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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China's sky-high airport may not fly in Tibet

September 23, 2013

September 19, 2013 – The silver saucer-like terminal building of the highest and newest airport in the world resembles an alien craft come to rest on this remote plateau where Tibetan nomads still roam on horseback.

Daocheng Yading airport cuts the journey time from the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu to just 65 minutes as opposed to the two days the trip takes via a bone-shaking bus ride.

China hopes the airport will encourage tourism in an area of spectacular peaks, lakes and meadows at the nearby Yading nature reserve, known in Chinese as "the last Shangri-La." And some Tibetans are looking forward to making money off a pristine Himalayan land of snowy peaks, unique wildlife and colorful culture barley touched by the outside world.

But the $258 million single-runway airport also courts controversy. Tibet chafes under Communist rule and the airport allows Beijing to extends its reach into a region simmering against the authorities and worried about China's overlooking of environmental damage in the name of economic expansion.

In Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, press officer Tsering Wangchuk expressed a guarded welcome to Daocheng Yading.

"The Central Tibetan Administration welcomes all developmental projects in Tibet, and we think Tibet should not be off-limits or beyond reach of the global community," he said.

"But based on past facts, we have reservations if they have met guidelines," including the need to prevent environmental damage, economic marginalization and involuntary displacement of Tibetan people, Tsering said.

The first Air China flight arrived here Monday to the celebration of a smattering of locals and Chinese officials. Some Chinese took to Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, which is banned by the ruling Communist Party, to express travel plans for Daocheng and the Yading reserve during the national holiday in the first week of October.

Tibetan driver Luorong Wangdi says he will happily receive them.

"The new airport will definitely bring more tourists and they will know how beautiful is my hometown," said Wangdi, 27, a driver at a Yading hostel and formerly a horse trekking guide.

Wangdi admits he is a little concerned about what will happen to the land if a large number of tourists pour in.

"Many Tibetan people go on pilgrimage to the holy mountains, I wish these places can always stay beautiful," he said of Yading, where the three main peaks, about 20,000 feet high, are called Wisdom, Power and Compassion.

"I also wish our Tibetan people's living standard could be raised. That's why I still welcome the new airport."

Daocheng Yading is at 14,471 feet above sea level, which is three miles high. Planes taking off from here won't have to climb all that high, since the airport is already halfway to the cruising altitude of most passenger planes.

The previous record-holder as the world's highest civilian use airport was Qamdo in eastern Tibet, at 14,219 feet. Its runway length still outranks the one at Daocheng Yading, but the latter's unusually long single runway, at 13,800 feet long, remains necessary given the low air density at this high altitude, where aircraft engines produce less thrust than near sea level.

Yet the airport will enjoy only a brief spell on top of the world.

In northern Tibet, the Nagqu airport, now under construction, will claim the crown when it opens at an elevation of 14,554 feet. The Tibet Autonomous Region will invest $3.5 billion in transport construction in 2013, including airports and highway projects to link up more than 99% of the region's rural villages, reported state news agency Xinhua.

Aside from headaches and nausea brought on by the altitude, foreign travelers' first worry may simply be getting on the plane.

Daocheng county, called Dapba by Tibetans, lies in Ganzi prefecture, an ethnically Tibetan slice of Sichuan where authorities have enforced frequent, partial travel bans on non-Chinese citizens in recent years.

The Chinese Communists invaded Tibet in 1951 and threw out its government in 1959. In the ensuing years the Chinese government repressed political activity and Buddhist culture, destroying thousands of monasteries and killing hundreds of monks.

In recent years Beijing has spent big on infrastructure projects such as airports inside what it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan and two other neighboring provinces. Yet, its often repressive policies fail to win over many Tibetans still committed to the exiled Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

In the past two years, Ganzi has witnessed several protests against Chinese rule, including self-immolations by Tibetans calling for the Dalai Lama's return. Chinese authorities use multiple measures, including travel bans, to stop news of unrest reaching the outside world. Beijing tightly controls the Himalayan region and accuses the Dalai Lama and exile organizations of plotting the self-immolations, which now number more than 120.

Tibetan exile groups worry that the new transport facilities being built across "Greater Tibet" have a military goal and bind Tibetan areas more tightly to China proper. Officials in Ganzi claim the Daocheng airport will spur the local economy by making Yading accessible for the first time. Many hotels are being built in advance of an expected Chinese tourist boom: the airport can handle 280,000 passengers a year.

"It's difficult for information to come out from inside China. We are not yet fully aware of Tibetan residents' reactions there," said Tsering, the representative of the Tibetan government in exile.

Military motives lie behind the new airports, said Tsering Tsomo, executive director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, in Dharamsala.

"The Chinese government always calls these airports 'civilian airports,' but that also reveals that in their heart of hearts they know they will use this for other things, they will bring in the PLA army and more," she said. "They need to be reassured they are in control of these far-flung Tibetan areas."

Tibet has more pressing concerns, she said.

"Before they build all these shiny new projects, they need to look at the basic needs of Tibetan nomads," Tsomo said. "Tibetans need educational facilities and health care that the Chinese government has been neglecting for so many years."

Despite central government subsidies, protests and self-immolations continue because of religious repression and the constant denunciation of the Dalai Lama, she said. China's policies "don't address the root causes of self-immolation, and the deep, deep resentment" many Tibetans feel.

American explorer Joseph Rock introduced Yading to the world in the 1920s. His writings and photographs in National Geographic magazine may have influenced writer James Hilton, whose 1933 book Lost Horizon gave birth to the Shangri-La myth of a mystical paradise.

Riwa Township, south of Daocheng at the entrance to the Yading reserve, even changed its name to Shangri La Township in 2001, four years after Zhongdian County, in Yunnan province to the south, stole the show and bragging rights by switching to Shangri La County.

Despite the potential side effects of massive tourism, some travel experts are optimistic Daocheng will retain its Tibetan identity.

"I'm not too concerned about the impact" of the airport, said Mei Zhang, founder of WildChina, a premium travel company based in Beijing that takes clients to the Yading nature reserve.

The high altitude will deter most visitors while the nature of Chinese tourism concentrates most visitors into bus groups and onto a few set sights, she said.

"In Lhasa (the Tibetan capital), there's more hostility between Han Chinese and ethnic Tibetans," Zhang said. "But in Zhongdian (now called Shangri-La), both Chinese and Tibetans are benefiting economically without compromising on Tibetan identity."

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