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The railway is coming to Lhasa

By Amit Baruah

LHASA (TIBET), JULY 29. The railway is coming to Lhasa. And, if Chinese officials are to be taken at their word, the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa rail track will be environmentally sound when it is completed during the year 2006.

``If the track is crossing grassland, then the contractors doing the job are required to put the grassland back in place after the track is laid,'' Xian Sun, director, Bureau of Environment Protection of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) told visiting Indian presspersons recently.

The tracks, he said, would follow a strict route and the Chinese Central Government had already spent some 1.2 billion renminbi in environmental protection efforts. ``We have every confidence that the railway project will be environmentally sound,'' Mr. Xian said. Already, some 13 billion RMB have been spent on construction of the railway itself.

Right to veto

Asked whether an environmental impact assessment of the whole project was conducted, he replied in the affirmative. ``We have a law on environmental protection and assessment. There is a whole procedure. And we have the right to veto anything we feel is environmentally unsound.''

The Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet railway is 1,118 km long and will be the world's highest railway in the world. Starting from the southern mountain pass of Golmud in Qinghai province, it will cross Nachitai, Wudaoliang, Tutuo River, Yanshiping and the Dangulla mountains to enter Tibet.

``It will pass by Amdo, Nagqu, Damxung and Yangabajan before arriving at Lhasa. Along the way, 965 km of the railway is located over 4,000 metres, over 600 km traverses the perennial frozen tundra. At the highest point, the Danggula mountain pass is 5,072 metres above sea level. Eight per cent of the railway will be tunnels and bridges. The trains on the railway are designed to run at 140 km per hour. A station will be built every 50 km,'' a note on the railway said.

Careful preparation

According to the note, construction of the railway, which commenced in 2001, has to grapple not only with the frozen tundra, but landslips and earthquakes. ``Railway designers and scientific researchers closely worked together to make careful preparations and experiments for the construction under complex geological conditions.''

On completion, it will take seven hours to travel from Golmud to Lhasa and about 50 hours from Beijing to Lhasa. Currently, it costs about 4,000 renminbi ($483) to fly to Lhasa from Beijing, with most of the flights going via Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Boost to tourism

Chinese officials believe that the completion of the railway will lead to a major boost to tourism in Tibet. As of 2003, some 9,00,000 tourists (including 1,500 Indians) visited Tibet, but officials feel that this number needs to be boosted.

When asked about fears in TAR that the construction of the railway would lead to the entry of a large number of outsiders, Zhu Weigun, Assistant Minister in the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture, said in Beijing that Tibetans would gain access to a vast Chinese market.

``We will also make sure that the number of people who go there will not have a negative impact on the ecology of Tibet,'' he said, admitting that there could be a risk that traditional Tibetan culture would be negatively influenced. According to him, the Chinese Central Government was committed to preserving and protecting Tibetan culture and the Association had been set up for this purpose alone in June.

Self-sufficient

Mr. Zhu stated that with the completion of the Golmud-Lhasa rail link, the cost of transporting goods into TAR would come down considerably. ``With this, it is our belief that prices in Tibet will also come down,'' he said, stressing that it was not the intention of the Chinese Central Government to take revenues out of Tibet.

Pointing out that Tibet was self-sufficient in food, he said one of the problems facing the Tibetan people was their inability to export the surplus outside. The completion of the railway, Mr. Zhu added, would help in the export of this surplus.

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