Roads over rough terrain epitomize building spirit
Since its founding over a century ago, the Communist Party of China has taken upon itself to serve the people with a spirit that includes devotion and dedication to common good. Understanding the whole spectrum of the CPC spirit provides a key to understanding how China has grown into what it is today. In this series, Shanghai Daily uses real stories to explain what comprises this ideal that unites the nation and her people in their effort to create a better world for all.
"If you want to prosper, consider building roads."
The household Chinese saying has been put to practice many times, especially by the countless engineering marvels across the country's landscape to connect its most isolated villages.
These roads, bridges and tunnels that rise above mountains and bore under rivers become lifelines and bring unprecedented opportunities to local residents.
China's current era of "infrastructure mania" has seen the proliferation of its mega projects domestically and abroad.
Such seemingly impossible missions started early on, shortly after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Among the earliest and most famous projects were two plateau-crossing roads connecting Tibet ― the Qinghai-Tibet and Sichuan-Tibet highways.
Construction started in 1950, and the two roads were officially put into service in December 1954, ending Tibet's reliance on men, horses and ropes to transport goods.
More than 110,000 people braved the high altitude and low temperature to pave the two roads that totaled 4,360 kilometers in length at a high average altitude of over 4,000 meters on the world's rooftop. More than 3,000 lost their lives when building the "sky roads" across uninhabited lands.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway begins in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, and ends at Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It consists of two routes. The length of the South Line is 2,115 kilometers and that of the North Line is 2,414 kilometers.
The Qinghai-Tibet Highway starts in Xining, capital city of Qinghai Province, and stretches 1,947 kilometers into Tibet with an average elevation of above 4,000 meters. It is one of the most popular driving routes in China despite its challenging zigzag path up into the mountains.
Before the roads were put into service, it took between six and 18 months to complete a round trip between Lhasa and Chengdu or Xining, mainly via manpower and horses. Now, it takes less than a week.
The roads have made it vastly more convenient to transport what's needed to develop the local economy.
In 1951, Tibet's GDP was only 129 million yuan (US$18 million). It has grown to over 208 billion yuan in 2021. Total retail sales of consumer goods were 74.58 billion in 2020, which grew 2,192 times that of 1959. Its per capita disposable income doubled between 2010 and 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the region welcomed over 157 million tourists, generating 212.6 billion yuan from tourism alone.
None of these accomplishments could have been achieved without the initial construction and the consistent upgrades in one of the world's most geographically sophisticated regions.
Both highways are among the most popular and dangerous roads that have amazed travelers with the appealing landscapes along the plateau.
The Qinghai-Tibet Highway is the world's longest asphalt road and reaches its high point at the 5,213-meter Tanggula Pass. About 980 kilometers of the road sits at more than 4,500 meters above sea level, while 630 kilometers are bedded on permafrost, meaning the soil is permanently below the freezing point.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is equally, if not more, breathtaking and challenging.
China's southwestern Sichuan Province, surrounded by mountains, has been notorious for its challenging transportation since ancient times. Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (AD 701-762), who spent his childhood and early youth in Sichuan, famously wrote a poem called "Melody of the Difficulty Sichuan Road."
It starts like this: "Alas, so high and dangerous! So challenging the Sichuan roads, more than going over the blue sky!"
Tibet is significantly more challenging. The Ya'an-Lhasa section, covering a total length of 2,255 kilometers, was entirely completed on a high mountain range.
In 1950, China was determined to connect the two notoriously unreachable areas, despite the high elevation and harsh geographical conditions.
Reporters from that time documented the spirit and determination of the builders to have "bent the mountains and moved the rivers."
Many heroes braved the impossible and left legendary tales that are still told and respected today. Along the roads, there are quite a few memorials to mark various heroic acts. Many drivers pay tribute by sounding their horns when they drive by the memorials.
Chinese engineers and builders today, with the same determination, are equipped with decades of experience from their predecessors and some of the most advanced technologies in the world.
Many describe China's "infrastructure mania" as unstoppable ― no mountain high or valley low can stop Chinese builders.
In Tibet alone, the two plateau roads have been consistently expanded and upgraded to reach the entire region. According to data from the autonomous region, as of this June, Tibet has constructed 120,700 kilometers of highway, almost twice that of the 65,200 kilometers at the end of 2012. Over 90,000 kilometers are in rural areas.
In October 2013, Motuo County in Tibet, once known as "a lone island on a high plateau," became the last county in China to have a highway link, thanks to the 117-kilometer Motuo Highway. Last year, a second highway that traverses the county was completed, shortening the trip from Motuo to the city of Linzhi by around eight hours.
The transportation network of highways, railways and airports has turned the isolated region into one that is well-connected in all directions.