China made history on Saturday by sending the first pair of passenger trains to the "roof of the world" along a miracle rail link between Tibet and the rest of the country.
The world was watching as two inaugural trains, coded "Qing 1" and "Tibet 2", pulled out of their stations in Golmud and Lhasa, two start-off points of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the world's highest.
Thousands of people dressed in festive costumes and speaking different dialects witnessed the historic moment at the two stations, shouting "Tashi Delek", a Tibetan expression meaning good fortune.
Before the trains started, Chinese President Hu Jintao cut ribbons to mark the launching of the railway, which he praised as a "miracle".
"The project is not only a magnificent feat in China's history of railway construction, but is also a great miracle of the world's railroad history," Hu, also general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, told an audience of 2,600 on a square in front of the Golmud railway station.
Saturday coincides the 85th founding anniversary of the CPC, and three more trains left for Lhasa from Beijing, Chengdu and Xining in the evening. A dream comes true
By inaugurating the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, China has realized a centennial dream of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the forerunner of China's democratic revolution, and has broken American train traveler Paul Theroux's prophesy that the Kunlun Range was "a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa".
The Qinghai-Tibet railway stretches 1,956 km from Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, to Lhasa. The section of 814 km from Xining to Golmud began operation in 1984 and the Golmud-Lhasa section started construction on June 29, 2001.
The project is dubbed an "engineering marvel" because people used to think the perennial ice and slush along the route could never support tracks and trains.
"I never expected I could ever get on a train in my life," said Tibetan herder Tubdain Daqog, one of the 700 passengers on board the maiden train from Lhasa to Lanzhou, northwest China's Gansu Province, Saturday.
His hair is done into plaits with red ribbons, a festive hairdo for the Tibetans, "because today is a red-letter day," he told Xinhua in an interview.
"Now that trains are so available, I'll take my sons to the big cities for work," said the father of five children, the eldest of whom is 27.
Lama Cering from Jokhang Temple in Lhasa enjoyed every bit of scenery along the route and refused even to sit down. "I'd be happy to pay a pilgrim to the Ta'er Monastery when I arrive in Qinghai," he said.
Ta'er Monastery is one of the largest monasteries of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism in memory of Tzongkaba (1357-1419), the founder of the Yellow Sect. Rewriting history
History was rewritten when "Tibet 2", the first train to leave Lhasa, passed the Tanggula Mountain Pass, 5,072 meters above sea level, at 5:38 p.m..
Located at the highest point of the railway, the Tanggula Mountain Pass has replaced Peru's Lima-Huancayo line, which reaches 4,800 meters, to hold the record of the world's highest railway.
Trains traveling across the roof of the world have extra oxygen pumped into the cabins to prevent passengers from suffering altitude sickness.
They cover hundreds of kilometers of permanently frozen ground, with state-of-the-art cooling methods used to ensure the rail line remains stable.
At a cost of 33 billion yuan (4.1 billion U.S. dollars), Chinese President Hu Jintao said the railway was an important part of China's historic efforts to modernize the country and further confirmation that the fast-developing nation was indisputably one of the world's great powers.
"This success again shows the hard working and wise people of China have the courage, confidence and ability to continue to create miracles," Hu said.
"We also have the courage, confidence and ability to stand among the advanced peoples of the world."
More than 1,300 years ago, ruler of ancient Tibet Songzan Gambo had to wait for three years for his bride, Princess Wencheng, to travel all the way from the inland areas. Today, Beijing is only 48 hours away. More than an economic boom
Ministry of Railways said the Qinghai-Tibet railway will carry 75 percent of all the inbound cargo into Tibet, cutting transportation costs and help double tourism revenues by 2010.
But experts say the railway means more than an economic boom in the region.
Refuting international concerns over a "cultural genocide" by an influx of the Han people, China's largest ethnic group, An Caidan, a Beijing-based expert on Tibetan studies, said the newly opened railway has in fact made room for the development of Tibetan culture.
"The Tibetans enjoy the right to seek development," he said. " The railway will lead Tibet to prosperity and present Tibetan culture to the world."
Huang Fukai, head of a Tibetan culture preservation society, believed the railway will change the locals' way of life. "They will keep to their traditional diet but will tuck into Western food and put on jeans, too."
But such changes, he said, are the irreversible trend of development of the human civilization, said Huang.
Besides the cultural concerns, environmentalists worry the railway might undermine the ecology on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Addressing such concerns, the central government spent 1.5 billion yuan (about 180 million U.S. 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.
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 said.
The Chinese government is to build three more railway lines in Tibet as extensions of the newly-completed railway, which would link the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, with Nyingchi to the east, and Xigaze to the west, while the third will link Xigaze with Yadong, a major trading town on the China-India border.
The new lines would be built in 10 years, and increase Tibet's total railway length to more than 2,000 kilometers, says the Ministry of Railways.