Train ride into ecological uncertainty
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-05-29 06:49

Train ride into ecological uncertainty

Nature has always influenced history; it has given birth to civilizations and nurtured them. Rivers, valleys and mountains determined the demography of a place before humans snatched away this task and began playing hide and seek with nature. Patient and forgiving, nature understood the needs of humankind, and at times even welcomed us to trample its most sacred of laws. We burnt coal in our furnaces and engines to power the Industrial Revolution. We cut mountains, dug tunnels, built bridges, harnessed rivers and blocked the sea. Vehicles sped through valleys and deserts, trains trundled through wilderness, and planes tore through the skies, guzzling billions of tons of fossil fuel.

And then one overcast, melancholic, suffocating day some of us woke up to realize we had pierced nature's heart. Yet nature didn't lose its all-forgiving smile. And yet we misread its pain and sufferings.

Thankfully, there are still places relatively untouched by human hand. Thankfully there are still biospheres and forests that store huge amounts of greenhouse gases. And thankfully, some people are still trying to leave them as they are for the benefit of all.

Two such places in China are the Gannan prairie in Gansu province and Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province. Gansu has been declared the "gateway to Northwest China" and deserves that nomenclature because it's a harmonious mix of history and nature. The Silk Road, Jiayuguan Pass (the western-most tip of the Great Wall) and the Mogao Grottoes come alive in the bosom of Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountain) in the Hexi Corridor (or north of the Yellow River).

Now, one of the nine new train lines approved by the Ministry of Railways to make Gansu and the rest of the northwest more accessible is supposed to cut across the Gannan Tibetan prefecture and pass close by Jiuzhaigou, meandering through the Qionglai-Minshan Mountains.

Train ride into ecological uncertainty

I've not been to Gannan, but I have firsthand knowledge of the neighboring prefecture of Linxia, and can feel how beautiful but delicately balanced the Maqu, Xiahe, Luqu and grasslands and their lakes are.

The Qionglai-Minshan Mountains separate the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the Sichuan Basin, and are home to two of the world's most endangered species: the giant panda and golden snub-nosed monkey. They are home to 140 bird species, too. The mountains are so steep that the glaciers on their east face tumble down below the tree line before finally melting.

Jiuzhaigou is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, but more importantly it is a biosphere. A biosphere is the sum of many ecosystems, and is referred to as the "zone of life". It is one of the sources of the Jialing River, part of the Yangtze River system. It lay hidden from prying outside eyes till 1972, and became a tourist attraction only in the 1980s. Playing host to humans - that it could have jolly well done without - for a quarter of a century has left Jiuzhaigou shaken. Some of the lakes we see, and many of those we can't, have already been reinforced by human hand, signaling nature's failure.

It's such fragile land that the new Gansu line is supposed to pass through. The Ministry of Environmental Protection, according to unconfirmed sources, has already objected - and rightly so - to the project.

There's no doubt the new railway line will make it easier to carry goods and people to and from remote places. There's no doubt either that a better communications network will bring more tourists and help raise the living standard of local people. But it can also cause unknown damage to the fragile ecology.

Development is the demand of the times, but should it come at the cost of the environment? We are already paying the price of playing with nature. Isn't it time we thought differently?

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com