Agile Tibetan antelopes and stocky wild horses in a vast expanse of "home on
the range" offered one of the most spectacular scenes to passengers on the first
train to Tibet Saturday.
"Wow, what a lovely sight," the crowd exclaimed as they swarmed to the
nearest windows to take a closer look at the critically-endangered species.
The train, coded "Qing 1" that left Golmud in Qinghai Province for Lhasa at
11:05 a.m., was driving through the Hoh Xil, China's largest area of uninhabited
land but a natural habitat for 230 species of wild animals, Tibetan antelope in
The population of Tibetan antelopes has dropped from several million to below
100,000 in the past two decades, a result of excessive poaching and human
encroachment of their habitat.
International traffickers hunt the antelopes to make shahtoosh shawls, a
luxury item that requires three to five pieces of antelope fur to make just one
Since 1979, the Tibetan antelope has been recognized as an endangered species
and protected under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered
Species. Since 1989, the species has been listed as Class-A protected animal in
China's Wildlife Protection Law.
China has established three nature reserves to protect the rare creatures,
covering a total of more than 600,000 sq km, an area 40 times the size of
One of them is located in Hoh Xil, a 45,000-sq.km area that has an average
altitude of 5,000 meters and an average temperature of minus four degrees
Celsius, with the lowest reaching minus 40 degrees.
How to build the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the world's most elevated railway,
through the Hoh Xil without encroaching on the animals' homes was one of the
biggest challenges confronting the designers and builders of the railway.
For the first time in any railway project, the Chinese government spent
heavily to build 33 green passageways for animals.
Construction work was suspended for several consecutive nights when female
antelopes crossed the site while migrating to and from their breeding site in
June and August of 2003, when the Hoh Xil section of the railway was being
To date, rare animals in the region have become used to the railway, said
officials with the Hoh Xil nature reserve administration.
"They're no longer scared of the human work and cross the railway with ease,"
said Cega, director of the reserve administration in Qinghai Province.
A first group of 67 pregnant antelopes from the eastern part of the reserve
crossed Wubei bridge of the Qinghai-Tibet railway on May 16 to give birth in the
hinterland, according to Gelai, head of Wudaoliang station in the Hoh Xil
About 1,000 antelopes have crossed the railway via special passages so far,
Gelai said. "Tibetan antelopes started migrating earlier this year than the past
Throughout their maiden train ride across the "roof of the world", passengers
are reminded of the environment issue and love for wild animals.
A guide for tourists along the "Heavenly Road", distributed to the passengers
for free, says clearly the tourists should "cherish every single plant on the
plateau" and must not disturb wild animals.
A miniature statue of a Tibetan antelope stands on every table in the train's
dining car, reminding the diners to care for life.
Before the train left Golmud, Chinese President Hu Jintao emphasized the
importance of environmental protection on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in a speech
to mark the opening of the landmark railway.
"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," Hu told an audience of 2,600 at the Golmud station.
After his speech, a train carrying officials and model workers on the project
set out from Golmud for Lhasa where it was due to arrive on Saturday night.
Another train set out from Lhasa.
Up to 1,000 Chinese journalists were dispatched to cover the events.
The central government spent 1.5 billion yuan (about 180 million US dollars)
on environment conservation along the route, the largest amount in any single
railway project in China.
"I do admire the Chinese government for that," said Italian sinologist Aldo
Mignucci who is in Lhasa for a visit.
The 1,956-kilometer-long Qinghai-Tibet railway is the world's highest and
longest plateau railroad and also the first railway connecting the Tibet
Autonomous Region with other parts of China.
Environmentalists worry the railway and the influx of tourists into Tibet
might threaten the local ecology.
Hoh Xil is also spelt as "Kekexili". Some say its name means " green hills"
in Mongolian, while others say it means "pretty girls ".
The place has become famous since the showing around China of a film about
the life-and-death fight between antelope poachers and vigilantes there.
The film, by Chinese director Lu Chuan, was based on the true story of a
journalist who joined a Tibetan volunteer patrol chasing poachers trading in
antelope wool. It was the first film shot on the Chinese mainland ever to win
best feature film award at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards - the Asian version of