By Saibal Dasgupta
Beijing - The first-ever rail link between the largely secluded region of Tibet and the rest of China would become operational on July 1. Observers feel that the $3 billion Qinghai-Tibet rail project would change the face of Tibet both in economic and political terms.
The 1,956-kilometre-long track connects Xining in northwest Qinghai province to Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, across the 5,000-metre-high mountain. This connectivity makes it possible for establishing a direct connection between Tibet and major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company has announced the launch of five trains from July 1 and has said that tickets for the first batch of trains have already been sold out.
The rail link is expected to unleash a wave of visitors to Tibet comprising of tourists, businessmen and even settlers from other parts of China.
An additional 800,000 travellers would visit Tibet every year with the coming up the new railway line, Zhang Fuhua, an official with the Qinghai tourism administration, said.
Official estimates suggest that the total number of tourist to Tibet would triple by year 2010 owing to the new railway line.
Some critics feel that the economic growth resulting from the new railway link would also cause an influx of Han Chinese settlers from other parts of China and marginalise the influence of the local Tibetans.
This has happened in other parts of China as well. Han Chinese already outnumber the local Mongols in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the critics point out.
The Uighur population has also lost some of their earlier influence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan) owing to the influx of Han Chinese following the extension of railroads in the area, they said.
However, a minister in Dalai Lama's government in exile has welcomed the new railway line saying that it would result in economic growth in the region and make it possible for Tibetan products to find markets in rest of China.
The railway line runs across the frozen tundra of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau from Golmud of Qinghai to Lhasa. About 960 km of the track is located at 4,000 metres above sea level.
Its highest point at 5,072 metres is 200 metres higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes, which was formerly the world's highest altitude railway.