Bound to the Tracks

The Beijing-Lhasa express is midway through its 48-hour, 2,500-mile maiden run, and Ivor Warburton is riding high. Outside the train, the snowcapped Kunlun Mountains gleam above the Gobi Desert in the remote Chinese province of Qinghai. Inside, the British businessman and rail buff is envisioning a deal with the Chinese government to introduce $1,000-a-day luxury-class service on the newly opened line between Qinghai's capital, Golmud, and the legendary Tibetan city of Lhasa. But his workaday plans are swept away by a sense of history in the making. "A train is the most physical manifestation of a country's unification," he philosophizes. "Just think how people regard the golden spike in America."

More than a century since the opening of the transcontinental railway in Utah, Warburton's analogy holds true. But in this case what many people see is not so much a golden spike as a nail in Tibet's coffin. Ever since Chinese communist forces marched into Lhasa in 1951, Beijing has spared no effort to cement its hold on the population and stamp out every trace of Tibetan separatism. The 2.5 million ethnic Tibetans of the Tibet Autonomous Region (its official name today) are hopelessly outnumbered by China's 1.2 billion Han Chinese. Long before the laying of the tracks, Han Chinese sightseers, entrepreneurs and migrant laborers were streaming into Lhasa, transforming the ancient Tibetan capital with shops and services that cater to lowlander tastes. Of the roughly 100,000 laborers who built the $4.2 billion Golmud-Lhasa stretch, only 10 percent were ethnic Tibetans, according to Zhu Zhensheng, the Railway Ministry's project chief.

Still, the train has helped bring the Beijing government closer to the Dalai Lama in one respect. The exiled religious leader has said that one of his biggest worries about the railway is its impact on the region's fragile ecology--and China's leaders appear to share his concern. The government has spent nearly $190 million on environmental protection along the rails between Golmud and Lhasa, including underpasses designed to keep migrating antelope and other wildlife safely off the tracks. Along some stretches, liquid coolant circulates in the roadbed to keep the underlying permafrost from melting. On virgin grasslands, workers carefully removed sod from the right of way and tended it, in some cases for a year or more, until it could be replaced on the new line's embankments. And the precautions didn't stop with the project's completion. No trash or wastewater is to be discharged from the train anywhere along this section of track.

Beijing is preparing to go even further later this year with the pas- sage of an unprecedented "Tibetan plateau ecological security safeguards plan." The autonomous region's Environmental Protection Bureau is already growing faster than any other sector of the Tibetan government. Authorities have shut down nine polluting cement plants and four substandard refineries since 2000 and, beginning this year, alluvial gold-mining has been banned everywhere in Tibet because of the damage the practice causes to riverbeds. Tougher still, Lhasa's city government has prohibited the production, distribution and use of plastic bags to eradicate "white pollution" from the capital. "It's a first," boasts the environmental bureau's deputy chief, Zhang Tianhua.

Tibet's indigenous humans can only wish they had such protection. Entire monasteries are still subjected to "patriotic education" sessions aimed at ensuring their loyalty to Beijing. Even so, the Dalai Lama, who began warning years ago against the train as a vehicle of "cultural genocide," has softened his tone lately. These days he speaks of Tibetan autonomy, not full independence. But Chinese officials still distrust him, and their sporadic talks with his envoys have yielded no breakthroughs. "He has never abandoned his goal of seeking independence for Tibet," said the autonomous region's Beijing-appointed chairman, Champa Phuntsok, at a press conference last week. After all the green initiatives, in some ways Beijing is as red as ever.

Correction:  In "Bound to the Tracks" (July 17) we incorrectly said Golmud was the capital of China's Qinghai Province. It is Xining. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.