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Rail travel reaches new heights in China

Written by: Staff
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BEIJING, June 29 (Reuters) China will open the world's highest railway on Saturday, but the ambitious project that will take passengers over Tibet's snow-covered plateau has angered both conservationist and exiles of the remote region.

The 1,142-km (710-mile) track across the area known as the roof of the world will link Golmud in Qinghai province to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and was built at a cost of 3.76 billion dollars.

The line will traverse hundreds of kilometres of towering mountain country and promises to be a major draw for tourists willing to brave dizzying altitudes of up to 5,072 metres above sea level.

But overseas groups demanding Tibet's autonomy say it will spur an influx of ethnic Chinese migrants threatening to displace Tibetans in their own homeland.

Environmental critics of the line have said it will threaten fragile highlands, and some have said that global warming threatens to defrost permafrost ground and destabilise the rail line.

China dismisses the criticisms.

The trains will pass through mountain passes that were once a week's trek from Lhasa, which is about 3,600 metres above sea level.

Passengers who can afford the luxury will have pressurised cabins that provide oxygen to offset the effects of altitude sickness.

Project Deputy Director Zhu Zhensheng said trains would also carry medical staff, but he could not say whether smoking would be banned in the oxygen-rich carriages.

Until now, most travellers to Tibet have taken buses that take days over rough, often icy roads to reach the remote city. The first train service from Beijing will take about 48 hours to reach Lhasa.

CULTURAL WORRIES Tibetan exiles living in India on Monday scaled the fence of China's embassy in New Delhi and set fire to Chinese flags, denouncing the railway link as a ''death knell'' for Tibet.

The Tibetan Youth Congress said that building the railway was an act of ''demographic aggression'', and that Beijing planned to use it to relocate 20 million Chinese in Tibet over the coming decade.

An estimated 80,000 Tibetan exiles have been living in India ever since the Dalai Lama, their spiritual and temporal leader, fled Tibet in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.

But Zhu said the railway would improve the lives of Tibetans and promote the region's traditional culture.

''Tibetan culture needs to move forward and spread, and to do that it needs contact,'' he told a news conference in Beijing on Thursday. ''I'm sure that an isolated setting doesn't help a culture to develop.'' Freight trains will also carry construction materials, food and daily goods into Tibet, and some livestock products and handicrafts in the other direction, Zhu said. ''I don't have a specific estimate of the effect on [Tibet's] GDP of the rail link, but I'm sure it will be a huge boost.'' Zhu also dismissed concerns raised by environmentalists, saying Beijing had gone to unprecedented lengths to protect the environment, and had also taken into account the possible effects of global warming.

''The eco-system on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is quite fragile,'' Zhu said. ''The environmental protection tasks have been fulfilled.'' He said the line used special pipes and materials to insulate the permafrost from damage.

Zhu said China budgeted 33.09 billion yuan (.14 billion) for the rail link that has been under construction since 2001. Initially three services will connect Lhasa to Beijing, as well as the western cities of Xining and Chengdu. Each train can carry 900 passengers, he said.

REUTERS CH BD1440

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