If You Build It, They Will Come

In its continuing efforts to develop the Himalayan region, China began constructing a rail link between Tibet and Golmud (a city in western China's remote Qinghai province) last summer, and unveiled a 37-story "tourist tower" in April in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The building, whose Chinese name translates as "pearl in snow-clad region," has a revolving restaurant on top where sightseers can take in a meal and the view. Other recently completed projects include a monument to the People's Liberation Army in front of the Potala Palace, once the home of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that 670,000 tourists visited Tibet in 2001, up 16.5 percent from the previous year. But supporters of Tibetan independence say the rush to develop is endangering indigenous culture. Critics are afraid that the controversial rail link is Beijing's attempt to dilute the ethnic Tibetan population by encouraging Han Chinese to relocate there. "Construction of more roads, airports, and the new railway line will ensure that Tibetan resources . . . go to China and Beijing," said Kalon Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the exiled government. Though the $2.5 billion path to the "rooftop of the world" is scheduled to be completed by 2007, work has been delayed by frozen ground, earthquakes, landslides, and a lack of oxygen at high altitudes. No one can say when the rail link will be finished, but one thing is certain, according to Dho Kho, owner of Shigatse Travels in Lhasa: "It will change life for everyone."

—Bonnie Tsui, with additional reporting by Ron Gluckman

Not Your Father's Auto Club

Members of the Better World Travelers Club can see the world and save it, too. The company, based in Portland, Oregon, and launched on Earth Day this April, offers the roadside assistance and travel services of traditional auto clubs, such as AAA. But Better World (866/304-7540;; $50 a year) is out to change more than just tires. It invests a minimum of $11 from each airline ticket purchased through its travel agency toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and spends 1 percent of its annual revenue on fighting fossil fuel usage and global warming. Members are encouraged to stay at the club's affiliated eco-lodge properties worldwide, and receive discounts on electric and hybrid car rentals.

Though they claim not to be anti-AAA, cofounders Todd Silberman and Mitch Rofsky want to improve the environmental record of the country's oldest auto club, which has opposed new rules for cleaner car-exhaust systems, contested EPA-required reductions of smog and soot levels, and supported the construction of new bridges and highways. Spokesman Mantill Williams denies that AAA is anti-environment, drawing attention to recently sponsored programs to reduce auto emissions, recycle used batteries, and protect scenic roadside landscapes. But Michael Replogle, transportation director for the nonprofit Environmental Defense, says that despite such recent steps, AAA has a long history of opposing green legislation—and a long way to go on this road. If Better World has its way, there won't be any detours.

—Jane Bills