China plans highway on Mount Everest |

China plans highway on Mount Everest

BEIJING ” China plans to build a highway on the side of Mount Everest to ease the Olympic torch’s journey to the peak of the world’s tallest mountain before the 2008 Beijing Games, state media reported Tuesday.

Construction of the road, budgeted at $19.7 million would turn a 67-mile rough path from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,060 feet “into a blacktop highway fenced by undulating guardrails,” the Xinhua News Agency said.

Xinhua said construction, which would start next week, would take about four months. The new highway would become a major route for tourists and mountaineers, it said.

An official from the Secretariat of the Tibetan government, who declined to give his name, confirmed the project was planned, but refused to give any details. Tibet and Nepal are the most commonly used routes up the mountain.

In April, organizers for the Beijing Summer Olympics announced ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history ” an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and reach the 29,035-foot summit of Everest.

Taking the Olympic torch to the top of the mountain, seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet, is expected to be one of the relay’s highlights.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

The day before the route of the torch relay was announced by the Beijing organizers of the Olympics, five Americans unfurled banners at a base camp calling for an independent Tibet.

The five, from the Students for a Free Tibet group, were briefly held and then expelled from China.

Mount Everest’s conqueror, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, 87, did not immediately return calls seeking comment about the road.

But a local climbing official praised the plan.

“It is a good thing for the local development and the local people, because more tourists and mountain climbers will be attracted to the region,” said Zhang Mingxing, general-secretary of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association.

“The road now is a very shabby. People have to spend one day to get the base from the foot of the mountain. Mountain climbers will be able to save their energy for climbing,” Zhang said.

Officials from the Beijing organizing committee did not immediately return phone calls asking for comment.

A woman at Greenpeace’s Beijing office who gave only her surname Liang, said the environmental group could not immediately comment on the issue because it was not familiar with the plan.

Politics have also overshadowed China’s bid to have the torch go through Taiwan, with the head of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee saying the planned route was not acceptable.

New Zealand double amputee Mark Inglis, who scaled Everest last year, described the Chinese plan as “pretty ambitious,” before saying he preferred not to comment further.

He noted that a road “already goes there.”

Inglis was enmeshed in controversy after being among a group of climbers that passed English climber David Sharp as he lay dying of exposure and lack of oxygen just below the summit of Everest on May 15 last year.

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