China opened the world's highest railway on Saturday, celebrating the link to Tibet as a feat of national strength and ethnic harmony while critics decried it as a threat to Tibetan culture and the environment.
BEIJING China opened the world's highest railway on Saturday, celebrating the link to Tibet as a feat of national strength and ethnic harmony while critics decried it as a threat to Tibetan culture and the environment.
A proud President Hu Jintao waved farewell as the first train left Golmud, the dusty outpost in the far-western province of Qinghai that is the start of the new 1,142-km (710-mile) route to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
"The building of the Qinghai-Tibet railway is of major significance for accelerating the economic and social development of Tibet and Qinghai, improving the lives of people of every ethnicity, and strengthening unity between ethnic groups," Hu told a meeting broadcast on Chinese television.
The trains will pass spectacular icy peaks on the Tibetan highlands, touching altitudes as high as 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) above sea level. Lhasa, which leaves many visitors gasping for breath, lies at about 3,650 metres (11,976 feet).
To counter the harsh conditions, passengers will have pressurised cabins and the option of oxygen masks, and double-layer glass windows that cut harmful ultra-violet rays.
The first train from Beijing left late on Saturday and is scheduled to reach Lhasa 48 hours later, after a 4,000-km (2,500-mile) journey. Trains from Lhasa and from Chengdu in southwest China also left on Saturday.
"It's a historic moment," said Fu Yaoxiang, a retired forestry worker from Beijing who got economy "hard seat" tickets on the Beijing train. "My wife and I are going there just to have fun."
A one-way "hard seat" ticket from Beijing to Lhasa costs 389 yuan ($48.60); a first-class "soft sleeper" ticket is up to 1,262 yuan ($157.80), according to state media.
The Xinhua news agency said the railway that took five years to build could double Tibet's tourist revenues by 2010 and slash transport costs to Tibet, lifting the region's 2.8 million people out of isolation.
China's Communist army occupied the mountain region in 1950. Nine years later, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India after a failed uprising.
Tibet's Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli said in Lhasa on Saturday the railway "presents a precious opportunity to ensure the country's lasting order and stability", state television reported, alongside images of dancing Tibetans.
Critics say the railway will spur an influx of long-term migrants that threatens Tibetans' cultural integrity, which rests on Buddhist beliefs and a traditional herding lifestyle.
Tibetans in Dharamsala, northern India, where the Dalai Lama head a government in exile, called Saturday a "black day".
According to Chinese statistics, Tibet's average economic growth from 2001 to 2005 was more than 12 percent a year, driven by injections of central government funds.
But too little of that development benefits Tibetans who, with Chinese migrants flooding in, have been excluded from prosperity, said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet. "We're already seeing the marginalisation of Tibetans, and the railroad is the final achievement," she said.
Han Chinese make up 4.2 percent of Tibet's permanent population according to Chinese statistics, but critics say the number of uncounted long-term migrants is much larger.
Opponents also say the railroad across fragile, frozen highlands is an environmental peril. And some scientists say global warming could buckle the tracks as frozen ground thaws.
The government says it has taken steps to protect the environment.
(Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck and Mark Chisholm in Beijing, Lucy Hornby in Shanghai and Lobsang Wangyal in Dharamsala)