On the road to progress

Medog in Tibet has transformed itself in just a decade from sleepy, cut-off county to a prosperous and environmentally aware tourist destination. Cheng Weidong reports.

The first time I visited Medog, a remote county on the southern slope of the Himalayas, in Tibet autonomous region, the only mode of transport was horses and human porters. That was in 1999.

The county, whose name means “lotus” in Tibetan, was cut off from the outside world by difficult terrain, a volatile climate, frequent landslides, floods, mudslides and avalanches.

At the end of 2010, I returned and the changes were dramatic.

Medog covers an area of 30,550 sq km. The Yarlung Zangbo river runs through it before flowing into India. Its population of 11,000 is made up of the Monba and Lhoba ethnic groups. To adventurers, it has long been regarded as one of the most challenging destinations to get to, as access was by foot and involved climbing Galongla Mountain.

When I visited Medog in 1999, I wrote in my notebook the Monba people living here had a primitive lifestyle.

A short, bumpy section of the old Medog highway was accessible by car two months of the year by experienced local drivers, but otherwise it was just horses and human porters transporting life’s necessities.

On Dec 15, 2010, a two-year effort bore fruit when the Galongla Tunnel, the most challenging part of the Medog highway project, was completed. This will make it possible for a modern highway to connect with the county by 2012.

On my second visit there, we drove through the newly built tunnel. When our car drove slowly onto Medog’s county road, which had a concrete surface, it was as if we were driving on smooth glass. Then someone pointed out a town on the mountain slope and said: “Here we are; it’s Medog.”

I could hardly recognize it. It was quite a different place from the small village in my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the newly completed “Good Life Lotus Square”. Engraved on its monument are the words: “Medog is surrounded by mountains and its shape resembles that of a lotus.” In Buddhism, the lotus is a symbol of auspiciousness.

Though the only consumer products from this area are stone pots and ebony chopsticks, it has abundant natural resources.

As we drove slowly through the town, I saw a hospital, police station, shops, restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, clothing stores, hair salons, guest houses and farmers’ market.

We stopped at a new building, the Lotus Hotel of Medog, where we would stay during our visit.

On first night in the new Medog, we dined at a restaurant called Guests Bring Prosperity. The owner came to Medog from Sichuan province in 2003.

“It is good here,” she said. “Medog has changed so much. Many things are less expensive now. You can buy instant noodles or a bottle of purified water for just 5 yuan (77 US cents),” the woman surnamed Xia told me.

It drizzled all night long, bringing back memories of my stay 11 years ago.

Back then, during Medog’s rainy season, there was mud everywhere. The most impressive building was an auditorium constructed of reinforced concrete.

A businessman from Sichuan owned the largest store in town but goods were limited and prices were high. A chicken sold for as much as 100 yuan ($15.50), and a carton of cigarettes cost 600 yuan. The reason prices were so high was that all goods had to be transported by porters.

Now, there are more than 200 businesses in town and about 400 cars. There are two ring roads and a third one is being built.

The next morning, when I woke up around 6 am, it was still drizzling. I went to a vantage point nearby to take some panoramic photos.

The rain stopped. Medog was shrouded in mist. The surrounding rice paddies looked golden and the houses shimmered against the backdrop of the mountains. The view was breathtaking.

Then, I went to Medog Village, a Lhoba village of 89 households, to take more photos. The houses in the village are made of wood, and the 600 villagers still follow a traditional way of life. Even so, there are some 70 cars in the village and many villagers are involved in the transport business.

Qunzeng invited me into his house. He has three kids. His entire extended family has around 80 members. Qunzeng said the Lhoba people used to live by hunting and they fell trees to build houses and cook.

In order to protect the environment, the regional government compensates each Lhoba villager 5,000-6,000 yuan a year to switch to a more modern lifestyle and not hunt or fell trees. Thus a big family can get as much as 70,000 yuan a year.

When I stepped into Qunzeng’s house, his aunt was sitting in the yard dressed in traditional Lhoba clothes to welcome me. Then, Qunzeng’s brothers and his nephews and nieces stopped by. Seeing these three generations talking and hugging was a poignant snapshot of the life and times of Medog.

Source: China Daily

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