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.
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.
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.