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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 2006
UPDATED: April 24, 2008 NO.26 JUN.29, 2006
Connecting People
With the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Tibet is no longer such a remote place, aiding regional development

THERE WILL BE MORE: A foreign couple takes photographs at Potala Palace in Lhasa. The railway is expected to bring more visitors to Tibet's capital


July 1 marks the 85th birthday of the Communist Party of China. On the same day, the 1,956-km Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a massive project pushed ahead by several generations of Chinese leaders over the past five decades, goes into service for a trial run.

Tibet, the last autonomous region in the country to build a railway, will finally welcome its first train. Among the several trains arriving in Tibet will be one from Beijing, about 4,000 km away. The trip from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, will take 48 hours.

Tibet lies on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the "Roof of the World," averaging 4,000 meters above sea level. The land area of Tibet exceeds 1.2 million square km, about five times the size of Britain and accounting for one eighth of the total area of China. According to the 2000 census, Tibet's population is about 2.6 million.

Due to its geographical location at an extremely high elevation, Tibet was virtually isolated from the outside world for a long time. In many people's eyes, Tibet was a poor place with inconvenient transportation. However, with the test run of the railway, this image of Tibet will probably soon vanish from people's minds. It is expected that in the near future, Tibet will appear to the outside world as a place of great vigor and vitality.

Ma Deyuan, a 44-year-old businessman from neighboring Qinghai Province, has been doing business in Lhasa for over 10 years and knows very well how important transportation is for Tibet.

Ma said that when he first came to Tibet, all the daily necessities were transported from over 1,000 km away by truck. Often transportation was cut off for many days at a time by heavy snowfalls in the mountains. "At that time, apples were sold by piece, not by weight, which was extremely expensive. Sometimes we had to queue to buy an apple," he recalled.

Because of its climate and soil, Tibet is not a good place in which to grow fruit and vegetables. As a result, in past years it had to rely heavily on other provinces for its supply.

There was a saying in Lhasa that the rich eat vegetables and the poor eat meat, since Tibet produces a lot of beef and mutton.

"In the past, it was a luxury to eat vegetables," said Ma.

It is only in recent years that Tibet has cultivated vegetables in greenhouses. Now, it not only provides sufficient vegetables for its own population but transports produce to neighboring areas.

A roadless society

Records show that before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, there were no highways in Lhasa, except for a one-km-long clay road.

In the 1930s, the 13th Dalai Lama, who had traveled outside of Tibet, was very eager to buy a car. Although there were no roads on which he could drive such a luxury, he bought a vehicle anyway, disassembling it and transporting it piece by piece to Lhasa via the major transportation mode in Tibet at the time--pack animal. Then, he invited foreign technicians to reassemble the car. However, since he could only drive it on the one-km road, the vehicle was soon left in a garage to rust.

On December 25, 1954, the Sichuan-Tibet Highway (between Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and Lhasa), and the Qinghai-Tibet road (between Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and Lhasa) were opened to traffic, providing the first major passageways leading to the region. According to statistics provided by the Transportation Administration of the Tibet Autonomous Region, by the end of 2005, the region had more than 43,000 km of highways, with the total mileage expected to reach 50,000 km by 2010.

Zeng Weixiao, a veteran driver, has profoundly felt the improvement in Tibet's highway network. Zeng, 58, used to drive from Qinghai to deliver commodities to the region.

The 2,055-km-long Qinghai-Tibet Highway winds through the Gobi Desert and snowy mountains, with half of the road at an elevation of 4,000 meters above sea level. The highest pass through the Tanggula Mountains, 5,230 meters above sea level, is considered a "lifeless" zone. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway runs parallel to the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, and the two are not far away from each other.

"In the past, a one-way drive to Tibet took 15 days, while it only takes 24 hours today. Those who hadn't driven to Tibet will never feel the hardships we encountered on the way," said Zeng.

He noted that the road to Tibet was very dangerous and it was normal to see overturned cars and trucks. Moreover, Zeng said the road was a very lonely place, with no restaurants, inns or gas stations. Drivers had to eat dry noodles along the way and slept in cars when tired. "But the biggest problem was that we could not communicate with another human being on the 15-day drive," he said.

"Nowadays, the road to Tibet is much, much better. It is a pleasure to drive, as the scenery along the road is very beautiful," he said.

In 1965, Lhasa began the first airline flight to Beijing. After more than 40 years of development, Tibet has now opened four airports and a dozen air routes to major cities in and outside of China. However, the aviation industry cannot satisfy Tibet's increasing development demands. Without trains, Tibet relies heavily on road traffic, which exacts a toll.

Currently, five national highways connect Tibet with the outside world. However, because of geological and climatic conditions, only one of the roads is open year-round. Over the years, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, dubbed the "lifeline of Tibet," has handled 85 percent of the commodities and 90 percent of the passengers in and out of Tibet. Under such circumstances, if the road were cut off for some reason, all of Tibet would be in serious difficulty, with commodity prices likely to skyrocket.

A golden opportunity

The fragile nature of the highway network remains the biggest headache for the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, but the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will ease the situation.

"The operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will fundamentally change the outdated transportation facilities in Tibet, and from now on, Tibet and inland cities will be closely interconnected," said Nyima Cering, Vice Governor of Tibet Autonomous Region.

Transportation has been a bottleneck for the social and economic development of Tibet. In 1954, after the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways were opened, Tibet established its first factory, school, farm, power plant and modern hospital.

"The operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway provides Tibet with an imperative historical development opportunity," noted Nyima.

An outdated mindset is another factor restricting the social and economic development of Tibet. Over 85 percent of the Tibetan population live in farming areas, and many of them receive little education. A considerable number of people still live self-contained lives.

"The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will connect Tibet to the vast rail transportation network across the country, leading to a rapid transmission of information, bringing creative spirit into Tibet," said Wang Taifu at the Tibet Regional Academy of Social Sciences.

Gongbo Zhaxi, a leading Lhasa official, noted, "The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will promote Tibet's integration with the outside world."

"After the completion of the railway, Lhasa will definitely encounter various new challenges, for instance, more criminal cases amid a rapid increase in migrant population. The government is now studying countermeasures," said a vice mayor of Lhasa who wished to remain anonymous. However, he added, "It will be the biggest development opportunity in recent decades in Tibetan history. It is impossible for Lhasa to remain underdeveloped. Otherwise, the people will suffer longer."

Boosting tourism

Tourism is one of the pillar industries of Tibet and tourists used to arrive by air. However, the aviation transport capacity is limited, and ticket prices are high, so that tourists with a moderate income cannot afford the expense. In visiting Tibet by car, many people worry about altitude sickness. As a result, the number of inbound tourists to Tibet has increased slowly.

After the opening of the railway, tourists need not worry about altitude sickness, and the ticket price is much lower than the airfare. Moreover, people can enjoy the beautiful scenery while taking the train. "The completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will allow the leapfrog development of Tibet and will boost the development of relevant industries," Wang, at the Tibet Regional Academy of Social Sciences, told Beijing Review.

Since Tibet depends heavily on road transportation, a number of industries, including mining, livestock breeding and traditional handicraft, have found it difficult to do business outside of the region. Meanwhile, it is costly to import industrial raw materials into Tibet. Even today, the region lacks a stable industrial system of its own.

Unable to be self-sufficient, Tibet relies heavily on external aid. It is estimated that in the past 50 years, over 20 million tons of commodities have been transported to Tibet, mainly food, energy, raw materials and daily necessities.

"I have been longing for years for the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway so that our yak products can enter the inland market quickly," said Qoinda, Vice Chairman of Gaoyuanzhibao Yak Milk Co. Ltd.

Due to the high transportation costs, commodities in Tibet usually carry higher price tags. For instance, prices of coal and cement in Lhasa remain at 700 yuan per ton, three times higher than those in inland cities. However, it is estimated that by 2010, over 75 percent of the commodities moving in and out of Tibet will be carried by rail.

"When the railway is opened, the transportation cost will be reduced substantially, leading to a decrease in prices," said Ma, the Qinghai businessman, who is now considering doing new business in Tibet.

Some businessmen are taking an even broader view. The huge population and steady economic growth of South Asia make the region a potentially huge market. However, Chinese business people have long focused on America and Europe, largely ignoring the South Asian market.

With the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Tibet is likely to emerge as a trade hub between China and South Asia. "This provides a golden opportunity for Chinese business people who want to dig a pot of gold in South Asia," said a Tibetan businessman who trades animal furs in Lhasa.

Promoting border development

Tibet, located on the southwestern border of China, shares a more than 4,000-km-long frontier with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. To a great extent, the stability and prosperity of Tibet will have an impact not only on China, but the whole South Asian region.

It is reported that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will be extended from Lhasa to border areas and there are plans to integrate it into the railway networks of neighboring countries.

On June 18, Chinese and Indian officials announced in Lhasa that from July 16, the Natu La Pass, 4,545 meters above sea level, which connects China and India, will be reopened after being closed for more than 40 years, to allow border trade between the two countries. This pass was once the most convenient land passage between China and India. In the early 20th century, the Natu La Pass handled over 80 percent of the China-India border trade.

The pass is 460 km from Lhasa, 550 km from the Indian port city of Calcutta, about 300 km from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, and 600 km from Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh. It will be open for border trade purpose each Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between June 1 and September 30.

Currently, China has become India's second largest trading partner. The total trade volume between China and India in 2005 reached $18.7 billion. China's Ministry of Commerce predicts that this year, the China-India trade volume would surpass $20 billion after the Natu La Pass border trade is resumed.

"In 2005, the total import and export volume of Tibet was only $200 million. After the border trade is resumed, even if only 10 percent of China-India trade goes through this pass, the foreign trade volume of Tibet will increase several billion dollars," noted Hao Peng, Vice Governor of Tibet Autonomous Region.

Fu Xiaoqiang, an assistant researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, pointed out that "the Natu La Pass border trade and the operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will make it possible to establish a major land passage between China and India. Therefore, the economies of the two countries will be greatly integrated and gain strong momentum for development."

At that time, Tibet will be transformed from a closed frontier region into a hub for international trade.

"Restricted by transportation conditions, the economic benefits of the reopening of the Natu La Pass is not that significant at present," Fu said. "However, the border trade will enhance the mutual understanding of the two peoples and will be conducive to the stable development of a strategic relationship between the two countries."

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