Some Westerners once predicted that China would not be able to complete the building of a railway between Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region within 100 years. This assertion will be smashed on July 1 when the long-awaited Qinghai-Tibet Railway is scheduled to begin trial operation.
With an average altitude of 4,000 meters, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, cuting across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau which is known as "the Roof of the World," is called a "sky railway." After the railway is open to traffic, speeds on the frozen earth and non-frozen earth sections are expected to reach 100 km and 120 km per hour respectively, the fastest speed in the world for trains running on railways constructed on frozen plateaus.
Via this railway, it will take only 48 hours to travel from Beijing to Lhasa, capital of Tibet, a distance of 4,000 km. Tibet, "the third pole of the earth," suddenly seems not so far away.
However, an assortment facts show that compared with geographical distance, psychological distance is even harder to close. Distorted images and misunderstandings of Tibet largely come from psychological distance, which is, to a great extent, caused by geographical distance.
The long-existing psychological distance is one of the major factors obstructing Tibet's development. Undoubtedly, the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has opened a window for Tibet to communicate with the outside world. We are confident that in the future, the coming and going of trains will reduce the psychological distance.
Our staff reporters recently conducted interviews along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. We talked to people from different social strata, including farmers, herdsmen, businessmen and government officials, and listened to their views about the railway. As seen through their eyes, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is no longer merely a grand, abstract project, but a "road" with passionate ideas attached to it.
Because of geographical location, many residents along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway had never before seen trains. Among these people were old, uneducated herdsmen and also the younger generation, full of imagination and eager for knowledge. For the young people, the train, a "magic behemoth" in their eyes, also carries their dreams for the future. A Tibetan middle-school student, eager to travel by train to university and to see the larger world, believes that taking a train is like flying in the sky.
However, the train carries not only hope and excitement, but also concerns about the preservation of the culture, religion and natural environment of Tibet. If these potential problems cannot be properly addressed, all previous efforts put toward building the railway may fall far short of success. The government, which has completed a great project with the aim of benefiting the people, may be condemned by history.
With the railway's opening to traffic, a new chapter in Tibet's history begins. But it will take time to see where the "sky road" leads, and the steering wheel is largely in the hands of the government.