After four years of construction across some of the world's most rugged terrain, a new railroad connecting China's far western Qinghai province with Tibet is close to completion. Beijing says the project is an important part of its campaign to develop China's poor western region. But critics fear the rail link will help the government tighten its grip on Tibet, and further marginalize Tibetans in their own homeland. Siska Silitonga recently visited the region's capital, Lhasa, and has this report.
Hundreds of construction workers at the Lhasa River Bridge put the finishing touches on a section of an 1,100-kilometer railroad linking the region to the rest of China via Qinghai Province.
At the moment, two roads are the only land routes from China proper into Tibet, which forms China's southwestern corner. Once this railroad has been completed, the currently long and tortuous trip from Beijing to Lhasa will be cut to a relatively simple 48-hour journey.
This ambitious project began in 2001 and, as chief engineer Wang Wei Gang explains, many technical difficulties had to be overcome.
"There are three major difficulties: the high altitude and lack of oxygen, the deep frozen earth and the fragile ecology," said Wang Wei Gang.
Billions of yuan have been poured into the project. The Chinese government says the rail line will bring Tibetans more opportunities and greater access to the outside world.
Xu Jianchang, vice director general of the Tibetan Development and Reform Commission, says the local economy will benefit.
"Tibet is rich in water resources, but if we want to sell water to other provinces, we have to use trucks or buses," said Xu Jianchang. "After the rail is constructed, the local resources can be transported at much lower costs."
However, critics fear the railroad will mean more than just goods entering and leaving Tibet.
Since the launch of the government's "Go West" campaign in the late 1990's, China's western provinces have seen a massive influx of people of the country's ethnic Han majority.
According to the Tibetan government, each year about 50,000 migrants flock to Lhasa, a city now of 250,000. Once trains start running into Tibet, the region is likely to see an increase in ethnic Han job hunters. Tibetans say this will make it even harder for them to get jobs, and will erode their culture and identity.
The Han look on Tibet as a place of opportunity.
Zhang Keping has opened a convenience store in Lhasa, leaving her three-year-old son in adjacent Qinghai Province. Despite the separation, she is confident she will soon be able to provide a better life for her family than she could in Qinghai, where jobs are scarce.
"There isn't much work in Qinghai other than working as a farmer," said Zhang Keping. "That's why I chose to come here. Many of my friends have come to Lhasa, and we all make good money. I don't plan to go home. What work is there for me back there? I haven't even been back once."
Most Tibetans are farmers, and lack the skills needed to work in offices or start businesses. Many of them cannot speak Mandarin, China's national language.
Mr. Xu of the Tibetan Development office says the government is spending nearly $2 million a year on new training projects to help the Tibetans compete with the newcomers.
"We are only in the beginning stage," said Mr. Xu. "Starting from last year we are spending 15 million yuan [$1.9 million] annually for these training programs. Mainly to train the villagers to increase their knowledge and technical skills."
But many Tibetans still worry about the influx of Han Chinese.
Tserin is a Tibetan taxi driver in Lhasa.
"If you can't speak Chinese then there's no way you can find work," said Tserin. "Life in Tibet is getting harder, look around, all the Han people are running the businesses here. Lhasa is full of them."
A souvenir hawker outside a Lhasa hotel is blunt when asked about the Han Chinese.
Speaking in Tibetan and using hand gestures, he pushes down his head to demonstrate that the Han are suppressing the locals.
Their incomes are different, too. The Han usually earn a good living from restaurants, massage houses, and karaoke bars. The Tibetans - many still clad in traditional costume - earn much less selling local crafts or farm products. In the bigger towns, Tibetan beggar children flock around tourists.
China began a decade-long conquest of Tibet in 1949. A Tibetan government-in-exile, led by the region's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is based in India, and has tens of thousands of supporters around the world who oppose Chinese rule.
Many Tibetans think the Qinghai Railway will do more than help Han Chinese migrate to the region - they say it will help the Chinese government consolidate its power over Tibet.