By Richard Hazeldine
Taipei, June 30: Tomorrow marks a sad day in the modern history of the world's most isolated region as the 1,142km China-Tibet railway opens for trial operations. The line, which connects the city of Golmud in China's Qinghai Province to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, will mean that the previously inaccessible city will now be just a 48-hour train journey from the Chinese capital Beijing.
The remote Buddhist territory has for centuries been protected from the rest of the world by the Himalayas to the west and south and the Kunlun range to the north, mighty mountains which have sheltered its residents from the invading armies of colonial powers and helped Tibet develop and preserve its anthropological and cultural uniqueness.
Even up till now, for decades the only way to reach the once-fabled city has been by air or overland on a tortuous 25 to 60-hour (depending on your luck) bus ride through barren plains and stunning high-mountain passes. But now, the completion of the five-year railway construction project, ahead of schedule, is set to break down the last real barrier protecting the Tibetan Plateau from China proper.
The construction of the railway will no doubt be touted by the Chinese government as a remarkable achievement and the latest stage, following the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, of its ambitious plans to develop its vast Western hinterland -- of which it claims Tibet is an inalienable part.
Indeed, the Chinese deserve to trumpet their achievements, because the completion of the rail link is a marvel of modern engineering. For years, Swiss engineers claimed there was no way to tunnel through the solid ice and rock of the Kunlun range and lay track over hundreds of kilometers of permafrost. But Chinese engineers say they have developed ways to overcome the problems presented by laying track over the low-latitude zone, where the ground melts and refreezes in line with the seasons and experiences massive differences in temperature. The extreme high altitude also poses a problem for those wishing to ride what will become the world's highest railway, but pressurized carriages have been employed to carry passengers in warmth and comfort as the cars wind their way up to the railway's highest point, the Kunlun Pass at 4,767m above sea level.
Technical problems aside, there were many other issues that needed to be taken into account when the decision was taken to bring Paul Theroux's "Iron Rooster" to one of the world's highest and most ecologically unique regions, such as protection of native wildlife and the fragile ecosystem of the high plains.
A report compiled by the American Chamber of Commerce in China seems to indicate that the authorities in Beijing have taken on board the concerns expressed by global environmental organizations, such as ensuring the coming of the railway will not lead to increased poaching of endangered species like the Tibetan antelope, whose soft fur is used to make expensive "shatoosh" shawls. Other issues include the disposal of construction waste and litter left behind by the tens of thousands of workers employed throughout the duration of the project.
The Chinese government and the provincial Environmental Protection Bureaus have gone to great lengths and spent large amounts of money to placate the fears of these international environmental groups.
But the major concern is not for the flora and fauna of the region or Tibet's vast mineral wealth, which is also under threat, but for the human inhabitants. International human-rights groups fear the completion of the rail link will lead to a new influx of Chinese migrants into Tibet, diluting the native population and speeding up the erosion of its unique culture, which has been under constant attack in the 56 years since the communists first occupied the region.
In 1950, the justification for the invasion of the People's Liberation Army was that Tibetans, in much the same way as the Chinese peasants before them, needed emancipation from an ancient feudal system, where the lower classes were bound for life to land owned by aristocrats and lamas.
Over the years the justification for the continued occupation has changed. Today, Beijing states that the Chinese are there to help Tibetans enter the 21st century by developing the region, raising standards of living and improving aspects of everyday life such as education, diet and nutritional intake. And while there is evidence to suggest these things have improved under Chinese rule, Tibetan advocacy groups claim that the improvements have mainly occurred in the lives of Chinese migrants to the region and have bypassed the native people.
For an example of the effects of the predicted influx of Han Chinese migrants one can look at the once largely Muslim Province of Xinjiang to the north, where waves of Han Chinese migration over the last five decades have reduced the native Uighur population to the point that they are now a minority in their own homeland.
The same kind of population dilution is envisaged for Tibet, along with the economic marginalization of locals with Han newcomers receiving preferential treatment over ethnic Tibetans as the central government seeks to relieve the pressure on its overpopulated coastal cities.
China says such fears are unfounded, but the communist authorities have demonstrated down the years how little respect they have for the religion and culture of ethnic minorities and Tibet in particular, which is still viewed as superstitious and backward by many Chinese.
One only needs to remember the destruction that Tibet suffered during China's Cultural Revolution, when a staggering 6,000 or more monasteries were destroyed, looted and in some cases, even shelled.
Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama first fled into exile during the Tibetan uprising, Beijing has repeatedly denounced the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and vilified him as a "splittist." The Chinese authorities dismantled and politicized Tibet's monastic system and have co-opted the selection of high Lamas. In doing so, Beijing has shown repeatedly that it is willing to stop at nothing in its attempts to exercise control over Tibetans.
The arrival of the railway will only help the Chinese authorities further tighten their grip on Tibet. Travel outside of Lhasa and one cannot help but feel one is in a police state -- army bases and police stations dot the countryside and even the smallest country town comes complete with a military outpost or two. The railway will make it much easier for the communist government to move troops and police into the region in the event of any future unrest.
Even before the railway arrived, anyone who has recently visited Tibet, or Lhasa in particular, will have seen what the Chinese concept of "development" has already done to the Lhasa Valley. It has turned the once picturesque city into a garish carbon-copy of any one of a thousand Chinese towns. Rapid urban expansion with no thought given to aesthetic value or preservation of cultural heritage has turned what was once a revered pilgrimage center into a strange kind of amusement park for foreign and Chinese tourists.
Chinese government propaganda talks constantly about the need to develop Tibet, but even though most Tibetans welcome the idea, it can be safely assumed they would prefer to develop their own country on their own terms -- rather than have the job done for them.
But while Tibetans can no longer count on governments around the world for support in the face of the Chinese onslaught, luckily, for those who worry about the effects that the railway will have on the pristine territory and its inhabitants, Tibet still has one or two factors on its side that even the Chinese Communist Party cannot overcome.
One that many newcomers find hard to adjust to is the altitude. Lhasa sits at 3,600m above sea level and many Chinese migrants who have tried their luck in the Buddhist kingdom have ended up returning home within a few months because of the debilitating effects of altitude sickness.
Another is the environmental effects that global warming is beginning to have on the Tibetan plateau. Rising temperatures are predicted within a few years to lead to a melting of Tibet's permafrost, which will cause structural problems for the railway that even the most competent Chinese engineers cannot solve. Reports and interviews from the site of the railway suggest that problems are already occurring and Chinese claims to have solved these challenges may have been somewhat premature. These factors, combined with Tibet's frequent earthquakes, landslides and serious thunderstorms, may mean that the railway eventually proves to be one of the biggest white elephants in history.
Tibetans, it seems, will have to rely on Mother Nature, rather than their fellow humans for help in their fight to preserve their homeland.