China plans highway on Mount Everest

China is going to build a highway on the side of Mount Everest to pave the way for the Olympic torch's journey to the peak of the world's tallest mountain.

Xinhua News Agency said construction of the road, budgeted at 150 million yuan (US$19.7 million; EUR14.7 million) would turn a 108-kilometer (67-mile) rough path from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) "into a blacktop highway fenced by undulating guardrails."

Mount Everest is 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) tall.

Xinhua said construction of the road would start next week and would take about four months to complete. The new highway will 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 of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics announced ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history - a 137,000-kilometer (85,000-mile), 130-day route that will cross five continents and scale Mount 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.

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 to the base from the foot of the mountain. Mountain climbers will be able to save their energy for climbing," Zhang said.

New Zealand double amputee Mark Inglis, who scaled Everest last year, described the Chinese plan as "pretty ambitious really," before saying he preferred not to comment further as "there are so many issues."

He noted "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.

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.