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Roads of Change Revitalize Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/01/05; January 5, 2005.]

05 January 2005 China Daily
Zhao Zongzhi and Jia Lijun

[China Daily is an official publication of the Communist Party of China and is the official voice of the Peoplešs Republic of China]

The "Roof of the World" began to rise some 100 million years ago. For millennia the chief means of transport has been on foot, be it animal or human, in a harsh and inhospitable natural geography of rocks, ravines and valleys.

Before the 1950s, a 1-kilometre long dirt road linked the Potala Palace to Norbu Lingka, former summer residence of the Dalai Lama.

No highway in its true sense existed in the region which lies over 4,000 metres above sea level.

The first two main roads linking the area with the rest of the country were completed in 1954, said Gyaco, former director of the Communications Commission of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

These were the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways, with a total length of 4,360 kilometres, built by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army and local Tibetans.

By the end of 2003, some 41,302 kilometres of roads had been completed, said Gyaco.

But it was the first two highways which marked the transportation turning point for Tibet. They helped shorten the distance between the region and other parts of the country and became known among Tibetans as "golden bridges."

To date, the region has five national-level, 14 regional-level and six criss-cross highways, which basically satisfy the social and economic development needs of Tibet, said Song Wangui, director of the area's highways bureau.

Following the opening of the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways in 1954 the region saw its first modern factory, school, farm, power station and hospital built.

But it remains heavily dependent on materials transported from other parts of the country, said Gyaco.

Over the past 50 years, more than 20 million tons of materials were carried into Tibet along the highways helping to boost its economic development.

Outward bound trade involved farm produce and animal by-products which could now more easily be carried out of Tibet by road.

In addition to the 3,200 kilometres of asphalted roads, 32,195 kilometres of rural roads have also been built, linking some 683 townships and 5,956 villages across the region.

These have been a boon for travellers and bus companies who today serve 627 townships and 4,214 villages.

Not only do the new roads and highways allow commodities to flow, they also free the movement of both talent and information.

In the early days of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, Nagqu had only one transport team comprising six trucks. Today, however, the prefecture boasts 7,600 motor vehicles, about 3,000 of which are owned by farmers and herdsmen in northern Tibet.

Continuing improvements

Tasked with carrying upwards of 85 per cent of goods in and out of Tibet, the Qinghai-Tibet highway has been dubbed the "Lifeline of Tibet." Last August, renovation of the highway passed quality control examination.

Since it was opened to traffic in 1954, the central government has spent nearly 3 billion yuan (US$362 million) on three major overhauls.

It was asphalted in 1985, and efforts were made to free it from problems resulting from permafrost and floods.

Today, the 1,156-kilometre road extending from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa, the region's capital, has been asphalted to meet Grade 2 asphalt road standards.

"Five years ago, I spent more than two days getting from Golmud to Lhasa," said one lorry driver from Gansu Province.

"Now, it takes me only 17 hours and we can run at a speed of 90 kph."

And the past two years have seen an increase in the number of people riding bicycles or motorbikes along the road to Lhasa.

But there are still what drivers call "accident black spots" along the highways, including the notorious No 102 Danger Area often hit by landslides.

A popular tale tells of a man on his way home who reached the area on a summer day and decided to sit for a while under a tree. He dozed off and when he awoke found he and the tree had slid down dozens of metres.

All the drivers who frequent the route located nine kilometres east of the town of Tongmai in Bome County are familiar with its perils.

Snow and rain often trigger landslides and statistics show, from June 1991 to December 2000, nine people died and some 20 lorries overturned and two bulldozers were damaged.

Great efforts made after 1995 to protect the highway failed to yield good results.

Road maintenance crews spent two years repairing and reinforcing this stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet highway.

And although the problem has not been fundamentally solved, mud and rocks on the cement road can now be removed almost immediately when a landslide occurs, said Gyaco.

"We were at the threshold of hell in the past," said one Sichuan driver.

"Now we drive on smooth road and we have little fear running through the former dangerous section of the highway, even during the rainy season."

In spite of the progress made, existing roads still fail to meet local needs, said Gyaco.

More still needs to be done and a shortage of skilled highway construction workers is one of the main weaknesses.

The region had spent 270 million yuan (US$33 million) on highway maintenance by the end of last year. But more is needed. According to calculations by the region's highways bureau, to build a Grade 1 highway from Lhasa to Gonggar Airport, an investment of 1.4 billion yuan (US$169 million) is needed.

"Unlike the inland areas, we are not able to get private businesses or individuals to invest in the project. This is why we rely heavily on the State aid," said Song, the regional highways bureau chief.

From 1951 when Tibet was peacefully liberated to 1989, the central government has invested 7 billion yuan (US$846 million) on highway construction in the region.

During the 10th Five-Year Plan period (2001-05), the central government will invest a further 14 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion).

This represents one-third of total investment in capital construction in the region. The purpose is partly to link the farming and pasture areas of Tibet to the outside world, explained Gyaco.

The future for highway transportation in the region is even more ambitious.

It projects that by 2005, roadways in Tibet will extend to over 45,000 kilometres, 70-80 per cent of which will have asphalt surfaces. By 2010, the region expects to be criss-crossed by national and regional highways linked to the nationwide road network.

And by 2020, all roads will have been upgraded to satisfy regional needs, said Gyaco.

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