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Tibetans Find Words to Face the Future
2006-08-11

Tracks, stations, trains -- the locals might have been lost for words when the first ever railway began in the remote Tibet Autonomous Region of southwest China.

But now they have the vocabulary to describe the historic event when seeing the Qinghai-Tibet Railway starts operations on July 1.

The region's Tibetan Language Working Committee on Sunday published the standard Tibetan word for "train" (megor) and a list of 28 more words and phrases relevant to the railway.

Committee director Cewang Bainjo said the list was drawn up to preserve the purity of the Tibetan language in the face of the expected economic and social boom coming with the trains.

Tibetans are already adapting their culture, language and environment in anticipation of the railway's influence on the region's development, said Danba Qoida, another specialist in Tibetan language.

"The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will help promote local economic development and improve the living standards of the broad mass of Tibetans, who hope to share in the development of the rest of the country," said Danba.

Under the development blueprint laid out by Tibetan branch of the Communist Party of China and the regional government for 2006 to 2010, Tibet is aiming to join the list of areas making moderate progress in terms of per capita gross domestic product and per capita net income for farmers and herders by 2010.

But while Tibetans are embracing modern life, they are anxious to preserve their culture and traditions.

Devout Tibetan Buddhists are now contemplating making their pilgrimages to Lhasa, home of the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, by train.

Ngawang Cering is a master of the Holy Tibetan Buddhist Scriptures with Daipung Monastery facing the Lhasa Railway Station across the Lhasa River.

"Like many Tibetan lamas, I want to travel to interior areas by train and preach the Buddhist Scriptures," he said.

Modern technology has already reached the traditional Tibetan astronomy department of the Tibetan Medicine College of Tibet, where clients seek advice on auspicious dates for weddings, funerals, planting, herding, and health remedies.

Here the astronomers rely on computers to ascertain dates instead of the traditional wooden sand table and short piece of wire to decipher cosmic phenomena such as solar or lunar eclipses.

In an alley off Bagor Street in downtown Lhasa, ads for broadband services, Coca Cola and foreign whiskies compete for billboard space with traditional products, including zanba, roasted qingke barley flour which is a staple local food, and butter.

"I like today's Lhasa because I can earn enough to eat and dress well as long as I am diligent and the young people can have a bright future as long as they are eager to learn," said Deji Zhoigar, a 58-year-old woman who operates a snack stand near Bagor Street.

"Life will get better as more tourists arrive after the trains start on July 1, which means I have more opportunities to make money."

Basang, an English interpreter with the Foreign Affairs Office of Tibet, said some Western scholars and tourists fear the changes will erode away the Himalayan region's distinctive culture and way of life.

"Foreign official delegations often asked for permission to visit monasteries or prisons in the 1990s, believing 'religious and political prisoners' or 'dissidents' represented all of Tibet," recalled Basang, who has escorted and interpreted for foreign delegations for 20 years.

"This point of view only caused antipathy among locals. Why should Tibet not progress like the rest of the world?" asked Basang. "It's unfair that we should remain unchanged for ever."

Pumoi, head of the region's tourism administration, argued the traditional way of life is not as romantic as perceived and should not be viewed with rose-tinted spectacles.

"Visitors from around the world will be able to see and understand the real Tibet when the railway begins operation," said Pumoi.

Basang Wangdui, a specialist in Tibetan studies with the Tibet Autonomous Regional Academy of Social Sciences, believed the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will be an important turning point in Tibet's development process.

"We could re-evaluate Tibet's progress from a new perspective and it will allow us to see what is truly valuable in our traditional culture," said Basang Wangdui with the warning: "We should never follow the path of pollution first and treatment later."

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