In 1980, 1,059 visitors journeyed to the "roof of the world". The number grew to 140,000 in 2002 and exploded to 1.22 million in 2004. With the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway last weekend, predictions put the number of visitors by 2010 at over 5 million. Chinese President Hu Jintao was present for the opening of the railway, emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment:
"Railway workers and passengers traveling on the Qinghai-Tibet railway should consciously treasure waters and mountains as well as grass and woods on the Plateau, and they should help conserve the eco system and environment along the railway."
But can one really hope that under the flood of humanity, the highest and largest plateau on earth--home to many endangered species--will retain its unique natural heritage?The Chinese government has made an effort at conservation in the construction: 180 million US dollars of the railway's $4.1 billion budget were spent on environmental conservation efforts, including passageways for animals which have migration routes crossing the line. At its highest point, the railway reaches 5072 m (16,640 feet). Workers had to used bottled oxygen during construction and oxygen levels in the train cabins will be regulated due to the thin atmosphere at this elevation. Other measures, such as ultra-violet shielding on train windows and cooling pipes to keep the permafrost cold, and therefore stable, were necessary to overcome the natural obstacles to the project. Over 90% of current visitors to Tibet are domestic travellers, and prices set at approximately 49 US dollars for a hard seat on the 48 hour jouney (102 to 158 for a bunk) will not discourage travel.
One spark of hope is found: while many news outlets are trumpeting the engineering marvels and travel opportunities, the China Daily covered the release of a Green Travel Guide, publicizing efforts of international organizations to decrease the impact of the unstoppable force of progress on the delicate ecosystems penetrated by the iron rails. Distributed by the China office of Conservation International, the guide encourages visitors not to let their urge for a souvenier encourage the trade in products made from endangered species such as the Bengal tiger, snow lotus or the Chiru--a tibetan antelop protected by CITES since 1975, which will be a mascot for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Bloggers, such as Schaefer, have been following the construction. Keep your eyes open for travel blogs now that the railway is open to passengers: let us know if the guide for going green is working.
Via ::Qinghai-Tibet Railway and China Daily print news.