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Politics travel the China-Tibet railway

A train attendant watches as the Qinghai-Tibet train passes from Lhasa towards China.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Earlier this year, the Olympic story was mostly about one part of China. A government crackdown in Tibet disrupted the torch relay in many cities around the world.

Next month marks three years since the first run of a train from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, a train built in part for political reasons, but also in part for economic ones.

Abrahm Lustgarten has ridden the rails. He writes about it in his new book. It's called "China's Great Train."

Welcome to the program.

Abrahm Lustgarten: Thanks. Good to be here.

Ryssdal: This thing leaves Beijing from the West train station, arrives at Lhasa a number of days later. What's it like getting on that train in Beijing and then getting off 17,000 feet up in the air a couple of thousand miles away.

Lustgarten: It's totally amazing. I wrote in the book that I experienced China's trains as a sort of time machine. You start in Beijing and Beijing is a modern metropolis and it kind of seems like no big deal, the trains seem sort of antiquated almost, and as you head further east through these developing cities, you progress into a more and more rural and less and less developed China and the train sort of emerges as this more and more modern experience and by the time you get to Golmud, the northern step of the Kunlun Mountains and up onto the plateau, you might as well be on the moon. You're in a completley different world.

Ryssdal: Is there something out there that Beijing wants or is it just that it's out there and they want it?

Lustgarten: I believe there's a lot out there they want. The resources that are believed to be on the Tibetan plateau are astronomical: large deposits of copper and iron, they say there's quite a bit of oil and gas, though the reserves aren't quite proven, and then there's a slew of other metals from gold to lithium. The estimates for the value of resources in Tibet are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And there's also the geopolitical importance of controlling Tibet. It's the gateway to the rest of South Asia, to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal and all of these countries that China wants to influence in order to secure themselves against their competition in India.

Ryssdal: One of the economic stories about China in the past decade or so and the story that we told when we were there a couple of years ago is this push by the government to get economic development out west. Is this train the next logical extension of that?

Lustgarten: I think it's definitely part of it. Whether it's logical, I'm not sure. But yeah, fixing the disparity between China's rich and poor and east and west was a primary objective. Tibet is an eighth of China's landmass. If you include Tibetan ethnic areas, it's a quarter of China's landmass and it's largely empty and it's largely rural, so if you do want to expand and you want to fill up space and you want to mitigate the overcrowding in eastern cities, that's a logical place to go.

Ryssdal: Who's benefiting from the economic development though? Is it Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group, or are Tibetans actually getting the jobs that are being developed in Lhasa and Tibet?

Lustgarten: The caveat is there are some Tibetans who are benefiting. There's a rising Tibetan middle class, but it's very small and the vast majority of the benefits of this development are not only going to Han Chinese, but often to Chinese corporations that are outside of Tibet and have nothing to do with Tibet, and even the profits that do stay in Tibet are going largely to Chinese-owned businesses and Chinese employers and Chinese employees and Tibetans are having a difficult time getting jobs, even at professional levels.

Ryssdal: Play it out for me then three, five, 10 years in the future. What does Lhasa look like after a decade with this train service?

Lustgarten: My fear is that unless drastic steps are taken to alter the course of development in Lhasa -- which is possible because the culture is valued from both the Chinese and Tibetan perspective -- that Lhasa will look like any other growing Chinese city. It saw 1.2 million tourist visitors when I started reporting for this book. By the time I finished, it was getting about 2.5 to 3 million and they're projecting 10 million by the end of next year, so the influx of people is astronomical and the influx of investment and permanent migration and new settlers is on par with that.

Ryssdal: The book by Abrahm Lustgarten is called "China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet." Thanks a lot for coming in.

Lustgarten: Thanks for having me.

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