A driver with more than 10 years of experience, Tashi, 26, has traveled to all of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s prefectures and witnessed dramatic changes in the region’s transportation.
“Two years ago, it would take six or seven days to drive from Ngari in western Tibet to Lhasa. Now the journey only takes 24 hours after the State highway 219 was turned into an asphalt road at the end of last year,” said Tashi, who lives in Ngari’s Gar country, around 1,600 kilometers from Lhasa.
Tashi remembers the hardship of long-distance driving on bumpy gravel roads.
“We have a joke in Ngari saying even the eagles wouldn’t like to eat the drivers’ callused buttocks,” he said.
Bad roads posed a huge challenge to drivers.
“Two spare tires were essential. However, tires won’t save you if you are stranded, so we had to take enough zanba (roasted highland barley flour) and water,” Tashi told the Global Times.
Tashi himself spent 11 days stranded on a road in Ngari’s Gerze county when he was 17 years old. To survive he had to drink the water in the car’s radiator.
“Most Tibetans didn’t have mobile phones at that time and my brother reached me only after a driver passing by sent my message to him,” Tashi said.
The mileage of highways open to traffic in Tibet reached 58,249 kilometers by the end of 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) period, with asphalt roads accounting for 8,194 kilometers. Now 99.7 percent of townships and 81.2 percent of villages are accessible by road.
Meanwhile, the number of vehicles owned by residents in Tibet increased from 143,900 in 2006 to nearly 200,000 in 2009, with per capita car ownership the third highest in the country, according to the local statistics bureau.
Better roads, more money
Convenient transportation means the beauty of Tibet’s remoter regions is now accessible to more tourists.
“With the renovation of State highway 219 finished and Gunsa Airport in Ngari in operation, income from tourism hit 4 million yuan ($619,000) last year,” said Jigme Wangchuk, director of the tourism bureau in Tsada, a county in Ngari famous for the ruins of the Guge Kingdom and the vast Clay Forests. “Industries related to tourism contributed to more than 30 percent of the county’s GDP.”
With more tourists pouring in, many local residents, who used to be engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, opened family hotels.
“Business is especially good during April to July, with many tourists from abroad,” said Nujue, who started a Tibetan-style family hotel in 2005 in Zhaburang village, which is at the foot of the Guge Kingdom ruins. There were 20 similar hotels in the village, he added.
Local authorities are also planning a 200-kilometer road to the source of the Yarlung Zangbo River, further boosting tourism.
Some Tibetans directly benefit from the new roads. Lungtok Gyatso, a 23-year-old driver from Suomai village in Ngari, bought a second-hand truck with 90,000 yuan in 2007.
By transporting materials to construction sites of Gunsa Airport and State highway 219, Lungtok earned 200,000 yuan in four years and bought another truck last year, spending 170,000 yuan.
Hefty investment has also poured into building airports and railways. Xigaze Peace Airport, 48 kilometers from Xigaze city, will officially open to civilian flights in July. It is the fifth civilian airport in Tibet, following the four built in Lhasa, Nyingchi, Qamdo and Ngari. Built at an altitude of 3,783 meters above sea level, it is also the fifth-highest airport in China.
An extension of the Tibet-Qinghai railway from Lhasa to Xigaze is expected to open in 2013. “Transportation costs will be greatly lowered, bringing a real revolution to Xigaze,” said Wangdui, deputy commissioner of the Xigaze Prefecture Administrative Office.
Not easy work
However, the high altitude, low temperatures and shortage of oxygen in the air made infrastructure work in Tibet very different from similar work under normal conditions.
Zheng Jingguo, 33, from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, was among 40 workers building a four kilometer section of the Par-Tsada Highway on Long Gala mountain, more than 4,600 meters above the sea level.
Work can only take place from May to September as the frozen earth is too hard to dig during the rest of the year, Zheng said.
“We work from 7 am to 9 pm to make as much use of the time as possible. Up to eight people slept in one tent covered by three quilts due to the low temperatures at night,” he said.
Construction work on the 134-kilometer highway is expected to finish in August, three years after it started. Such a road would only take one year under normal working conditions, according to Zheng.
Economic development in some Tibetan regions is still constrained by poor roads.
Three counties in eastern Ngari can only be reached by gravel roads and Medog county in Nyingchi prefecture will only be open to traffic from next year, the last county in China to become accessible by highway.
“The annual personal income was around 1,000 yuan in regions where transportation was poor, much lower than the 6,000 yuan in regions with good roads,” said Dawa Tashi, commissioner of Ngari Prefecture Administrative Office.