ABOARD THE BEIJING-LHASA EXPRESS, China (AP) – A $4 billion high-altitude train climbed past melon fields and herds of sheep Sunday on its way from Beijing to Tibet – a new element in China’s much-criticized push to bind its booming east to the Himalayan “roof of the world.”

The train linking the city of more than 15 million to the remote, ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa turned heads in western China’s poor, arid highlands as it sped by at about 75 mph.

It was halfway to its destination by late Sunday, 24 hours after leaving Beijing.

Although some observers claim its significance is largely symbolic, the Chinese government says the railway is projected to help double tourism revenues in Tibet by 2010, and cut transportation costs for goods by 75 percent.

Products have been trucked over mountain highways that are often blocked by landslides or snow, making trade prohibitively expensive.

Activists warn that the train, which crosses mountain passes more than 3 miles high, will bring a flood of Chinese migrants, diluting Tibet’s unique Buddhist culture and threatening its fragile environment.

Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and Beijing says the region has been Chinese territory for centuries. But Tibet was effectively independent for much of that time.

A decades-old dream for Chinese officials, the train was resurrected in 2001 after engineers came up with solutions for stabilizing tracks on permafrost.

Thanks to annual economic growth above 9 percent and surging tax revenues, the government can afford to invest in impoverished regions such as Tibet. Last year, Tibet’s economy grew 12 percent to a record $3 billion.

The strategy of using trains and commerce in restive ethnic regions is not new for China. Rail links ferried in millions of Chinese to firm up Beijing’s control in Inner Mongolia and the Muslim Xinjiang region in the far west.

For decades, daily flights and overland links have given Chinese a way to migrate to Tibet. But the flights were costly and the bus rides were long and bone-crunching.

Train tickets will sell for as little as $49 for a seat to $158 for a sleeping berth.

Many Tibetan passengers spoke glowingly of the railway, but it was unclear whether they were being candid, since dozens of Foreign Ministry officials also were on board.

A 23-year-old Tibetan who gave his name as Suoping was returning home to look for a job after graduating from the Beijing Police Academy. He said the train would bring economic benefits to the Tibetan region.

“Our biggest problem has been the transportation issue. With the opening of the rail, there should be lots of new business opportunities,” he said.

The New York-based Students for a Free Tibet set up a Web site urging people to wear black armbands in protest of the project, which the group says “is a tool Beijing will use to overwhelm (the) Tibetan population.”

“We reject the railway just as we reject China’s illegitimate rule in Tibet,” the group wrote.

On the train, passengers passed the time by playing cards, singing traditional Tibetan folk songs and discussing the latest World Cup results, which they received via text message on their mobile phones.

The train’s special features include oxygen-enriched air and anti-lightning equipment on the roof.

Before the last leg of the journey from the far western frontier town of Golmud to Lhasa, rail staff will switch from the ordinary single locomotive to three specially imported General Electric-manufactured engines to aid the final climb up to the 16,640-feet high Tanggula Pass.

The 710-mile final stretch of railroad linking Golmud with Lhasa crosses some of the world’s most forbidding terrain on the treeless Tibetan plateau. The railway’s highest station is in Nagqu, a town at 14,850 feet in the plateau’s rolling grasslands. China says this stretch of rail line is the world’s highest.

“This is a magnificent feat by the Chinese people, and also a miracle in world railway history,” Chinese President Hu Jintao said at an inaugural ceremony Saturday. He said the train showed China’s people were “ambitious, self-confident and capable of standing among the world’s advanced nations.”

AP-ES-07-02-06 1619EDT

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