says Losang Cering, a taxi driver in his 40s, who earns more than 2,000 yuan (270 U.S. dollars) a month, three or four times the amount he could make as a peasant before.

(Tibetan antelopes cross under the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.)

   The railway has created jobs for many peasants in his village close to the Lhasa railway station. "Our village-run taxi fleet has expanded to 70 cars from the previous 10, and the more enterprising young men have contracted civil construction projects, and opened souvenir stores and hostels."

   The tourism boom has boosted Tibet's retail market, enabling many peasants and herders to profit from sales of homemade yogurt, dried yak meat and souvenirs at their doorstep.

   Qamba, who runs a dairy in Nagqu, plans to buy more cattle and double the plant's current output of 1,500 kilograms a year. "Traditional Tibetan dairy foods are very popular with the tourists. Many buy huge packages to take home," he says.

   The immense business opportunities posed by the railway have brought in staggering investment from home and abroad, 4 billion yuan (530 million U.S. dollars) last year, close to the total of the previous five years, says He Benyun, vice director of Tibet's regional development and reform commission.

   This has saved many ailing Tibetan businesses from bankruptcy, he says.

   Investors from east China's Zhejiang Province have revived a former brick kiln on the suburbs of Lhasa. Today the Qingda Building Material Supplies Co. employs 40 locals and sells flooring and tiles to China's inland provinces as well as to Nepal and India.

   It has given 22-year-old Lhazhoin a job, three years after she graduated from a local secondary school. She's making 1,500 yuan (200 U.S. dollars) a month as a cashier.

Culture on the Move

   Gama Chilai has taken his extended family of 12, including his grandmother, 73, and his son, 3, by train to Lhasa this summer.

   "For many Tibetans, a pilgrimage to Lhasa's monasteries is a lifelong dream," says the young man from Yushu, a Tibetan community in adjacent Qinghai Province.

   Yushu is about 2,000 kilometers from Lhasa. Before the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened, local Tibetans could only take buses to Lhasa. The journey over the zigzagging mountain road was tiring, dangerous and by no means cheap, says Gama Chilai.

   The railway has carried trainloads of pilgrims like him into Tibet over the past year.

   Last year, 328,000 pilgrims visited the Potala Palace, Norbuglinkha and Johkang Monastery, the top three religious sites in Lhasa, an increase of 62,000 from the previous year, Tibet's regional government says.

   During this year's weeklong May Day holiday, more than 73,000 people visited Norbuglinkha, the summer resort of all the Dalai Lamas. At least 40,000 were pilgrims.

   Many travel by train. Pilgrims wearing Tibetan costume and bringing articles of tribute and lamas in crimson cassocks make the train journey to Tibet unique.

   In the meantime, many Tibetans have taken the train on pilgrimages elsewhere, to the Ta'er Monastery in Qinghai and the Lama Temple in Beijing.

   The railway has also promoted Tibetan culture and arts in the rest of China. Tibetan theme bars, restaurants and souvenir stores are found in many big cities.

   "Tibetan adornments have become fashionable almost overnight. They're beautiful," says Wang Yanwen, whose store on Zhangye Road in downtown Lanzhou, capital city of northwestern Gansu Province, sells everything to do with Tibetan Buddhism, ranging from beads and prayer wheels to necklaces and bracelets ingrained with totems.

   A Tibetan tap dance has gained nationwide popularity after a group of 70 farmer-performers staged it for the lunar New Year's Eve gala on China Central Television in February.

   "I hope people from outside Tibet will also learn about traditional art forms," says Zhaxi Puncog, a villager in Lhaze County of Xigaze, home to the centuries-old dance.

Man and Nature

   A Tibetan antelope runs briskly after a 4-wheel drive vehicle towards the three sheds that serve as a wildlife preservation center in the Hoh Xil Natural Reserve 4,600 meters above sea level.

   It apparently recognizes the car and its driver Gama – many Tibetans have no surnames – a worker at the center.

   Gama became the animal's means of survival in June 2006, when it was found alone in the wild, barely a week old and with an injured leg. He took it to the center, tended its wounds and kept it at a 300-hectare nature reserve alongside other Tibetan antelopes, stocky wild horses and donkeys.

   He named it Nima, which means "the sun" in Tibetan.

   Gama and his colleagues work to protect wild species in the Hoh Xil, a 45,000-square kilometer area that is an ideal habitat for wild animals.

   "Nima was obviously scared when the first train leaving Lhasa passed the Hoh Xil," says Gama. "She was barely a month old and had never seen or heard a train. So she ran."

   Today, a daily average of six trains pass their home, but Nima and the other animals are no longer afraid. "They simply stop grazing and look."

   Doubts and criticisms are part of the history of the "heavenly railway" even when it was still on the drawing board. The possible extinction of the critically endangered Tibetan antelopes has been frequently cited by some environmentalists in arguments against the railway.

   At the wildlife preservation center, visitors have poured in. "Many chipped in preservation funds. Some offered to work as volunteers," says Gama.

   Tibet used to have several million Tibetan antelopes, but excessive poaching and human encroachment on their habitats caused the population to shrink sharply in the past decades.

   Until the mid 1990s, up to 4,000 antelopes in Tibet were killed by poachers each year. Tibet has tightened supervision and patrols in the antelopes' habitats since 1998, and established three nature reserves to protect the creatures, covering more than 600,000 square kilometers, an area 40 times the size of Beijing.

   The government made wildlife preservation a priority in its construction of the railway to Tibet. Thirty-three special passageways were built along the line, enabling animals to follow their normal migratory routes unhindered.

   Last year, a Chinese forestry administration report put the population of Tibetan antelopes in Tibet at 150,000, doubling the number of the late 1980s. The Hoh Xil alone has 50,000 antelopes.

   "Next year, when we mark the second year of the railway, we'll set Nima free far from our preservation center. It'll be time for her to return to the wild," says Gama.

   "Very likely train passengers next year will see flocks of pregnant antelopes migrating to their breeding sites. Nima could be one of them."

Boon or Bane

   Yet a year after its opening, debate continues over whether the world's highest railway, built at the cost of 33 billion yuan (4.4 billion U.S. dollars) is a boon or bane.

   On the one hand, it drove up Tibet's GDP by 13.4 percent last year to a record 29 billion yuan (3.87 billion U.S. dollars), with per-capita GDP topping 1,000 U.S. dollars. In 2006, Tibetan farmers and herders reported a per-capita net income of 2,435 yuan (325 U.S. dollars), up 17.2 percent year-on-year.

   The railway has linked the southwestern China region, once so exotic even to the Chinese, ever so closely with the rest of the country. It has carried 1.5 million passengers into Tibet, nearly half of the total tourist arrivals over the past year.

   Yet the railway has prompted worries from environmental groups including WWF (World Wildlife Fund) over the fragile ecosystems on the plateau.

   "Once damaged, it is extremely difficult to reverse. Integrating the needs of local development with conserving Tibet's biodiversity is in need of urgent attention," says Dawa Tsering, head of WWF China's Program Office in Lhasa.

   Though an assessment by environmental scientists in June indicated no apparent damage to the environment along the route, an official with China's top environmental protection agency recently frowned upon tins and plastic bags littered at several railway stations.

   In 2010, about 6 million tourists are expected to flood into Lhasa, a city with 400,000 permanent residents. "Tourism will create mountains of garbage and sewage, far beyond the city's waste treatment capacities."

   Lhasa allows its sewage water to flood into the Lhasa River. Its only sewage treatment plant became operational in January 2007 to treat sewage water discharged from the railway station and the trains.

   "The real test has only started," says Zhu Xingxiang, an official in charge of environment evaluation at the State Environmental Protection Administration.

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