By Ben Blanchard
GOLMUD, China - Chinese businessman Sun Liping can't wait to go to Tibet.
Living in the remote, barren landscape that surrounds the western city of Golmud, he doesn't see Tibet as China's poorest region. To him, it's a land where the streets are paved with gold.
And once the railway opens to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on July 1, Sun is off.
"It's much easier to earn money there," said Sun, originally from the central western province of Shaanxi, staring out at the single track that leads out of Golmud towards the mountains shimmering on the horizon. "So many tourists. Not like here."
Li Yuping, an engineer at a power plant worker just outside Golmud, is equally enthusiastic.
"It'll be great. I'm going. People from all over China will be able to get there now," Li said, flipping through a map of Qinghai province, which borders Tibet, while sitting on the night train from Xining, the provincial capital, to Golmud.
"Tibet will be mysterious no longer."
That's exactly what the government hopes for in restive Tibet, and what scares advocates for the region's freedom.
"We are very concerned that the railway will not benefit the Tibetan people and will only strengthen China's control over Tibet," said Yael Weisz-Rind of the Free Tibet Campaign, which is calling on tourists to boycott the railway.
"Most of those who enjoy the benefits of commercial and economic development are Chinese migrants into Tibet," she told Reuters. "Chinese who come and work usually send their earnings to mainland China, to their families, so nothing is invested."
Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan, a member of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo, has said the railway will play a big role in promoting tourism to the predominantly Buddhist Himalayan region, and in prising open its landlocked economy.
Last October, Beijing announced completion of the world's highest railway, spanning 2,040 km (1,270 miles) from Xining to Lhasa. Freight is already being carried and passenger services are expected to start from July.
But the rail link is highly contentious. China argues that it will promote development and help raise living standards, while Tibet activists say it will speed up the pace of Chinese migration there and dilute Tibetan culture.
Construction of the first phase started in 1958, eight years after Beijing sent troops into Tibet to impose its rule.
A year later, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India after a failed uprising and has lived there ever since.
FLOOD OF MIGRANTS
Not everyone in Qinghai is happy about what the Tibet railway means, even if some accept that its opening should provide a boost for what is China's smallest regional economy.
"It'll be great for the economy, but all the business people will be Han," complained ethnic Tibetan Gaijin Qibai, referring to China's dominant ethnic group.
"There are few of us and many of them," he said, in uncertain sounding, Tibetan-accented Mandarin, his eyes red from alcohol. "The Han have lots of places to go, but where can we go? The Han are going to flood in."
"Maybe the railway won't be safe," he added, sounding a little hopeful, before stumbling away.
China dismisses any fears the railway will be either unsafe or bad for the environment, running as it does across 550 km (340 miles) of frozen earth in one of the most fragile environments on earth, zigzagging through at least two mountain ranges.
"It'll be the world's first environmentally friendly railway," said a senior conductor surnamed Chen, who has worked on the Golmud-Xining link since it opened in 1984. "We'll even take all our rubbish with us out of Tibet."
The carriages will have extra oxygen pumped into them to combat altitude sickness on a line where the highest point is more than 5,000 metres (16,400 ft) above sea level.
There will even be oxygen masks under seats.
In the run-up to July 1, work is continuing feverishly to get the link ready in time.
Workers in dusty, drab olive and blue outfits line the railway to Golmud, putting in a second, parallel track, but the 24-hour work schedule is causing long delays on many trains to and from Xining.
Even Golmud's tiny airport buzzes on the two days of the week that flights come in, carrying many engineers and officials working on the railway, according to airport workers.
Residents in Golmud -- a Mongolian word meaning "a place concentrated with rivers" -- can barely disguise their glee at the prospect that their army-dominated city of some 200,000 is going to become a transport hub for Tibet.
Another planned line will connect Golmud with Gansu province, to the north of Qinghai, bringing millions more Chinese potentially closer to the landlocked Himalayan region.
"We developed late. Golmud is poor and backward," said Li the engineer. "The railway will be good for us."