- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on recent developments in Tibet. The final part will run next Friday.

AMDO, Tibet — The tracks for a railroad being built to Tibet recently reached the northern bank of the Tuotuohe River, the headstream of the Yangtze River, about 310 miles from the terminus in Lhasa.

Framed by the snowcapped Tanggula Mountains, where the railroad will tunnel through the highest pass 16,640 feet above sea level, a reporter from Tibet television recorded the event for the evening news, and interviewed an engineer with an armband labeled “Communist Party Vanguard Project.”

“We lack oxygen, but we don’t lack the right stuff,” the engineer confidently informed the reporter.

In Tuotuohe, a muddy truck stop along the Qinghai-Tibet highway, a man named Zhao, proprietor of the Lanzhou Handmade Noodle Tavern, was chatting with the owner of another restaurant in the village. It had snowed in the Kunlun and Tanggula Mountains during the night, and traffic on the highway was at a standstill.

Sitting by the iron stove in the middle of the room, Mr. Zhao sucked his cigarette, surveyed his empty noodle shop and reminisced about the golden year 2002.

“If you had been here then at this time of day, every table would have been taken,” he said.

Come 2007, when the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is scheduled for completion, Mr. Zhao’s business may decline even further as the movement of people and goods to Tibet shifts from the road to rails. The 695-mile-long line from the garrison town Golmud in Qinghai province to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, will reduce Tibet’s geographical isolation and allow Beijing to tighten its annexation of the territory.

With an official price tag equivalent to $3.2 billion, the project is one of the most complex and daring railways ever undertaken. About 485 miles of the line run more than 14,765 feet above sea level, and 342 miles of track traverse permanently frozen earth, presenting a formidable challenge to the project’s engineers.

The journey from Beijing to Lhasa, in rail cars pressurized like airplane cabins, will take 48 hours.

All along the highway from Golmud to Lhasa, work on the railroad is forging ahead, as billboards proclaim the importance of the project with slogans like: “Build the Qinghai-Tibet railway, create prosperity for people of all nationalities.”

The seven main tunnels on the line, including the two-mile-long Yangbajain tunnel 50 miles north of Lhasa, have been completed.

Construction on one of the world’s highest railroad stations recently began in the Tanggula Mountains. In Lhasa, work on the 3,281-foot-long railroad bridge that will span the Lhasa River, one of 286 bridges being built along the route, is nearing completion.

In Amdo, the first town on the Tibetan side of the Tanggula Mountain pass, situated at an altitude of 15,750 feet, Hui Muslim migrant workers from Qinghai Province were squatting outside the national railroad company’s medical clinic, whiling away their day as they waited for news from their boss regarding the railroad work he had assured them. Having been in Amdo for more than a week, they were still suffering altitude sickness, which causes throbbing headaches and loss of appetite. All workers are required to present a clean bill of health, but one of the migrant laborers explained: “Eighty percent of the doctor’s certificates are fake.”

Xinhua reported in December that not a single death from altitude sickness had occurred among the 100,000 workers laboring on the project. Although that report is impossible to confirm, the harsh conditions under which the railroad is being constructed make it seem unlikely — and the same report said more than 3,000 workers died during construction of the Qinghai-Tibet highway in the 1950s.

The cold and the weather are so fierce that railway construction crews can work only five months out of the year.

“Every construction worker has a health clearance before stepping on the plateau. Everyone passes a strict physical examination before being enrolled into the construction team,” Lu Chunfang, director-general of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction headquarters, told Xinhua.

A group of about 30 migrant laborers from Qinghai said the railway construction company pays their boss 2,000 yuan (about $245) per month per worker. The boss, a Hui Muslim also from Qinghai, takes half, leaving each worker with 1,000 yuan for a month of backbreaking toil. With five months of work per year, the boss stands to pocket 150,000 yuan ($18,315), and the workers return home with about 5,000 yuan ($610).

Asked about the absence of Tibetan railroad workers in Amdo, the boss replied: “The railway company does not like to employ Tibetan workers. The Tibetans think the land belongs to them, and that they should decide how fast to work.”

When the railway is completed, 16 trains per day will make the journey between Golmud and Lhasa, bringing 5 million tons of goods into Tibet and 2.8 million tons out annually.

The Beijing government says the railroad will reduce the cost of transportation to Tibet from 6 cents to less than 2½ cents per kilometer/ton, help speed up Tibet’s economic development, generate nearly $500 million in direct and indirect income, induce businesses to set up shop, and bring about 900,000 tourists to Tibet each year.

Other key infrastructure projects also are under way. Altogether, investments in fixed assets in Tibet, mainly by the central government, totaled the equivalent of $1.6 billion last year.

In the past three years, the gross domestic product of the Tibet Autonomous Region has grown by 12 percent annually, and annual per capita income among its urban population has quadrupled over the 10 years to 2002 to roughly $980. However, annual per capita income for Tibet’s rural population was just more than $195 in 2002.

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