As a convoy of Chinese Truckers makes their skyward journey past lonely desolate villages where public transport is almost non-existent and truckers fined heavily for carrying foreign hitchhikers, one can not help but wonder how such laws are enacted and implemented along one of the world’s most dangerous highway. This is the Sichuan-Tibet highway, where danger lies at every turn along the road.
Considered as one of the world’s most deadly highways, the Sichuan-Tibet highway covers a stretch of over 2,415 kilometers connecting the Chinese town of Chengdu in the Sichuan region in the east to the town of Lhasa in Tibet in the west. It traverses a number of rivers rising up 14 mountains with altitudes of between 4,000 and 5,000 meters. One of the most dangerous sections along this highway is the Trola Mountain. Chinese Truckers equate crossing the Trola Mountain snow covered surface during winter to driving through hell. The sight of wrecked vehicles scattered along the highway are a common scene. In 2011, a bus was reported to have veered off the road and plunged into a deep ravine killing 16 passengers.
The highway was originally known as Kangding-Tibet Highway. It is in fact part of the No. 318 National Highway. Close to half of the highway’s stretch, over 1,300 kilometers, lies in the Tibet region. This section was open to Lhasa way back in December 1954 but has seen little development until recently. The Sichuan section has seen a number of construction efforts. For instance, it was under construction between 1954 and 1969 which opened up a south line stretching 1,285 kilometers into Tibet.
Magnificent Scenery And Economic Growth Amid Danger The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is a Trucker’s nightmare, but a tourists’ paradise. It traverses 14 high altitude mountains, a dozen rivers, lakes and awe inspiring valleys, primeval forests, and of course dangerous hairpin curves. There are fine views along the highway combined with unique Tibetan culture, food, and practices. The highway has been of great benefit to the economic development of Tibet. It has also contributed greatly to the region’s social stability and consolidated the East Tibet region into a more economically viable region. The highway links Tibet to other Chinese southwestern provinces opening up trade and economic transaction between previously alienated regions due to historical and political restrictions. The highway is of such great importance that the state has in recent times invested massive resources and capital in reconstruction and maintenance of the key sections of the road.
Currently, over 612 kilometers of the highway section between Nyingchi and Lhasa have been paved with bitumen. There is less traffic congestion along this section with improved driving conditions. The north line of the highway which connects the northwest of the town of Ganzi in the Qinhai Province, Tibet to the Sichuan province has also seen significant improvement in recent times.
The Sichuan-Tibet highway snakes over great rivers such as Dadu, Jinsha, Lantsang, and Nujiang rivers several times. There are numerous dangerous sections along primeval forests with spectacular views combined with unique ethnic customs. A trucker who frequents this highway might not be interested in the scenery as he tries to circumvent his way over the perennial hazards but will clearly elaborate how the scenery changes from warm in spring to bitter cold and snowing during when winter sets in. Winters are considered by Truckers along this route to be ‘bitterly intoxicating’.
There are trucker’s hotels along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. These rudimentary diners are also frequented by cyclists and adventurous hitch hikers. Food is cheap but the squat toilets are less than desirable in terms of hygiene. The hotels are however off limits for tourists. It is illegal for a tourist to stay in these hotels when there are ‘official’ tourist hotels in major towns charging many times more than the cheap hotels. A trucker can have a one night accommodation and meals for an equivalent of $12.
Life Threatening Hazards Of The Sichuan-Tibet Highway
Some of the greatest dangers truckers face along this highway is high elevation, poor visibility in bad weather, and regular rock slides. The highway was considered to be a major contributor to the 2006 Chinese death toll of over 82,000 road fatalities in a year. Rock falls and landslides are a common feature along this mountain-winding highway. A shower of large boulders often lands on unsuspecting truckers without warning. There is also the Si Du River Bridge to contend with while driving up the highway. Crossing the bridge is an ultimate test in driving skills as it has the world’s highest vertical clearance.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is also infamously known for bad driving surfaces and sharp mountain-side hairpins. Driving along single track sections in bad weather can be a great challenge to a less experienced Chinese trucker. There are long stretches of the highway winding dangerously on the edge of mountains without barriers providing thrill and spill opportunities. Winter brings in further challenges when snow, fog, and harsh winds limit visibility to a few meters ahead.
Rain, ice, and a host of other chilly winter challenges last for close to ten months making driving along this road a treacherous journey even for most experienced truck driver. The months of July and August are expected to bring driving relief to truck drivers but this is hardly the case. July and especially August are the wettest months in most parts of China. The road is not paved which makes it a mud trap during the rainy season. You will often come across thousand car jams stretching for miles. The real danger is not in getting stuck in the jam but in the hostilities that crop up among bored drivers. There are constant fights, theft, harassment, and even kidnappings for money when drivers are stuck in the mud for weeks.
The Chinese government continues to make diligent efforts to open up the occupied region of Tibet to make it commercially viable as a tourist destination. Some of these efforts include building one of the world’s highest highway tunnels along the Trola Mountain section of the highway. The tunnel will link the Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu to Tibet’s Lhasa. This tunnel is expected to save truckers from the perennial dangers of hairpin curves and Rockslides.