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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield Hayes
"Only now does China have the money and the technical know-how to make it a reality"
 real 28k

Friday, 29 June, 2001, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
China lays Tibet railtrack

China has begun building a railway connecting the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to the Chinese interior.

The line stretching 1,118 km (693 miles) across towering mountain ranges from Lhasa to Golmud in the western territory of Qinghai will link Tibet to China's national rail grid for the first time.

Chinese officials say the line will be a boon to Tibet's economy, while strengthening Chinese military and political control over the restive Himalayan region.

Lhasa, Tibet
China says the railway will transform Tibet's capital Lhasa
Groups opposed to Chinese rule over Tibet say the railway will bring hordes of Chinese settlers who will swamp Tibet's indigenous population, dilute its unique culture and open up wholesale exploitation of Tibetan mineral resources.

Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1950, with many Tibetans protesting that their land was an independent country for centuries.

The railway and the expected influx of Han Chinese that would follow would make Tibetans second-class citizens in their own land, human rights groups have said.

Heavy snows

A ceremony marking the start of construction was held at a tunnel on the south side of the Lhasa river opposite the city centre.

Work will initially focus on laying roads for construction vehicles, building offices and dormitories, and moving construction materials into place.

Many of the areas are covered with heavy snows in winter.

China has planned the line since the 1950s but had been stymied by cost and technical obstacles.

Pressurised carriages

Lack of oxygen at the high altitudes will require use of pressurised rail carriages to prevent altitude sickness, and the track will sit on special rollers to keep it steady as permafrost below melts and freezes again.

Chinese leaders say China's growing economy can sustain the $2.4 billion price tag, and the target completion date is 2005.

Over four-fifths of the railway will be built above 4,000m (13,200 feet), and bridges and tunnels will account for seven percent of its length.

Its highest station, Nagqu, will lie at 4,500 meters (14,850 feet).

Cheaper coal

China claims the line will be the highest in the world, but has not said what its top altitude will be.

The current record holder is the Central Railway in Peru, which reaches above 4,700m (15,700 feet) in the Andes mountains.

Goods bound for the Tibetan plateau must now be trucked in on mountain roads blocked by frequent landslides.

State media says the prices of coal and cement will fall and a new Lhasa will emerge over the next 15 years with skyscrapers rising above the 1,300 year-old city.

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See also:

09 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
China plans Tibet railway
23 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
China 'beating' Tibet separatism
07 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
World Bank rejects Tibet land plan
23 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Dalai Lama: Spiritual leader in exile
23 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tibet anniversary: Contrasting views
23 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tibet: Flashback to the Chinese 'deal'
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