Vital lifeline

Updated: 2014-05-28 08:08

By Hu Yongqi and Da Qiong (China Daily)

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Vital lifeline

Workers from Road Maintenance Station 109 repair a section of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway in Amdo county. [Photo by Da Qiong / China Daily ]


Vital lifeline

Health checks indicate conditions such as heart disease, high cholesterol levels, high levels of uric acid, and restricted flow of blood to the brain.


Proportion of workers with arthritis.

Vital lifeline

Vital lifeline

A monument to the 3,000 workers that died during the construction of the highways to Tibet.

She said all the workers take painkillers every morning to relieve headaches before they board the bus that takes them to work. The lack of oxygen this far above sea level can pose a threat to life, even without the extra exertion required for such backbreaking, breathless work. In summer, the prime time for road repairs, the teams work more than 10 hours a day.

The Qinghai-Tibet Highway, one of four major routes into Tibet, starts at Xining, the capital of Qinghai, and runs to Lhasa, reaching its highest point at the 5,231-meter-high Tanggula Pass. About 980 km of the road is more than 4,500 meters above sea level, and 630 km of its length is bedded on permafrost, soil that is permanently below the freezing point.

In December 1954, the Qinghai-Tibet and Sichuan-Tibet highways were officially put into service, ending Tibet's reliance on men, horses and ropes to transport goods. More than 3,000 people died during their construction.

Most of the vehicles that ply the highway are huge trucks, at least 20 meters long, loaded with gasoline, steel and concrete. To avoid environmental damage, Tibet has limited the influx of heavily polluting industries, in particular those that produce construction materials and fuels. Before the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened in 2006, the highway was the only major route connecting the autonomous region with Qinghai and other provinces in Northwest China.

"Freight transportation still relies on the road. More than 80 percent of goods still go via the highway, while people mostly take the train," said Sonam, director of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway Management Bureau, who admitted that the high altitude makes it difficult to keep the road open continuously.

Staff shortages

Climate change poses dangers

Technicians and researchers have long struggled to combat the negative effects of climate change on the permafrost soil that forms the bed of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, according to the highway authorities in the Tibet autonomous region.

"The rapid thawing of the frozen soil can lead to great instability, causing land slippage and other major problems in areas where major projects such as highways or railways run," said Wu Ziwang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Science's frozen soil engineering lab.

In the past decade, the autonomous region's Commission for Science and Technology has collaborated with a number of universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in an effort to solve the problem. Technical measures such as insulating panels and ventilated embankments have been widely used in key sections of the highway.

Wu Ziwang, a professor at the frozen soil engineering lab of the Chinese Academy of Science, said research he has conducted over three decades indicates that large stretches of permafrost are shrinking because the duration of the "winter freeze" period is becoming shorter and the subsoil is thawing at a faster rate.

According to Zhang Shenghui, director of the Road Maintenance Office of the Tibet Highways Department, there is still no effective method of offsetting the negative effects, so the maintenance workers are required to fill in embankments to bolster the roadbed.

He Yonggui, director of human resources office at the bureau, recalled that in the 1960s and '70s, the first generation of maintenance workers were only equipped with shovels and bicycle-driven carts, which carried tools and bicycle pumps so workers could repair any damage to the tires.

For a stretch of 900 kilometers, no trees are visible along the highway, and it's hard not to be amazed when one eventually encounters a show of greenery on the outskirts of Lhasa.

The inhospitable landscape has an economic effect, too; in Amdo county, yak meat costs 90 yuan ($14) per kilogram, far higher than the normal price, and the price of yak butter is twice that in Lhasa. Many workers find it impossible to make ends meet, and their employers have to build houses for them.

"The first batch of maintenance workers didn't complain about the harsh conditions. They had to take their kids with them, too, but the children didn't receive much education and found it hard to gain employment," He said.

According to Sonam, enrollment of new workers was suspended in 1993, which has led to staff shortages because many of the first-generation workers are now approaching retirement age. In the past two years, the management bureau has recruited more than 1,000 new workers, most of whom are children or grandchildren of the first generation.

At an altitude of more than 4,700 meters, Amdo is not a desirable place to work. Outsiders find the altitude sickness a nightmare and are reluctant to stay in the county seat overnight. Consequently, young people from places lower down the valley are reluctant to join the Amdo branch of the management bureau that administers Station 109.

"Last year, the management bureau recruited three university graduates for our branch. Only one arrived. The other two simply didn't report for duty," said Wang Haiwei, Party chief of the Amdo branch.

A high life, but not a pleasant one

Like Tsering Degyi, many of the maintenance workers on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway have left their children in the care of their grandparents. However, the situation is much better than it once was.

Full story

Nyima Yanggyi, who was born into road worker family, graduated from a vocational school five years ago and joined Station 109 two years ago. At the end of the working day, she and her colleagues study books about road maintenance techniques to stave off the inevitable boredom. However, Nyima Yanggyi was not downhearted.

"There are plenty of employment opportunities for young people here. This is what my family has done for many years and I'm determined to make sure the work is done well, no matter how tough things get," she said.

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Palden Nyima contributed to this story.



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