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Home / World / World's highest railway completes a year

World's highest railway completes a year

Last year, 3,28,000 visited the Potala Palace, Norbuglinkha and Johkang Monastery, the top three religious sites in Lhasa, after the railway was built.

world Updated: Jul 01, 2007, 17:56 IST

Gama Chilai has taken his extended family of 12, including his 73-year-old grandmother and three-year-old son, by train to Lhasa.

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

Yushu is about 2,000 kilometres from Lhasa. Before the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened a year ago, 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 bus fare was about the same as today's train fare," he says.

The railway, the world's highest, has carried trainloads of pilgrims like Gama Chilai into Tibet over the past year. Last year, 3,28,000 pilgrims visited the Potala Palace, Norbuglinkha and Johkang Monastery, the top three religious sites and tourist destinations in Lhasa, an increase of 62,000 from the previous year, Tibet's regional government said.

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

Many of them travelled by train. Pilgrims wearing Tibetan costume and bringing articles of tribute and Lamas in red cassocks make a train journey to Tibet unique.

Many Tibetans have also taken the train on pilgrimages elsewhere, to the Ta'er Monastery in Qinghai and the Lama Temple in Beijing. The Dalai Lama has criticised the railway for "bringing more outsiders to Tibet" and a consequent danger of the languages and rich traditions of the minority nationalities becoming gradually extinct.

When the railway was inaugurated last year, the Associated Press described it as "controversial" in a report on fears that it could devastate the Himalayan region's unique Buddhist culture.

A year might be too short to prove such predictions wrong. "But what better evidence of the railway's significance in preserving the Tibetan culture than the increase in the number of pilgrims?" says Jamyang, Tibet's top official in charge of cultural affairs.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway runs 1,956 km from Xining in Qinghai Province to Lhasa. Its 'engineering marvel' lies more in the 1,142-km section linking Golmud and Lhasa, which opened on July 1, 2006, because people used to think the permafrost along the route could never support tracks and trains.

A year after its inauguration, the railway has transported 1.5 million passengers into Tibet, nearly half of the total tourist arrivals in Tibet. The regional tourism administration says Tibet will receive more than three million tourists this year.

The railway has also introduced Tibetan culture and arts to the rest of China. "Tibetans are open-minded and their culture will be better preserved through exchanges with other cultures," says Prof Gezang Cedain with the Northwest China University of Nationalities.

Tibetan theme bars

Today, 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, north-western 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, famous in Xigaze, has gained national fame 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 the traditional art form," says Zhaxi Puncog, a villager in Lhaze county of Xigaze, home to the dance, a centuries-old folk art.

For train travellers onto the plateau, fatigue and altitude sickness pay off when they catch a glimpse of the Tibetan antelope and wild donkeys roaming outside the window.

Chinese photographers have taken spectacular shots of antelope crossing under the Qinghai-Tibet Railway via the 33 special passageways built to enable animals to follow their normal routes unhindered.

During his expedition across Tibet's remote Chang Tang region early this year, Wildlife Conservation Society biologist George Schaller counted nearly 9,000 Tibetan antelopes, more than he expected.

"This may indicate an increase in some places for this endangered species", said Schaller, who attributed it to a combination of better enforcement and a growing conservation ethic in local communities.

Chinese forestry report

Last year, a Chinese forestry report, released after an 18-year survey, put the population of endangered Tibetan antelope in Tibet at 150,000, double the number of the late 1980s.

Wildlife protection and preservation of the plateau's vegetation, wetlands and water quality were also among many concerns when China opened the railway.

Early this month, Chinese environmental scientists said they had found no evidence of damage to the environment along the railway a year after it became operational, though intensive studies were needed on the long-term impact of the railway on the environment and wildlife in the area.

The landscape, lakes and the frozen earth were well-preserved and wildlife migration patterns had not changed, said a panel of officials and experts from the State Environmental Protection Administration and the Ministry of Railways after a three-day field investigation of the Golmud-Lhasa section of the railway.

The assessment claimed that 96.9 per cent of the residents along the Qinghai-Tibet railway were satisfied with the environmental protection measures.

A regional environmental report published early in June also said Tibet remained "one of the regions in the world with the best environment".

"We'll protect the environment with every available measure," said Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the regional government of Tibet. Yet a year is not enough to dispel all the fears of the railway's potential impact.

"The influx of tourists certainly pose a threat to the vulnerable highland ecology and the unique Tibetan culture," said traveller Wang Liming, an office worker from Shanghai. "It's up to tourists like me to help protect this land."

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