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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 August 2007, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
Railway brings new era for Tibet
When a railway line linking Tibet to China opened last year, there were fears it could lead to the erosion of Tibet's unique culture and way of life. In the first of a series from the region, the BBC's Michael Bristow reports on the effects of the line one year on.

Construction worker
Business is benefiting from the new rail connection

Lhasa's railway cargo depot lies at the end of a partly-paved road, full of potholes, around 20km (12.5 miles) outside the Tibetan capital.

Scurrying to and fro along its platforms, uniformed workers unload everything from construction materials to incense.

Station master Chen Zhanying proudly churns out impressive statistics, detailing exports, imports, costs and benefits.

One year after the opening of the railway connecting Tibet with the rest of China, officials are keen to stress its achievements.

Improving wages

Those benefits are not hard to find. Renchin, a cleaner, is just one person whose life has improved with the railway's arrival.

The 28-year-old Tibetan works 12 hours a day, six days a week mopping the floor at the railway's passenger terminal on the outskirts of Lhasa.

Before the railway opened last July, she worked at a karaoke bar earning far less than the 900 yuan ($119, 59) she now takes home each month.

"At my previous job, the wages were bad and the work was hard," she said as she dragged her mop along the floor.

She added: "It's a lot better working here."

Renchin, a Tibetan cleaner
The development has helped people get better paid jobs

Businesses, as well as individuals, have also benefited.

Along the road leading to the cargo station, a giant gateway tells visitors they have arrived at Lhasa's economic development zone.

At the moment there is not much to see. Beyond the impressive entrance, a wide boulevard leads to vacant parcels of land.

But the zone's director, Huang Yutian, is optimistic. He said 112 businesses from as far away as Beijing and Guangzhou had already signed up to use the park.

These will be involved in industries such as mining, and processing Tibetan wool and dairy products.

Tax revenue from the development zone is expected to double this year to 80m yuan ($10.6m, 5.2m), Mr Huang said.

Predictably, tourism has also been given a boost by the railway's arrival to a region with wonderful natural scenery, and colourful temples and monasteries.

Previously, Lhasa could be reached only by plane or after a long, arduous road journey.

At central Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, one of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered sites, there are now at least twice as many visitors as before.

There are so many tourists at the 1,300-year-old temple - pilgrim numbers are about the same - site officials are considering setting limits.

Railway worker
There are fears that Tibetans are missing out on new jobs

"We need to manage visitors in an orderly fashion," said senior monk Chodak.

He added: "We are currently trying to figure out the best way to do that."

In short, local officials believe the railway is helping to transform Tibet's economy, improving the lives of ordinary people in the process.

Hao Peng, vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, said the area used to depend on central government funding to drive the economy.

But this year private investment, consumption, and imports and exports are all providing new impetus, he explained.

Economic growth was up by 14.7% in the first half of this year in the Himalayan region.

Skills gap

But if the railway has brought benefits, critics say they have not been evenly distributed.

All the good jobs, they claim, are being taken by China's dominant Han people who move to Tibet to find work.

That seems to be at least partly the case at the Hada Group, a Tibetan-run firm in Lhasa making traditional furniture and ironware.

Group Chairman Qun Pei said more than 90% of the company's 500 workers are ethnic Tibetans.

But he later admitted the firm had taken on 1,200 temporary workers from other parts of the country this year because it could not find enough Tibetans with the right skills.

Government officials admit there is a skills gap and say money has been put aside to train unqualified Tibetans.

But even if they are trained, will economic development provide enough jobs in what is still a very remote region?

As the development zone's Mr Huang (unnecessarily) pointed out, Tibet is hardly the centre of the economic universe.

This is particularly true for people living outside the main urban areas.

The year-old railway is certainly changing Tibet. It is bringing easier access to fresh vegetables, but also more tourists and migrants.

For some these changes are welcome and will provide opportunities. Others view them in a less benign light.

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