Lhasa, Tibet – Beijing’s plan to pacify this restive Himalayan province involves a $3.2-billion railroad that will connect the rest of China to the frozen Tibetan plateau known as the roof of the world. Many in Lhasa worry that the line China is building will transform their culture and bring more inequality to an impoverished region.

The railroad, billed as the world’s highest and due to be completed in 2007, represents the linchpin of China’s ambitious “Go West” campaign to develop and repopulate its impoverished hinterland.

But Tibetans opposed to Chinese control say the railroad’s construction – which began last year – has so far confirmed their worst fears: The train, although it may usher in rapid progress, also may transform their nomadic culture and and increase inequality in their land.

“We went to inquire about railroad jobs but they said it’s all been taken,” said Tenzin, a 22-year-old Tibetan farmer from Gansu, formerly part of Tibet, but now a Chinese province. “We’ve been here four months and we can’t find anything. We’re willing to be waiters, security guards, tour guides, anything. But no one wants us.”

The Chinese seem to have an extra edge. That’s because education and the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese are the basic criteria for most jobs.

Tibetans have fought for preservation of their culture since China annexed their homeland in 1951. International attention has been drawn to their independence movement by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader driven from here in 1959 when the Chinese crushed a failed uprising.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly spoken out against what he calls a cultural genocide by Chinese occupiers in Tibet. Beijing considers the Nobel laureate a separatist bent on breaking up the nation. Chinese authorities have banned his portrait here. But many Tibetans secretly display his image in their homes and pray to him in their hearts.

Beijing has tried to squelch the Tibetan independence movement by pumping in cash. It poured as much as $1.6 billion into the Tibetan economy last year alone, which officials say represented the largest investment in any province.

“Tibet’s stability is China’s stability. Tibet’s development is China’s development,” said Xiangba Pingcuo, Tibet’s governor. “We cannot allow Tibet to split from China. Nor can we allow it to remain backwards.”

Beijing says the railroad is the economic salvation that Tibet needs.

“Tibet is the only province without a rail link. The people of Tibet want development. The railroad is the hope of everybody here,” said Tajie, the deputy mayor of Lhasa.

The Chinese who live here feel they would be the main beneficiaries.

“They’re probably building the railroad for us,” said Chen Yajun, 32, a taxi driver from central China’s Sichuan province. “It’ll be easier and cheaper to go home.”

Some of the train’s first passengers probably will be its Chinese construction workers. Of the 38,000 hired for the job, only 6,000 were Tibetans. The rest were trucked in from inland provinces. Semi-skilled employees make as much as 11 times more money than manual laborers.

None of the 2,700 workers who operate heavy equipment or hold supervisory jobs is Tibetan, said Huang Difu, an official in charge of the project.

“For the Chinese great leap west, they need skilled personnel,” said Kate Saunders, a Tibet specialist based in London. “Tibetans don’t have the vocational training to compete. So they bring in Chinese from the outside. It’s an important indication of the way the Chinese are carrying out development.”

Among the biggest losers of this lopsided gold rush are Tibetans hoping for a share of the riches transforming their city.

“I feel sad for Tibet,” said Jonu, a 19-year-old Tibetan who came to pray at the Johkang temple. “So many Chinese are coming.”

Lhasa already has the look and feel of a Chinese city, with Chinese-style buildings and Chinese billboards proliferating across town. More than half the 200,000 residents here are believed to be Chinese. Even the main boulevard in front of the Dalai Lama’s holy Potala Palace is named Beijing Road.

Most of the people flocking to the palace are Chinese tourists. Officials hope the new train will bring more of them to boost the local economy.

Even Chinese tourists, who come here expecting to see exotic Tibetan faces and snowcapped mountains, shake their heads in disbelief when they see the new Lhasa.

“The tour guide told us about 80″ of the people living here now are Chinese and most of them are from Sichuan,” said Liu Fuyou, 50, a tourist from the coastal city of Tianjin who was wearing a straw cowboy hat. “This is no longer Lhasa city, Tibet province. This is Lhasa city, Sichuan province!”

Many Chinese settlers say they relish the economic opportunities provided by the railroad and other development. Lhasa, they say, is chock-full of jobs – unlike their inland provinces.

“We’ve been here four years. I shine shoes and my husband fixes bicycles,” Guo Xinchun, 38, a mother of two from Sichuan, said as she scrubbed leather on the side of the massive square in front of the Potala Palace. “If we don’t work, how do we eat?”

“Last year alone, some 3,000 pieces of bulldozers and other large construction equipment were bought. We sold about 200 of them,” said Long Tianhong, a 24-year-old former factory worker from impoverished Guizhou province in south-central China. “There’s definitely a huge market here and there’s money to be made.”

As the Chinese thrive, the Tibetans seem to founder. At the Lhasa night market, all but one of the vendors are Chinese.

“Four years ago about 30″ of us were Tibetan. Now we are the only one left,” said Ciren Zhuoma, 37, sitting in front of her shop. Her voice is barely audible above the piercing sound of live Chinese opera from a makeshift theater nearby.