China train brings hope for Tibet yak herders

Lhasa, September 11 :

Yak herders in Damxung, north of Tibet’s capital city, are banking on the new Qinghai-Tibet train to bring prosperity to their pristine but poor land.

The sleek train, the world’s highest, snaking through the region’s beautiful landscape has become a daily sight since its first historic run July 1.

For centuries Tibetans have made a living herding yaks and sheep to grasslands on the plateau or mountains, surviving on local agricultural products and a small-scale economy.

They now look at this new display of 21st century technology with mixed feelings, as the train may soon usher in changes to their placid lives.

Not all Tibetans seem aware of the economic implications that accompany the train, which brings over 3,000 visitors daily in addition to arrivals from commercial flights and buses.

Tibet’s gross domestic product stood at $2.6 billion in 2004, the lowest among Chinese provinces. Per capital annual income in rural areas was $225 in the same year, also among the lowest in China.

In Damxung, about 200 km north of Lhasa, yak herders watch the train making its daily runs across their land with some interest.

Cidan Duoji, a yak herder turned businessman in Tang Kaka town, appears comfortable with the new developments as he sits in his large, typical Tibetan stone house. He owns 98 yaks and about 40 sheep.

His household of eight people has an annual income equivalent to $7,500, well above average. The yaks and sheep provide food for the family year round and are not for sale on the market - an example of the region’s resistance to government-led plans for a large-scale meat market.

“The train will greatly facilitate transportation of goods from other provinces of China into Tibet,” he said.

Duoji has himself taken the train to Xining, in Qinghai province, looking for business to add to his income.

“It will help the economy, lower the prices of goods (from other Chinese provinces),” he said. “I hope to take the train again to places farther than Golmud and Xining. The most important thing is the railroad will bring greater economic development to our region.” Ren Duo, a landlord who rents out small rooms on his vast lot of land along the highway, lives in an air-conditioned house with a large flat TV screen in the living room and elaborate Tibetan furniture. Photographs of communist leaders adorn the room.

With a high annual income as a landlord, Duo does not regret leaving his former job as a herder to take up building construction in Tibetan towns.

“The railroad does not directly help my construction business,” he said. “But it brings tourists and helps expand transportation for my materials.” Both Duoji and Duo received grants from the government to start their businesses.

But just down the road, other Tibetans do not have the same kind of wealth, running small shops serving some of the 29 villages grouping 550 households in Damxung county.

The row of stone houses all look alike from the outside. Tibetans are not in the habit of exhibiting their wealth, until you enter inside. They have moved from poorer dwellings like tents to government-built housing complexes.

For now at least, the train does not seem to bother them.