Progressing with Tibet for 20 Years

Participating in the construction of Tibet provided a first-hand look at its development

I have been living in Tibet for nearly 20 years. I developed a passion for culture and arts while growing up in Xuanwei City, Yunnan Province. In response to the central government’s Western Development Strategy, I jumped at the chance to work as an editor for Tibet Daily and seize my dream of “writing while travelling” after graduating from college, and several classmates joined me.

Since 2001, I have travelled almost everywhere in Tibet, including Lhasa, Xigaze, Qamdo, Nyingchi Prefecture, Shannan Prefecture, Nagqu Prefecture, and Ngari Prefecture. 

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet. I feel proud to have participated in and witnessed the rapid development of Tibet over the last 20 years.

National Support for Tibet

“Poetry is not easy,” I thought while conducting interviews in Biejin Village, Qiumu Township, Namling County in 2012, a memory which remains fresh. I was covering a regional campaign themed “consolidating foundation for people’s livelihood.” To reach Xigaze from Lhasa, we took a car snaking through the bare mountains of the plateau. Days later, we reached Biejin Village in Qiumu Township and its welcoming meadow.

After entering the village, I saw that a large section of a simple road had been washed away by flooding from the mountain. Many potholes plagued the undulating sand surface. The car was thrown up and down as the ground rose and fell. Despite the appearance of roads, there didn’t seem to be any anywhere. I heard from local villagers that getting in and out of the town becomes particularly difficult during the rainy season. However, several thin lines were winding through the village, creating a sublime plateau beauty. Traveling to such breathtaking natural beauty took great effort because of a lack of access. Although I have not visited the village since, colleagues informed me that it now has paved roads.

When I recall such small villages, I feel the changes and progress fostered by Tibet’s vigorous promotion of infrastructure construction. The Chengdu-Lhasa Highway is an important land passage connecting Tibet to inland regions. The 20-kilometer Tongmai section, recognized as the most dangerous section of the highway, used to be nicknamed “Tongmai natural danger.” Because of abundant rainfall and loose mountain soil, various geological disasters occur frequently. Across a year, I witnessed its shifts from a “natural danger” to an easy way.

In 2015, I went to Markam County in Qamdo to work in a village that could only be accessed by passing through the Tongmai section. The road offered only one lane despite two-way traffic, so vehicles often had to wait in a long queue to pass. That day, our wait to get through the Tongmai section was as long as seven hours. Today, the Tongmai section is an easy route involving modern bridges and tunnels, so passing through it takes only10 minutes.

Most of the roads around my office were still gravel roads when I began to work in 2001. Over the past 20 years, they have been paved with asphalt and expanded while gaining greenery. Lhasa City now offers smooth roads extending in all directions. The eastern suburbs of Lhasa, which have been vigorously developed in recent years, are home to some of the widest roads and most modern and complete facilities.

In his government work report delivered at the fourth session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region in January 2021, Qizhala, chairman of the regional government, stated that Tibet now has 117,000 kilometers of paved roads in the countryside and in cities. By the end of 2019, a total of 93 townships and 3,157 incorporated villages in 74 counties and districts in Tibet had gained access to asphalt or concrete roads, which facilitated people’s mobility.

High-grade highway to Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. (PURBU ZHAXI)

Each of these changes and achievements can somehow be attributed to care from the central government and support from across the country. Statistics show that during the Tenth Five-Year Plan period (2001-2005), the central government’s accumulative subsidies to Tibet accounted for more than 92 percent of Tibet’s total fiscal expenditure.

At the seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stressed long-term commitment to the CPC Central Committee’s policy to ensure Tibet’s support from central authorities and assistance from the whole country. He also suggested more efforts be made in inspiring new methods of working to aid Tibet. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020) d, the central government planned to implement 197 projects in Tibet with a total investment of 380.7 billion yuan (US$59.6 billion), including 267.4 billion yuan (US$41.9 billion) from the central government. As of the end of October 2020, the central government had invested 313.6 billion yuan (US$49.1 billion) in Tibet during the 13th Five-Year Plan period, which is 17.3 percent above what was budged. Indeed, Chinese people from across the country worked together to pave a poetically smooth path for the progress of the Tibet Autonomous Region.  

Convenient Transportation

To reach Tibet from elsewhere in China, you can take the Qinghai-Tibet Highway or the Chengdu-Lhasa Highway. But access is also afforded by the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the only train service to Tibet. Of course, many airlines now offer flights to and from major cities in Tibet including Lhasa, Qamdo, and Nyingchi. 

But back in 2001, the only options to get in or out of Lhasa were by plane or road. The road trip was pretty long, so I had to fly by plane. There was only one flight per day. My monthly salary barely covered the ticket price of more than 1,200 yuan (US$188). After getting stunned by the steep price of plane tickets, I was struck that Lhasa was still using dial-up when Sichuan and other neighboring provinces were already using broadband. I had to go to a small internet cafe near my office that had four computers dialing up to the internet and pay 15 yuan (US$2.3) per hour.

On July 1, 2020, ground staff of Ngari Kunsha Airport in Tibet presents hada (traditional silk scarves) and flowers to the arriving crew of Tibet Airlines TV6008 as the airport celebrated the 10th anniversary of its air service. Over the past 10 years, Kunsha Airport had facilitated a total of 7,169 take-offs and landings, transporting 491,367 passengers and 365 tons of goods. (LI ZHENYU)

At that time, in terms of logistics, the only realistic way in and out of Tibet were highways. In 2001, most parcels sent from the inland took up to 15 days to reach Lhasa.

The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on July 1, 2006 was a sensational event for us. We had followed its trial operation closely. When it officially opened to traffic, Tibet Daily published a special issue and a special online series to cover everything related to the railway. The excitement was palpable. We closely studied pictures sent from photojournalists and carefully examined the content of reporting. Exclamations were thrown around the pressroom all the time. We were covering the news, but we were dreaming about the future. The dramatically less expensive and improved access for passenger and parcel transportation in and out of Tibet created powerful wings for Tibet to soar.

From the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, major extensions include the Lhasa-Xigaze Railway and the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway will eventually become an important leg of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, a project of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025). The success of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway paved a future for the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and the breakthroughs it made in overcoming problems such as frozen plateau soil laid a solid foundation for easier construction of Sichuan-Tibet Railway.

The development of e-commerce has motivated people in Tibet to shop online. Earlier online shopping frequently stipulated “free shipping” except to Tibet. Generally, you had to pay a lot more for shipping than anywhere else and wait much longer. When buying a single small item, postage would always cost more than the item itself. Nowadays, nearly every large e-commerce platform and most businesses offer free shipping to Tibet.

Some do still charge more to ship orders to more remote places in Tibet. But progress has been made by some domestic e-commerce platforms opening local warehouses in Lhasa, Nyingchi, and other places. People in Lhasa can now get their goods delivered the next day for free.

I am convinced that eventually everyone in Tibet will get “free shipping” as their lives continue to improve.

Modern Lhasa

Each April and May, Lhasa gets greener, and the surrounding mountains present a picture of vitality. The high peaks of snow-capped mountains in the distance are visible from almost everywhere. Below them are gorgeous peach blossoms surrounded by green willows.

Back in 2001, many of the structures in Lhasa were one-story buildings with tin roofs, including offices and residences. Very few modern buildings could be found in the city, and something more than five stories was a major landmark. Even Qamdo, a “pearl in eastern Tibet,” looked more urban than Lhasa. In other parts of Tibet, such as Nyingchi, Ngari, and Nagqu prefectures, urban areas were even smaller.

Local residents shop in a supermarket in Lhasa. (HE PENGLEI)

After years of rapid development, old urban districts of Lhasa put a stop to building tall structures for the sake of cultural heritage protection, but not so in Liuwu New Area, the economic development zone, and the eastern suburbs of Lhasa, where modern skylines already set off the deep blue skies. Commercial plazas are scattered in various commercial districts of the city. Lhasa’s Zongjiao Lukang Park features waterside pavilions, facing the picturesque Nanshan Park to the south and the Lalu Wetlands, known for dancing cranes, to the north.

Lhasa now has a comprehensive modern transport system featuring bypass roads in the north and south, an expressway that leads to Nyingchi in the east, and an expressway to Lhasa Gonggar Airport and Shannan in the west. A “one-hour economic circle” between Lhasa and Shannan is taking shape.

My friends and I spent our 2021 Chinese New Year in Lhasa. We set out to have dinner to celebrate the holiday. Unfortunately, most restaurants and even shops were closed, and only a few small vendors remained open. We ended up buying a bottle of Chinese liquor and a bag of peanuts each and drinking it on the side of the road with hardly a car passing by.

However, after 20 years of development, traffic can congest the streets in Lhasa. Even during Chinese New Year holiday, the city remains bustling with people and cars.

Summer is about to break out across Lhasa. As I continue to write about these unforgettable people and things, I am moved to ponder whether the ice on the banks of the rivers and lakes in Ngari and Xigaze has melted yet. The dry and yellow grasslands on the plateau where the wind and sand are gradually receding are likely also starting to turn green, and I envision rivers turning black due to the migration of thick schools of big fish.

The year 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibetand the 62nd anniversary of the democratic reform that abolished serfdom in Tibet. I have heard many serf-to-Ph.D. stories as well as former serfs becoming high-ranking Party and government officials. I have personally met many of the people and events covered by media. Their experience testifies to Tibet’s burgeoning prosperity. I have participated in the construction of Tibet and witnessed its development. We should never underestimate her energy and potential!

(The author is an associate senior editor with Tibet Daily and deputy editor-in-chief of chinatibetnews.com.)

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