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Railways in Tibet

October 13, 2010

Mount Everest is singing for joy
Everyone else is worried
Economist (UK)
October 7, 2010

BEIJING -- "MOUNT EVEREST is singing for joy and
the Brahmaputra River swirling with happiness”.
Or so says an official Chinese newspaper (using
the Tibetan names, Qomolangma and the Yarlung
Tsangpo). After much delay, China has started to
extend its controversial railway line in Tibet
that will draw more tourists to the mountain and
boost trade with South Asia. How happy the outcome will be is not so clear.

Planning for the 253km (157-mile) line from the
Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to the region’s second
city, Shigatse, began in 2002, four years before
Lhasa itself was connected to China’s railway
network. The authorities appear not have been
deterred by the problems that the railway brought
to Lhasa. A tourism boom and a flood of
immigrants from China’s interior contributed to
an explosion of unrest among embittered Tibetans
in March 2008. The launch ceremony in Lhasa of
the $2 billion extension on September 26th was
celebrated by dancing children in elaborate
Tibetan costumes. Chinese television said the
line would be of “great significance for the strengthening of ethnic unity”.

Like the route to Lhasa, which crossed the
highest terrain of any railway in the world, the
single-track extension will involve considerable
technical difficulties. Nearly half of it will go
through tunnels or over bridges (96 of them). It
will cross areas prone to earthquakes, landslides
and sand storms. Whereas the line to Lhasa had to
traverse unstable permafrost, the new one will be
challenged by geothermal fields with hot springs.
All this at an oxygen-starved altitude of 3,550-4,000 metres.

The railway will make it easier to reach Mount
Everest, which can expect to see a lot more
tourists eager to be photographed in front of the
world’s highest peak (Shigatse is also due to
open an airport soon, Tibet’s fifth for civilian
use). In 2007 the Chinese side of the mountain
recorded 27,476 visits by Chinese tourists,
almost twice as many as in 2006, after the new
rail service to Lhasa had opened. Environmentalists are worried.

Shadows over Qomolangma

So are the Indians. The government in Delhi has
been nervously watching China’s build-up of
infrastructure in Tibet. The extension to
Shigatse, besides facilitating military movements
near China’s border with India, is likely to
boost trade with Nepal, where the two giants are
vying for influence in a power struggle that is
still going on. China has long-term plans for
more extensions of the line, to Nyalam on the
border with Nepal and to Dromo near Bhutan and
the Indian state of Sikkim. Nepal wants the
railway extended to Kathmandu, which India fears
would give China more clout in a country India
sees as part of its sphere of influence. Another
proposed line, from Lhasa east to Nyingchi, would
bring the network close to the Indian state of
Arunachal Pradesh, most of which China claims.

Tibetans might have mixed feelings too. The rail
link to Lhasa brought disproportionate benefits
to ethnic Han Chinese whose language and culture
enabled them to take quicker advantage of the Han
tourist influx. Tibet Business News said the
majority of traders in Shigatse were migrants
from beyond Tibet. It quoted a woman from
neighbouring Sichuan Province saying that the
railway would cut her costs of doing business in
Shigatse by half. Expect more like her to come.

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