One rocky road

As one of the high­est mo­torable roads in the world, China Na­tional High­way 219, which links Xin­jiang and Ti­bet, is not for the faint of heart.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHINA DAILY Mao Weihua in Urumqi and Xinhua con­trib­uted to the story.

Long, ar­du­ous and prone to avalanches, land­slides and frozen earth.

As one of the high­est mo­torable roads in the world, China Na­tional High­way 219, which links the Xin­jiang Uygur and Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gions, is not for the faint­hearted.

The harsh ter­rain, bar­ren land­scapes and high al­ti­tude all pose their own chal­lenges, yet for the mem­bers of the Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice trans­port unit, these dan­gers must be over­come.

The unit has been tasked with main­tain­ing the 2,340-km long high­way since 2002, and in that time the road has changed from a rough gravel track to a fully paved high­way.

On Sept 28, the unit em­barked on its lat­est main­te­nance cam­paign, amid ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture that pose a con­stant threat to the road con­di­tions.

“The sharp changes in tem­per­a­ture make the roadbed vul­ner­a­ble, and we have had to re­fill it with more earth to stop it sink­ing,” said Feng Rui, 23, one of the unit’s mem­bers.

Ditches that run along ei­ther side of the road also need main­tain­ing, to pre­vent them be­com­ing filled with de­tri­tus.

All the while, the po­lice have to bat­tle fa­tigue and al­ti­tude sick­ness due to the low lev­els of oxy­gen in the air, 4,000 me­ters or more above sea level.

“But ev­ery­body per­sists, and I also man­aged to stick to my post un­til I fi­nally be­came ac­cli­ma­tized,” Feng said, re­call­ing his first days in Ru­tog county in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion, where his unit is reg­u­larly posted.

When I first came here, the road was barely a road and there was con­stant grid­lock. Now the whole of it can be open 24 hours a day.” Feng Rui, Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice trans­port unit

“There were land­slides when we were re­pair­ing the roads, and the rocks just fell like rain­drops. Then there were hail­stones, which could be fa­tal if they hit you.”

De­spite the chal­lenges, the job also brings with it an im­mense sense of achieve­ment for Feng.

“When I first came here, the road was barely a road and there was con­stant grid­lock. Now the whole of it can be open 24 hours a day. That makes me very proud,” he said.

Thanks to the unit’s ef­forts, the travel time be­tween Yecheng county in south­ern Xin­jiang and Ngari pre­fec­ture in Ti­bet has been slashed to just one day from the 15 days it took pre­vi­ously, with an­other day to reach the cap­i­tal Lhasa. Road ac­ci­dents and fa­tal­i­ties have also de­creased sharply.

The speed limit on the road has been in­creased to 100 km per hour, and four times the amount of traf­fic now passes along it as when the unit started its work 14 years ago.

Feng said he was par­tic­u­larly proud of the fact that his unit has en­sured the safety of a large num­ber of mo­torists and pas­sen­gers who have run into dif­fi­cul­ties over the years.

“In one case we were able to res­cue a full bus of pas­sen­gers who were trapped in the moun­tains af­ter they lost the road. See­ing the re­lief in their eyes made me so happy,” he said.

How­ever, all these im­prove­ments have not made life any eas­ier for the po­lice of­fi­cers tasked with main­tain­ing the road.

The low tem­per­a­tures cause hot food to be­come cold mush within two min­utes, and care has to be taken so their drink­ing wa­ter doesn’t turn to ice. Hy­pother­mia is an­other dan­ger, and there have been cases of of­fi­cers be­com­ing so sick that they had to be trans­ferred to a clinic.

“But af­ter work­ing here for long enough, you start to love the place,” Feng said. “Maybe this is what I al­ways wanted to be.”

Tuo Jide, a re­tired armed trans­port po­lice driver, has run a restau­rant in Xi­hexiu vil­lage, near the high­way, for 17 years. Busi­ness has blos­somed since the road was im­proved.

“Decades ago, the pot­holes were deep enough for a yak to hide in,” Tuo said. “Driv­ers did not dare to hit the road with­out plenty of food and gas in their cars. Ve­hi­cles crashed and broke down all the time along the way.”

With a safe, mod­ern high­way, trans­porta­tion costs from Yecheng to Ngari have fallen by 55 per­cent, lead­ing to cuts of about 40 per­cent in the price of com­modi­ties in the Ti­betan town. Bet­ter yet, the num­ber of tourists in Ngari has surged five­fold.

“The high­way to­day looks to me like an air­port run­way — wide, flat and smooth,” Tuo said.

PHOTOS BY WANGYANG JINGNAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

1. Mem­bers of the unit clean a ditch run­ning along the road. 2. An of­fi­cer re­paints the hard shoul­der of the high­way. 3. A mem­ber of the unit digs with a spade. 4. & 7. The main­te­nance work has been com­pleted on an el­e­va­tion over 4,000 me­ters above sea level. 5. A medic checks an of­fi­cer’s blood pres­sure dur­ing the cam­paign. 6. A mem­ber of the Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice drives a road roller dur­ing the cam­paign. 7. The main­te­nance work has been com­pleted on an el­e­va­tion over 4,000 me­ters above sea level. 8. A mem­ber of the Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice trans­port unit works on a main­te­nance cam­paign on the sec­tion of China Na­tional High­way 219 that links the Xin­jiang Uygur and Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gions.

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