BEIJING — For the first time, relatively isolated Tibet is accessible to the Chinese masses, even if you have to briefly don an oxygen mask to get to the land of clouds.
For $46 any Chinese can now hop on a 15-car daily train in Beijing and be listening to wind chimes in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, two days later. Three trains from cities around China will now surmount 16,000-foot mountain heights, traverse a world-record 240 miles of permafrost, go through the longest tunnel built on frozen earth, and disgorge an estimated 1,000-2,000 passengers daily in the heart of Shangri-La – formerly approachable only by air or bad roads.
The new high-altitude passenger train service, which opened this week after 50 years of effort may well represent one of the largest single shifts of cultural boundaries in decades here, experts say.
Inside China, where trains still symbolize a vision of modern life and progress, state media has covered the rail opening with unvarnished pride, as a significant engineering feat. President Hu Jintao set the tone by calling it a "miracle railway" at a July 1 inauguration that coincided with the 85th anniversary of the Communist Party.
Scholar Yuan Weishi notes that for 140 years, "the history of railroads in China is the hardship-laden history of China's pursuit of modernity."
Yet many Tibetans and foreign interest groups worry that the train will accelerate a process already under way to swamp the distinctive identity of the ancient land – turning Tibet into a strip mall of Chinese commerce, and further alienating the local population from its Tibetan identity and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
"The railway will have devastating consequences for our people, as Beijing wants to submerge our population ... and exploit our lands," argues Ngawang Woeber, a Tibetan exile living in India.
Such views rarely if ever receive mention in China's state-run media. Rather, official coverage stresses the benefits of Chinese building and business in Tibet, as part of a "western campaign."
Media reporting on the launch of the new train continued this trend. Local Tibetans were shown to be uniformly cheerful about the rail. Beijing Daily, a tabloid, ran a giant cover page photo of a Tibetan woman in traditional hat and braids with a plastic lunch box and chopsticks, looking out the train window, delighted to be on her first ride. A peasant is shown by the tracks, holding out a bronze Tibetan prayer wheel as the train whizzed past, in another.
Tibetan culture, food, and the train are the cover story in top glossy magazines like Life Week, National Geographic China, Global Travel, and Geography.
President Hu described "four enlightenments" that come out of the railway and its passage into Tibet. They include an example of Chinese diligence in overcoming significant technical problems to engineer the highest passenger train route in the world, and doing so without tearing up the environment. Also, a reliable route into the Buddhist heartland will help the economy and allow Tibetan ethnic minorities to get jobs, Hu said. The train will further unify Tibet and China, and open the "rooftop of the world" for tourism and trade.
Mr. Hu was governor of Tibet in the late 1980s and is well-known there for ordering Chinese troops to use force in putting down local protests. Many Tibetans have been in an invisible and nonviolent struggle with Beijing since 1950 when the Chinese Army entered the area, ostensibly to "liberate" it.
Chinese occupation and arm twisting eventually forced the young Dalai Lama in 1959 to flee over the mountains to India, where he still lives as the exiled leader of the Tibetan people. In 1980 the Dalai gave up his previous call for Tibetan independence, has endorsed the concept of "autonomy" for Tibet inside China, and recently said he would like to visit China. Such positions are not reported clearly here; rather the Dalai continues to be presented as a dangerous enemy.
For example, there is the official tone and statements in Lhasa in the lead-up to the gala train opening event. In June, according to the London-based watchdog group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), senior party leaders in Lhasa were told by the governor of the region, Zhang Qingli, they were involved in a "fight to the death struggle" against the Dalai Lama, and said he was the "biggest obstacle hindering Tibetan Buddhism from establishing normal order." ICT reports argue the train is a boon for the Chinese military, in that it allows soldiers to move quickly into the region, and that it will allow Chinese migrants to settle there more easily.
The technical achievements of the $4 billion rail line, built mostly by Chinese soldiers, sources say, are significant.
For many years, the permafrost – essentially, frozen soil – had been considered unstable, due to intermittent thawing. In recent years, experts say that both global warming and seasonal shifts have softened the ground further, causing possible heaves of several feet. Yet innovative techniques keep the relevant soil frozen: Horizontal ventilation pipes placed under the track use outside air for freezing. In extreme zones of change, the tracks are lined with vertical metal rods filled with circulating liquid nitrogen that sucks warmth out of the ground and expels it into the air.
China's official position on Tibet, outlined at a state museum in Lhasa, is that Tibet has been part of China for many centuries. Most foreign historians discount the authenticity of these claims, arguing that Tibet was always a kingdom unto itself, but did have relations with Mongols, Han Chinese, and other civilizations.