The world's highest railway, linking Tibet with the rest of China, may bring many changes to the region, but environmental experts suggest Tibetans keep one tradition intact: burning yak dung for fuel.
Stacks of dried yak dung can be found near houses in many Tibetan villages.
Together with firewood and scrub, it is a major source of fuel for herdsmen in the autonomous region.
"Some people claim that with the completion of the railway, Tibetan people can dispense with yak dung and use coal. But this isn't a rational view," said Tanzen Lhundup, of the China Tibetology Research Centre, yesterday.
Tomorrow the maiden journey will be made along the railway line, which stretches 1,142 kilometres, linking Golmud in Northwest China's Qinghai Province to Tibetan capital Lhasa.
"What we should advocate using is clean and environmentally-friendly energies, such as hydroelectricity, solar and wind power," Tanzen told a press conference in Beijing.
There may be some disadvantages to yak dung, but it is better for the environment than other fuels, said Tanzen, vice-director of the Tibetology centre's Social and Economic Department. Burning coal, on the other hand, is detrimental to the environment, and linked with global warming, he added.
An Caidan, another expert with the centre, said it was misleading for some media reports to claim Tibetans could now discard dried yak dung forever.
"Simply from the perspective of a lack of distribution network, it is unfeasible to use coal to replace traditional fuels," said An. "It is easier said than done to set up a sales and distribution web in such a vast, sparsely-populated region."
Zhu Zhensheng, vice-director of the railway project office under the Ministry of Railways, said yesterday railway authorities had earmarked at least 1.54 billion yuan (US$190 million) to protect the environment along the route, including setting aside funds for sewage treatment facilities in Golmud and other major stations to handle waste from the train and station staff.
Zhu also said the newly-opened railway will serve as an "all-weather, large-capacity and convenient route" to transport goods including clean energy to Tibet. He said two freight trains a day will provide service for Tibet, bringing more commodities into the region than they ferry out.
The trains will mostly bring food, construction materials and other living necessities in from the rest of China, while carrying out handicrafts, agricultural and sideline products, which will boost the income of Tibetans.
He gave no specific figures for estimated cargo tonnage, but said the train was likely to help border trade with India.
Nyima Tsering, vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told China Daily earlier that clean energy which is expected to come with the operation of the railway would help Tibetan herdsmen reduce their use of firewood and scrub, which threatens the fragile environment.
Source: China Daily