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Guarding Tibetan Heritage
Special> Guarding Tibetan Heritage
UPDATED: August 24, 2007 NO.35 AUG.30, 2007
The Gravy Train
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the highest rail in the world, was hailed as a miracle of engineering when it began running a year ago. Today, it is being hailed for the economic benefits it has brought to the once isolated region of Tibet

"Without the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, there would be no mineral water plant," said Jiang Xiaohong, manager of the 5100 Tibet Spring, a mineral water company named after the altitude of its water source, 5,100 meters. Jiang had a lot to say on how her two-year old company has benefited from the completion of the highest railway in the world.

First discovered by Doje, a Tibetan geologist and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, in 1986 in Damxung County, the spring gushing from a crack between the rocks comes from a 70 million year old glacier that has filtrated through layers of rocks for eight years. According to international standards, water naturally rich in lithium, strontium or meta-silicic acid can qualify as mineral water. The water from 5100 reaches the standard in all three minerals, which is rare in the world.

Before the Qinghai-Tibet Railway began operating in July 2006 the high quality water had merely flowed away. Exploitation of the water had been hindered by capital shortages and high transportation costs. The cost of transporting the water via Tibet's roads would have made it more costly than fine wine by the time it reached its destinations.

Many companies had given up on plans to bottle the water after field visits to the spring. "As the discoverer of this mineral spring, one of the best in world, it was a shame for me that it wasn't tapped for so many years," said Doje.

In 2005 blueprints for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway marked Damxung, the location of the spring, as the site of a railway station just before Lhasa. The news sparked a business plan, funded to the tune of 500 million yuan ($66.1 million) by investors, to build a joint venture mineral water company. The result was 5100, which now has a production capacity of 500,000 tons of water per year.

One year after its official opening, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway ferried its first batch of cargo out of Tibet ---- mineral water from the 5,100 meter-high spring.

So far, the mineral water has been sold at markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"Our only concern now is that production cannot meet demand while transportation is not a worry at all," said Jiang, fully confident about the future of her company. The company had planned to reach an annual production of 500,000 tons within five years of its foundation, but that target was reached more than two years in advance. Jiang is now busy planning further expansion of the company's production.

Sizzling development

The 5100 Tibet Spring is just one of thousands of projects in Tibet ignited by the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. According to Deng Xiaogang, Vice Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government, more than 5 billion yuan has been injected into Tibet over the past year.

Deng said the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway increased transportation capacity and pushed down transportation costs between Tibet and other parts of China, which has given potential investors in the region reason to see a rosy future for their businesses.

According to official statistics, in the first year of operation the Qinghai-Tibet Railway transported 710,000 tons of cargo out of Tibet, mainly mineral water, alcohol and special local products, and transported 684,000 tons of cargo into Tibet, mainly food and construction materials. The cargo transportation cost by railway is 0.12 yuan per ton, less than half the cost of highway transportation at 0.27 yuan. The transportation of one-ton of cargo by rail from Xining, capital of the neighboring Qinghai Province, to Lhasa, saves 293.4 yuan. That means all the cargo traffic on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway can save up to 208 million yuan per year compared with highway transportation.

"About 60 percent of packaging material in our company is transported by railway into Tibet while 99 percent of our mineral water product is shipped out of Tibet for sale. Compared with highway transportation, the time from shipping our mineral water out to putting it on store shelves is halved while the cost is knocked down by 67 percent," said Jiang.

The drop in transportation expenses has boosted the competitiveness of Tibetan products in other parts of China. Tibet specialty products, such as mineral water, highland barley beer and walnut oil, are now for the first time being sold in other parts of China in large amounts. The operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has helped to integrate Tibet into the Chinese market.

The operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has also sparked a change of mindset. Along the railroad, many farmers have given up their traditional livelihoods of farming and husbandry and started to drive taxis, open quarries, purchase heavy trucks and set up construction companies. Seeing business opportunities in the flow of rail passengers, other farmers have opened souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies nearby to the railway stations.

In Tibet, tourism has profited most from the operation of the railway. In the first half of 2007, a total of 1.05 million tourists, including 980,000 Chinese and 70,000 foreigners, visited Tibet, 78 percent more than the same period last year. Tourism income from the first half of 2007 totaled 900 million yuan, presenting a year-on-year increase of 75 percent.

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