County linked at last with out­side world

Road pro­vides a life­line and lifts hopes for lo­cals, Wang Huazhong, Liu Xiangrui and Daqiong re­port in Me­dog county, Ti­bet.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Few peo­ple un­der­stand the im­por­tance of roads bet­ter than the res­i­dents of Me­dog county in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Nes­tled be­low the snow­capped peaks of the Hi­malayas and with the rag­ing Yar­lung Zangbo River run­ning through it, the county is the last in China to be con­nected to the out­side world by paved road. The Zhamog-Me­dog mo­tor­way is now fully op­er­a­tional, but only sea­son­ally.

The road starts high in the frigid moun­tains at an el­e­va­tion of more than 4,300 me­ters, be­fore drop­ping sharply to the trop­i­cal at­mos­phere of the county seat, which sits at 1,100 me­ters.

Be­fore 2010, the first 80 km sec­tion was closed in win­ter be­cause of heavy snow and fre­quent avalanches. How­ever, the sec­ond 37 km stretch was closed in sum­mer be­cause heavy rains of­ten caused land­slides. When one sec­tion was closed, goods were stored at a ware­house be­tween them.

Both sec­tions are now open at the same time for about eight months of the year.

The county did not have a post of­fice un­til 2009, or an elec­tronic ap­pli­ances store un­til 2010. An ATM, and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and tax­a­tion bu­reaus, ar­rived in 2011. There is, as yet, no bus sta­tion.

The road, con­structed against a back­drop of con­stant chal­lenges, has not only brought to an end the tra­di­tional method of car­ry­ing goods into Me­dog, by foot or on horse­back, but also, and more im­por­tantly, has brought hope to lo­cal peo­ple.

“From age 12, I used to spend eight days with my fam­ily car­ry­ing salt, oil and cloth to Me­dog from the ad­join­ing county,” said 71-year-old Sangye Dorje, a mem­ber of the Monba eth­nic group and a qual­i­fied med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner.

“Once, my com­pan­ions be­came snow-blind. I took care of them, even though I had no shoes. Look at my rot­ten feet and up­turned toe­nails. What would we have done if we hadn’t built the road?

The cen­tral and lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been try­ing to make Me­dog ac­ces­si­ble for sev­eral decades. In 2008, the State Coun­cil in­vested 950 mil­lion yuan ($139 mil­lion at the time) to up­grade the road. At the end of 2010, a tun­nel was bored through Galung La Moun­tain, mean­ing the road is now pass­able eight months of the year.

The re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the trans­port in­fra­struc­ture have also spurred the lo­cal econ­omy to the ex­tent that in 2012 Me­dog gen­er­ated GDP of 240 mil­lion yuan ($39 mil­lion), al­most three times more than in 2008.

The same year saw the county at­tract the largest vol­ume of in­ward in­vest­ment among all the coun­ties in Ny­ingchi, pay­ing 138 mil­lion yuan in taxes, a rise of 452 per­cent from 2011.

“With­out the road, ev­ery­thing is empty talk. Only when a road ex­ists, can we re­al­ize our dreams,” said Liu Gesh­eng, the for­mer Party head of Me­dog.

“Me­dog is turn­ing from an iso­lated is­land into a land of op­por­tu­nity,” he said

The ‘elu­sive lo­tus’

Me­dog, which sits on the bor­der with In­dia, means “elu­sive lo­tus” in the Ti­betan lan­guage. It is said that Pad­masamb­hava, a guru who is also known as the Sec­ond Bud­dha, prac­ticed in the county and spread the word. The su­tra Kangyur de­scribes Me­dog as “the most ex­cep­tional and bliss­ful among holy sites” and ex­plains that the county has an end­less sup­ply of food and holds the golden key to the bliss­ful land.

De­spite that praise, the lives of the lo­cal peo­ple haven’t al­ways been as rich as those de­scribed in the su­tras.

The county an­nals show that un­til 1951 Me­dog was un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Sera Monastery, about 500 km away in Lhasa, mean­ing that res­i­dents were forced to pay trib­utes, in­clud­ing food, dyed goods and an­i­mal skins, to the monastery’s deputies.

Lo­cals had to walk through the trop­i­cal forests of Beibeng vil­lage (el­e­va­tion 600 m) and pass over moun­tain peaks, such as the 4,200-m-high Dox­ong La Moun­tain, to hand over their trib­utes in the ad­join­ing county of Main­ling.

The 100-km trib­ute route, dubbed the “Mon­key Pass” by lo­cals, took 15 days to tra­verse on foot. It was no cake­walk; the bridges were sim­ple chain de­vices and footholds in the cliffs were made by driv­ing pieces of wood into crevices.

From 1962 to 1964, lo­cals and soldiers worked to ex­pand the pass into a 1-m-wide horse track, short­en­ing the jour­ney time to eight days. At the time, how­ever, few lo­cals could af­ford to own a horse.

“Ev­ery­one was in a jubilant mood and drank to cel­e­brate hav­ing such a good road,” said Sangye Dorje, who, in ad­di­tion to his med­i­cal du­ties, is also a co-author of the county an­nals.

At the end of the 1960s, a tran­sit sta­tion for goods was es­tab­lished at Paizhen town­ship in Main­ling. It was open from July to Septem­ber ev­ery cen­tral govern­ment in­vest­ment in the Me­dog-Zhamog

road in 2008 year and used ex­clu­sively by the peo­ple of Me­dog.

County spe­cial­ties, such as bam­boo hand­i­work, dried chili pep­pers and dyed goods were shipped to the sta­tion, or “swap shop” as the lo­cals called it, ready to be ex­changed for necessities such as cloth, salt and iron­ware.

“It (the sta­tion) had such a va­ri­ety of soft cloth that I’d never seen be­fore; black, blue, white and yel­low,” said Sangye Dorje.

“The peo­ple of Me­dog owned just a sin­gle set of clothes, which they wore dur­ing the day and used as bed­clothes at night. Some lo­cals worked for a month at the tai­lor’s work­shop to af­ford a set of clothes, but those who didn’t some­times wore an­i­mal skins” he ex­plained.

The low­land sec­tions of the Mon­key Pass were plagued by leeches and malaria- car­ry­ing mos­qui­toes, and the trail was con­stantly dam­aged by mud­slides and col­lapses.

Mean­while, avalanches were fre­quent on high­land sec­tions of the route, es­pe­cially on Dox­ong La Moun­tain. It’s one of a num­ber of peaks on the pass that the lo­cals say are made up of the piled bones of the thou­sands who have died at­tempt­ing to cross them.

“My fa­ther was an op­ti­mist. He thought that be­cause the horse pass was there, life had al­ready im­proved greatly,” said Sangye Dorje.

No longer iso­lated

Start­ing in 1975, con­struc­tion teams and soldiers be­gan build­ing a fron­tier de­fense road to link Zhamog town­ship in Bomi county with Me­dog. The road was the pre­cur­sor of the Zhamog-Me­dog mo­tor­way, but when it had ex­tended 108 km from Zhamog, the pro­ject was ter­mi­nated in 1981 af­ter the cen­tral govern­ment or­dered Han of­fi­cials to be trans­ferred from Ti­bet.

Ac­cord­ing to Li Wei, head of the Me­dog traf­fic bureau, the build­ing of the Zhamog- Me­dog mo­tor­way re­turned to the govern­ment agenda in 1988 as part of China’s re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy.

Fi­nally, in 1993, the first ve­hi­cle, a Chi­nese- made truck, drove into Me­dog, in­di­cat­ing that the “elu­sive lo­tus” was no longer iso­lated. Cu­ri­ously, the truck never left and was aban­doned at the north­east­ern cor­ner of the county’s Lo­tus Square.

The ar­rival of the truck was a one­off event, though, and in the decade that fol­lowed no other ve­hi­cles made their way into Me­dog be­cause ex­treme weather con­di­tions and ge­o­log­i­cal haz­ards made the road im­pass­able, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal of­fi­cials.

Al­though State and lo­cal gov­ern­ments al­lo­cated funds to re­pair the road and the lo­cals par­tic­i­pated in the work, the area’s un­sta­ble ge­ol­ogy caused end­less prob­lems.

“Ex­perts from the Min­istry of Trans­port, who con­ducted a sur­vey on the road in re­cent years, dis­cov­ered a com­plex web of ge­o­log­i­cal prob­lems, in­clud­ing un­sta­ble moun­tains, mud and land­slides and col­lapses,” said Li.

“The re­gion has very rich wa­ters and gets lots of pre­cip­i­ta­tion, which also causes in­sta­bil­ity.”

Lo­cals con­tin­ued ship­ping their goods and the road has been pass­able, if only sea­son­ally, since 2000 when a tran­sit sta­tion, named 80K af­ter its lo­ca­tion 80 km from Zhamog town­ship, was es­tab­lished and put into op­er­a­tion.

The sta­tion di­vides the road into two parts. The first sec­tion from Zhamog to 80K is only pass­able from July to Septem­ber when the heavy snows are ei­ther melt­ing or just be­gin­ning to fall.

The sec­ond sec­tion, from 80K to Me­dog, is closed to traf­fic from April to Novem­ber, a pe­riod of heavy rains when land­slides, mud­slides and col­lapses fre­quently oc­cur. Th­ese nat­u­ral re­stric­tions mean that goods must be stored at 80K dur­ing the sum­mer, await­ing ship­ment to Me­dog from Novem­ber to March.

The sit­u­a­tion had not changed by 2008, when the State Coun­cil in­vested 950 mil­lion yuan to up­grade the road and bored the Galung La Tun­nel.

Now, said Li, the road has made his­tory by be­ing open for more than a year (from April 2012 un­til now).

“I have to ad­mit that con­di­tions played a large part in the suc­cess, which de­pended on one hand on the hard work and de­ter­mi­na­tion of the lo­cal peo­ple and on the oth­ers on fa­vor­able weather,” said Li.

The road has re­ceived an­nual main­te­nance sub­si­dies of 3.6 mil­lion yuan from the govern­ment of the au­ton­o­mous re­gion since 2007.

Flow­er­ing lo­tus

Like many other farm­ers in the area, Tsering Ten­zin, 61, used to grow radishes, wax gourds, pump­kin, egg­plants and red pep­pers. Th­ese were the only veg­eta­bles he cul­ti­vated un­til the open­ing of the Galung La Tun­nel road changed his habits.

“It rains a lot here. Veg­etable roots rot eas­ily af­ter soak­ing in the ex­ces­sive wa­ter. Leaves are quickly con­sumed by bugs, too,” he said. “We can coax all kinds of taste and fla­vors out of a very limited range of veg­eta­bles. When­ever the road was blocked, very few peo­ple could af­ford the veg­eta­bles that were shipped in on horse­back.”

The el­derly farmer re­called the year 2000, when a land­slide blocked the Yar­lung Zangbo River, rais­ing the wa­ter level by 30 m and de­stroy­ing all the small bridges and paths.

In the fol­low­ing months, lo­cal busi­ness­men or­ga­nized porters to carry cab­bages from the ad­join­ing county, where they fetched about 1.6 yuan per kg, to sell in Me­dog at 26 yuan.

“Toma­toes cost 50 yuan per kg, which sounds unimag­in­able in in­land China, but the price was rea­son­able at such a time and in such a place,” said Tsering Ten­zin.

The of­fi­cial records show that the lo­cal farm­ers and herds­men made an aver­age an­nual in­come of 2,623 yuan in 2008.

Even in the 1990s and early 2000s, peo­ple rushed to buy veg­eta­bles as quickly as they could and the sup­ply of pork was even lower than in pre­vi­ous times of dif­fi­culty, ac­cord­ing to butcher Zhang Zhi­jing, who moved to the county from Sichuan in 1988.

“You had to pre-or­der pork. When it ar­rived at the only mar­ket in the county, you had to quickly slice it your­self and pay later. Oth­er­wise, the

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