MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
There was no golden spike, but there was plenty of fanfare when China inaugurated its first railroad to Tibet nearly three months ago. Since then, hundreds of thousands of passengers have traveled by rail to the remote Himalayan region. Many Chinese and Tibetans are proud of having built the world's highest railroad and they believe it will help pull Tibet out of poverty.
But there's also a concern about the railroad's long-term impact on Tibet's environment and culture. We'll hear about the tension between China and Tibet in a few minutes.
First, NPR's Anthony Kuhn's account of rail journey to the Tibetan capitol, Lhasa.
Unidentified Announcer #1: Your attention, please. The number Z27 passenger train leaving for Lhasa at 21:30 is now ready to board.
ANTHONY KUHN: Once you beat the end of summer crowds trying to buy tickets at the Beijing West train station, it doesn't cost much to travel across China by rail. A regular seat from Beijing to Lhasa costs the equivalent of just $45. If you don't feel like sitting for 48 hours straight, you can pay $150 as I did for a berth in a sleeper compartment. The berths are mostly packed with middle and upper class Chinese tourists.
As the train speeds across the north China plain and into the arid hills of western China, the passengers inside play cards, snack on sunflower seeds and instant noodles and take pictures through the windows. Vacationing airline stewardess Lisa Li says she's excited but a little concerned for Tibet.
Ms. LISA LI: (Through Translator) I've had the idea to go to Tibet for quite awhile. I think to most people, Tibet is a very sacred, very mysterious place. This train will definitely help Tibet to develop. It will bring lots of tourists. But I am concerned that the increase in tourists will have a negative impact on Tibet's environment.
KUHN: In contrast to the sleeping berths, the $45 seats are mostly filled with young laborers going to Tibet or cities along the line. Twenty-four-year-old Phun Hun Yu(ph) is one of a band of young men heading to Lhasa in search of work.
Mr. PHUN HUN YU: (Through Translator) We feel it would be a great shame if we missed the opening of Tibet. Other regions are already pretty much developed. Tibet is the last virgin land, just waiting for us. To us, Tibet is full of great opportunities and great challenges. We know we're young and lack experience, but our youth is also a kind of capital. We all want to charge into the unknown.
KUHN: The passengers on the train are almost all Han, China's ethnic majority. One exception is Ja-shi(ph), a 20-year-old Tibetan who befriends the laborers. Like many Tibetans, he goes by just one name.
JA-SHI: (Through Translator) The railroad brings both happiness and sadness to us Tibetans. The good thing is it makes travel easier and brings economic prosperity. The bad thing is that it brings great harm to Tibet's scenic spots. Some folks are clean. Others litter.
KUHN: Ja-shi and his new friends share bags of fried chicken and bottles of Budweiser, riding through the night on their raw youthful energy.
On the morning of the second day, passengers awake to find that the real journey has begun. The train passes herds of rare Tibetan antelopes and shaggy haired wild yaks. Outside the train's windows, melting glaciers form the source of the mighty Yangtze River. The train is now on the Tibetan plateau, in some parts 16,000 feet above sea level. But passengers in the sealed train can't feel the thin air.
Unidentified Announcer #2: Ladies and gentlemen, as oxygen is released into the train cars during the voyage to help prevent altitude sickness, smoking is strictly prohibited on board. You can disembark and smoke outside the train when it stops at stations. Thank you for your cooperation.
KUHN: Most of the soil here is permafrost. Chinese engineers have put some of the tracks on pilings sunk deep below the unstable soil. They've stuck ammonia filled metal cooling rods stuck into the earth to ensure that the permafrost stays frozen. And they've built fences and tunnels to allow rare animals to migrate without becoming railroad kill.
Despite press reports of buckling rails and litter on the tracks, the Chinese government has already reached its verdict on the $4.2 billion project, judging from the train's announcer.
Unidentified Announcer #2: The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is not only a great construction work recognized by the whole world, but also a great sample of harmonious coexistence between nature and humankind.
(Soundbite of singing)
KUHN: The train itself has made Lhasa no less of a holy city. Pilgrims still prostrate themselves and lamas still chant for alms. There are noticeably more tourists on the streets and tickets to some local attractions are hard to buy.
The train and its impact on Tibet has become a politicized issue, and many Lhasa residents were wary of expressing their opinions. One Tibetan woman who was too afraid to give her name had this to say:
Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) The train's arrival in Tibet is not a good or welcome event. Many more Han Chinese will enter Tibet and occupy our land. More armless and legless people and beggars will enter too.
KUHN: The political atmosphere in Tibet is extremely tense. Lhasa residents say the new Communist Party secretary in town has launched a political campaign to denounce the Tibetan's exiled spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has expressed cautious optimism about the new railway.
Thubten Samphel is a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile in India.
Mr. THUBTEN SAMPHEL (Spokesman, Tibetan government): The Dalai Llama says that he welcomes the construction of the new railway line, but at the same time he said he will withhold his ultimate judgment and would like to wait and see what use the Chinese authorities will put the new rail line to.
KUHN: Tibetans generally agree that globalization had already arrived in Tibet long before the new railway. The trains will certainly speed up that process, they say, but it could be years before the trains import fully hits home.
In future, China plans to extend the railway westward deeper into Tibet, towards the border with India. It's hard to tell now what will happen when tourists and modernity finally reach Tibet's remote interior and its inhabitants.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Lhasa.