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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 2006
UPDATED: April 24, 2008 NO.26 JUN.29, 2008
Down the Line
Residents along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway have complicated feelings about the coming trains

Talking about the train that will soon roar past his village, Pingcuo Dundan, a Tibetan junior middle school student, seems overwhelmed. For him, travel by rail is a mysterious thing.

"Taking the train must feel like flying," said the 16-year-old, adding that Lhasa is the furthest place he's been to.

Pingcuo is the son of a local herdsman in Galong County, only 30 km from Lhasa, the end point of the newly completed Qinghai-Tibet Railway that is to begin trial operation on July 1. In a 12-day, 2,000-km journey along the route, Beijing Review journalists listened to what locals think about the controversial new railway and the sort of influence it could have, and already is having, on their lives.

As a reporter spoke with Pingcuo, about a dozen children and teenagers gathered around, all saying that they, too, had never seen a train. They seemed eager to know about the outside world to which the train tracks lead. Pingcuo recalled that when news came that railway construction had reached his village, nearly all villagers rushed to the construction site to have a look.

Different from the older generations who wear a traditional robe, Pingcuo, like many young Tibetans, is dressed as other youth do in cities across the country. The only thing that outwardly distinguishes him is the Tibetan language he speaks.

"It is very difficult for us to get out of Tibet if there is no train. Now that there will be trains, I want to go to university in the city and have a look at the outside world," Pingcuo said.

However, Si Zhu, Pingcuo's 45-year-old uncle, isn't as excited about the trains that will soon pass by his home.

"In order to build the railway, the mountain was chiseled through. It may bring us misfortune. What's more, when the train passes through, our houses will shake and might even collapse," Si Zhu said.

With his dark, weathered skin and wrinkles, he looks far older than his age. He conceded that the railway could be conducive to the development of Tibet, because "Tibet is still far lagging behind other places in the country. The railway may stimulate the economic development of Tibet."

But when asked how exactly the railway will be beneficial, Si Zhu gave a shy smile and said, "I don't know, I've never thought of the question."

Closing distances

The construction of the 1,956-km-long Qinghai-Tibet Railway was divided into two phases. The first part of the railway, from Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, to the city of Golmud, near the Kunlun Mountains in Qinghai, was completed in September 1979 and began operation on May 1, 1984.

Due to a lack of money and technological restrictions, construction of the second part of the railway, from Golmud to Lhasa, began only in June 2001--more than two decades later. During the intervening 22 years, Golmud gradually became the hub of traffic in and out of Tibet, and most commodities were transferred to Tibet from Golmud.

Golmud, which in Mongolian means the place with abundant rivers and lakes, is rich in mineral resources. The Cha'erhan Salt Lake in Golmud, covering more than 5,600 square km, is the biggest potash fertilizer production base in China, with an annual output of over 4 million tons. After the Xining-Golmud Railway was finished, the minerals were transported to all parts of the country by train. In only 20 years, Golmud, located in the heart of the remote Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, grew from a remote town to become an energetic, modern city.

"The real development of Golmud began with the operation of trains. In the past, we ate pickles and lived in a small shelter. But now, Golmud is full of commodities. We have nearly everything that inland Chinese cities have," said Wulan Qiqige, a Mongolian woman.

A resident of Golmud, Wulan said she feels a special attachment to the railway. In October 1983, two years after the original part of the railway was completed, the teenage Wulan enrolled in a nursing school in the city of Delingha. She traveled by train between home and school during the next three years. "For me, the train means both home and school," she said, smiling.

Wulan met her future husband, Hong Ying, in junior middle school, but Hong didn't have the chance to pursue higher studies and had to stay in his hometown. He was recruited by the local government to work at the railway station.

When Hong worked on the railway, Wulan took the train between home and school. The train became a symbol of their love, keeping them close until they married.

Working at the railway station, Hong broadened his horizons. He realized that trains helped boom Golmud's economy. However, since the ecology of the plateau is very fragile, environmental protection has increasingly become a major problem, from which Hong detected a potential business opportunity. So, after working at the railway station for about 20 years, he decided to start a business planting grass on desolate, sandy areas. After about 10 years, because of his good reputation and work performance, Hong was named a model worker by Qinghai Province, the highest provincial award for young people.

The business enables Hong and Wulan's family to become wealthier gradually. Wulan quit her job as a nurse and became a housewife, devoting herself to educating their children.

"We can communicate more frequently with the outside world when more trains come," she said. "The competition will grow fiercer and I hope my children will have much more promising opportunities than us."

Changing way of life

Ba'erdeng is a 37-year-old herdsman of Mongolian ethnicity in Qinghai Province. His 15-square-meter Mongolian-style yurt is located on a riverbank only 200 meters from the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Ba'erdeng watches the trains pass by, and says he has concerns.

He keeps a flock of about 300 sheep, and the railway cuts his pasture land into two parts. "Although there is a special pass for them, the sheep can't get used to the new situation right away," he said. "They don't know how dangerous it is, and many of the sheep cross the railway to the other side, which makes me worry all the time."

Ba'erdeng rises at 6 a.m. and returns home at 6 p.m. He and his brother and sister-in-law take the sheep out to graze while his wife takes care of the two families' children, 106 km away from the pasture.

He is also worried about losing the land on which his sheep graze. he said that when the train is running, the government will pay much more attention to the protection of the ecological system of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This means that pastures will be reforested, he added.

Compared with the past, his life is better now, Ba'erdeng said. Currently, his family's annual net income exceeds 20,000 yuan, much higher than the average income of farmers in the western part of China.

In the past, he traveled by foot or horse to take the sheep to pasture, but now he drives a motorcycle. In the past, he was totally isolated from his family when he moved to a further pasture, but now he has a cell phone. His family used to move from pasture to pasture by carriage, but now they drive a tractor.

"We are living a much better life. But frankly, I don't want to live the dull life of a herdsman," he said, adding, "we must have a long-term plan."

Ba'erdeng is linking the future of his family with the railway. When the railway is in full operation, transportation costs will be greatly reduced and "more people will be doing business," he said. He added that he thinks in the next few years, more herdsmen will settle down. He is planning to sell building materials.

"The train will provide us with more and more opportunities," Ba'erdeng said. "As long as we are quick to seize them, it won't be difficult for us to make a better life."

Left in the dust

Five years ago, when the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was still under construction, Ma Zhengqiang started up a transportation business that operated alongside the line from Golmud to Lhasa.

"When the railway was under construction, my business was very good. And frankly, I made a considerable amount of money," Ma said.

However, he now must consider other business ventures. "After the completion of the railway, more people will choose to take the train and my business will be badly affected," Ma said with a sigh.

Ma Congde, who runs a restaurant catering to Muslim people, said he will also lose money because of the new railway.

His restaurant is located along the tracks opposite the Yuzhu Mountain, a famous scenic spot. When the railway was being built, more than 40 restaurants sprung up in this small area. To his disappointment, after the railway was completed, all the railway technicians returned home and traffic to the area slowed down. In just one month, half of the 40 restaurants disappeared and those left can barely make ends meet.

"I hope visitors to the Yuzhu Mountain will come to my restaurant. But I really have no idea of what my future income will be," Ma Congde said.


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