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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet's sunset, China's sunrise -- Part 2: From road and rail, to market and military

October 28, 2009

By Galen Murton (Fletcher School at Tufts University)
Student Correspondent Corps
GlobalPost
October 27, 2009

LHASA, Tibet -- I last traveled the Friendship
Highway in 1999, reaching Lhasa after three days
of bone-slamming and gut-wrenching dirt tracks divided by frozen streams.

Today, the drive can be done in one 12-hour push
over a ribbon of seal-smooth blacktop. It
traverses hundreds of miles of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

These well-maintained roads will swiftly transfer
goods and rapidly mobilize military units, which
is what Beijing wants and needs. The highway,
starting on the Nepal border in Zhangmu, heads
toward the north slope of the Himalayas before
cutting northeast toward Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

The expanding Chinese presence starts in Nepal.
Chinese goods are more prevalent than ever in
roadside shops along the Arniko section of the
highway. Most towns along the highway to Lhasa
feel new and different: Zhangmu has exploded in
growth. Shigatse is barely recognizable as new
Chinese-style buildings have supplanted Tibetan
ones, save for the old market around the Tashi
Lumpo Monastery. And Gyantse has resumed its
early 20th century position as a trade point
along the commercial corridor between China and India (via Lhasa and Sikkim).

One place that still feels Tibetan, however, is
Tingri. Men drive horse-drawn carts ferrying
villagers between market and home, women in faded
homespun aprons bargain over butter prices and
snot-nosed kids kick empty soda bottles along the
edge of the streets. It is dusty and unswept,
entirely devoid of white-tiled facades and
blue-glass windows. I wonder why this little,
old, crossroads trade-post hasn't experienced the
Chinese change. Maybe because New Tingri, just
down the road and now called Shekar, is more or
less yet another unrecognizable, Sinofied town.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway that opened in July
2006 heralded a huge step toward modernity for
the Tibetan Plateau. Each day, the train runs
from six major Chinese cities, converging
thousands of passengers -- mainland laborers, Han
tourists and, to a small extent, foreign travelers -- on Lhasa.

Far less publicized are the many trains that run
north from Lhasa back to the mainland, groaning
with raw materials such as iron ore and old
growth lumber to fuel China’s prodigious growth.
Reports say added to those loads are uranium
extracted from Tibet’s Chang Tang wilderness.

The Chinese are extending the Tibetan rail line
westward to Shigatse, Tibet’s second-largest
city. The Nepali press reported that China
offered to hasten the construction of a
complementary line to Kathmandu. The rails in
China’s far western Xinjiang Province already
reach beyond Kashgar, close to the intersection
of the Indian, Pakistan and Afghan borders.

What a strategic system it will be when, within a
couple years, China’s railroad circumnavigates
the Tibetan Plateau and connects with the great
Xinjiang track, running nearly parallel to its
border with nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, as
well as the Russian-linked Central Asian states.

This will provide an ideal network to transport
military as well as products and people between
the mainland and China’s minority western provinces.

It is the new Silk Road, run by trains and trucks
rather than camel caravans, and the good are no
longer porcelain, silver and gunpowder, but plastics, copper and oil.

When the Tibet railway made its maiden voyage in
2006, a significant detail was absent from the
media fanfare: The simultaneous reopening of the
only commercial border-crossing between China and
India via the Nathu La pass in Sikkim. Goods are
transferred overland from Shanghai to Calcutta in
less than a week: Two to three days by train to
Lhasa followed by three to four days by road to
India, far quicker and cheaper than the multiweek
passage through the South China Seas and Singapore’s Malacca Straits.

The Nathu La stands to gain in prominence like
the remote Khunjerab Pass that connects and feeds
commerical traffic between northern Pakistan and
China. The Khunjerab sits not far from the
disputed Aksai Chin region. The Nathu La sits not
far from the contested and increasingly
militarized zone of Arunachal Pradesh. This
mountainous Himalayan state, historically and
culturally linked with Tibet, is at the center of
a territorial tug of war between Beijing and
Delhi because it is richly bio-diverse, borders
Burma and holds serious potential for
hydro-power. It is also stunningly beautiful.

In addition to linking the world's two largest
nations with a single commercial border, China
has laid numerous roads across the
Trans-Himalayan zone that traverse remote
crossings once reserved for yak caravans. From
Sino-Indian border-posts in far-Western Tibet at
Rutok, to Nepali crossings at Mustang and
Kyirong, at least a half-dozen highways near
completion. It will not be long before paved
roads spread their fingers from Tibet down to the
southern plains of Nepal and into India.

Paving these historical trade routes is critical
in the expansion of East- and South-Asian
markets, an exploding bazaar that includes half
of humanity — more than 3 billion people. And as
with rail expansion, these roads strategically
assist the military: Chinese troops stationed at
frontier posts across Tibet can better monitor
trade traffic increases and stand ready to deploy
along China’s sensitive borders.

This report comes from a journalist in our
Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project
training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.
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