The China Daily explained why: “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. The opening of the two highways has played an important role in Tibetan economic development.”
It was indeed crucial for Mao’s troops to occupy the Tibetan plateau and come closer to India’s frontiers.
The Chinese media pointed out that the Sichuan-Tibet Highway was originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway:
[It] is a high-elevation road starting from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, on the east and ending at Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region [which was not existing in 1954], on the west. The highway has two routes. South Line has a length of 2,115 kilometers, while North Line is 2,414 kilometers long.The China Daily further asserts:
Construction of Sichuan-Tibet Highway started in April 1950, when the road builders cleaved mountains and controlled water, and finally opened for traffic on December 25, 1954, together with Qinghai-Tibet Highway. With high elevation and harsh geographical conditions, the building of Sichuan-Tibet Highway was an unprecedented challenge to Tibet's highway construction. The Ya'an-Lhasa section covering a total length of 2,255 kilometers was completed on a high mountain range.Ya’an is located in Sichuan province on the Tibetan marches.
Why were these roads (today, highways) so important?
As The China Daily puts it: “Before Sichuan-Tibet Highway and Qinghai-Tibet Highway opened to traffic, it took six months to a year for human or livestock to cover a round trip trudging through from Lhasa to Chengdu, or Xining, Qinghai province.”
Today, it only takes a few days by bus.
To understand better the situation, one should read the 1952 Annual Report from A.K. Sen, the India Consul-General in Lhasa. Without these roads, Tibet would have starved (like it did in 1952-53) and the Chinese occupation of the plateau impossible.
The Indian Consul informed the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi:
The inevitable economic distress in the wake of Chinese occupation was fast affecting the people’s livelihood. Food supplies became inadequate, prices soared up to astounding heights, even the poor man’s food – the tsampa (barley flour) – could not be easily procured. In short, the Tibetans, completely confused, failed to discern the various benefits that were to be derived from the liberation of their country. As a protest against the disastrous economic trends, the villagers round about Lhasa rose up as a body, probably inspired by some disgruntled monks who made an effort to oppose communist ideology, petitioned to the Kashag [Tibetan Cabinet] that the resources of the country not being enough to cope with such large concentrations of Chinese troops, they should be withdrawn from Tibet, leaving a small force as was maintained during the time of the Chinese Amban. The political implications of this appeal for the amelioration of people’s hardships, in that it demanded the reduction of troops, were seized by the Chinese to implicate the Prime Ministers as instigators of the move. Curiously enough, a day after the petition was presented an incident took place most conveniently which further helped the Chinese to assume a threatening attitude to deal with these ‘rebels’.Tibet had never witnessed a famine before.
The only solution for Communist China was to expedite the construction of roads leading to Tibet (from Qinghai and Sichuan) in order to feed their occupying armies (to ‘liberate’ Tibet, in Communist jargon).
Sen’s report continues:
The upshot was, the Chinese denounced the Prime Ministers to be anti-national, abettors of the rebels and uttering the most truculent threats to the Kashag that liberation of Tibet would be implemented by force if they failed to restore normal conditions by rounding up the malcontents, demanded the immediate dismissal of the Ministers as well. Having displayed such wrathful temper, they reinforced the Lhasa garrison by a couple of thousand troops and pointing their guns towards the Potala awaited the compliance of their command.Ultimately, the two courageous Prime Ministers, Lukhangwa and the monk Lobsang Tashi were forced to resign. It was the beginning of the end of ‘independent’ Tibet. Nobody had the courage to oppose the Chinese anymore in Lhasa.
The resignation of the Ministers had to be accepted by the Tibetan Government on the 27th April . Next came the turn of the villagers’ delegates. A special tribunal set up by the Chinese for trial of the six peoples’ representatives, passed judgement accusing them to be agitators, led astray by foreign agents. They and the public were warned that they had no right to submit ‘unlawful demands’ and that similar performances in future should not be repeated. The Tibetan Government issued orders to all Dzongpons to watch the activities of village assemblies. All meetings and careless political talks were banned. Thus with one adroit stroke the Chinese broke the backbone of Tibetan obstinacy.The Chinese, who had come to ‘liberate’ the ‘masses’ (with the cowardly support of many in the aristocracy), began punishing the ‘masses’ which had dared protesting.
In the meantime, India started supplying rice to the PLA soldiers stationed in Tibet.
At the same time, another highway was built, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. According to The China Daily:
Starting from Xining, capital of Qinghai province, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway stretches 1,947 km (about 1,210 miles) into Tibet with an average elevation of above 4,000 meters. Winding along the Kunlun Mountain, Tanggula Mountain, Tuotuo River, and vast grassland, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway amazes travelers with its appealing landscape along the plateau. Being the world's longest asphalt road and at the highest altitude, it reaches its top 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.”The China Today says that since the road was opened to traffic in 1954, the central government (i.e. Beijing) spent nearly 3 billion yuan ($362 million) on three major overhauls; it was asphalted in 1985: “Freight transportation still relies on the road.”
Quoting one Sonam, director of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway Management Bureau, the daily says: “More than 80 percent of goods still go via the highway, while people mostly take the train."
For the website China Tibet Online affirms that, even today, the two highways “not only accelerate the social and economic developments in Tibet but is of great significance to link the plateau with the rest of the world.”
The publication quotes Ma Jiali, a researcher of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, (Ma is also a well-known ‘India expert’ in Beijing); for Ma Jiali, the two highways are crucial for the national unity: "I think it's safe to liken the two highways to blood as they hold Tibet and the inland cities together. So, the running of the two highways, in a sense, has held the central government and Tibet together."
But there is another aspect to it: these 2 highways (and a few years later, the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway cutting across the Aksai Chin), helped China consolidate its military position on the Tibetan plateau and by the end of the 1950s, Beijing was ready to take on India which had dared to give asylum to the Dalai Lama.
Highways on the Plateau, let us not forget it, always have a strategic importance, though there are today extensively used for tourism development (but this too has perhaps strategic implications).
More on the West, China Tibet Online reports that China is planning to open the Kyierong (Chinese: Gyirong) landport to the outside world in October.
The website asserts: “At that time, Kyierong will present a feature with multiple elements including ‘ancient path culture, port culture, and folk culture’ on the basis of its unique geographical advantages and become an important channel for international tourists to China.”
In clear, China will pour millions of tourists in Nepal, which has a mostly unguarded border with India. No need to explain the danger for India’s security.
China Tibet Online says:
The Kyirong Port is 78 kilometers away from the south of Kyirong County in the Shigatse Prefecture and 24 kilometers away from the Rasog Village located in the border of China and Nepal. In the history of China, the Kyirong Port is one of the biggest overland trading ports between China and Nepal, and is renowned as the ‘commercial road’, ‘official road’ and ‘war road’ because of its long history of foreign trade. In October of 1961, the State Council of China decided to set up Kyirong Customs as well as gave permission to the port's opening.”‘War road’ refers to the Manchu invasion of 1792.
The Master Plan of Kyirong Port will make of Kyirong County a great montain resort, ideal for tourism.Therefore, tourists could have multiple travelling experiences in Kyirong”, says the website which emphasizes:
the Kyirong Ditch was the only way which must be passed in the ‘ancient road connecting Tubo [Tibet] Kingdom and Nepal when the pedestrians headed for Nepal from Lhasa. The ancient road an important channel for the culture and trade exchange of central plains and South Asia. In history, this ancient road had welcomed Princess Bhrikuti from Nepal who married Songtsen Gampo …as well as Shantarakshita and Padma Sambhava who both went to Tibet for preaching Buddhism.Further Kyirong, is the backyard garden for Mt. Everest, it ‘integrates the elements of snow-mountains, pastoral forests, lakes, canyons, rivers and pastures.”
It sounds great ...for the Chinese tourists.
It is indeed a very dangerous development for the security of Nepal ...and India, because once millions of Han ‘tourists’ arrive in Kathmandu, they will be only one step away from India.
Who will monitor the whereabouts?
Certainly not the Nepali government, which is only too happy to harvest a few Yuan more from the Chinese tourists.
Here are some recent photos of Chinese tourists on the Qinghai-Tibet highways.
Tomorrow, we will have the same on the Lhasa-Kathmandu road and then...