Villagers living the high life on the road to prosperity

Lan Guohua used to plant corn and potatoes in Laoying, a village that sits at an elevation of 2,500 meters in Xiaojin county, Sichuan province.

At the age of 55, he never expected that he could double his income by raising yaks, but that's what happened after the local government built a road to connect the isolated settlement with the outside world.

The village, in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, has a population of 3,000 people, 80 percent of whom are members of the Tibetan ethnic group.

It used to be nicknamed majiao, or "Can't feel your feet", because outsiders had to walk along a steep path that zigzagged up the mountain to reach it, which left their feet numb.

The area around the village has an average elevation of 2,000 m.

The mountainous terrain not only made it difficult to grow crops, but also meant farmers had to travel long distances along dirt paths to transport their produce to the market in Xiaojin.

Anything left unsold at the end of the day had to be carried back along the same paths.

Things changed in 2013 when the asphalt road was completed.

The improved infrastructure allowed access for businesses. Also, advanced farming techniques were brought to the area, raising living standards and lifting local people out of poverty.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for more efforts to construct, maintain, protect and manage rural roads to provide greater help for countryside residents.

In response, the Xiaojin government established a special fund to expand its road-construction program.

It provided more than 5 million yuan ($800,000), and set a goal of building or renovating 1,400 kilometers of rural roads in the county. By 2016, about 131.5 km of roads had been completed.

"The road contributed to the area's industrial development and provided a special marketing channel for agricultural produce," said Yao Qijie, head of Xiaojin.

Fruitful developments

The road has been a boon to Lan and his family. Every year, his daughter, Lan Guichun, grows more than 2,000 kilograms of grapes on her 1.5 hectares of land.

Before the road was built, she had to employ six men to carry the fruit to the county seat for sale. That is no longer necessary.

"Now, I only need to wait in my house for the local wine producer, Jiuzhaigou Natural Wine Industry Co, to collect the grapes," the 31-year-old said.

In 2001, the company established a winery in Laoying. Grapes grown by villagers are collected and stored at the facility, and the company makes 6,000 metric tons of wine every year.

The road and the development of the local wine industry have helped 23 impoverished households-about 93 people-to break out of poverty, especially as the company provides local farmers with training to help them grow their grapes. The work provides extra per capita income of about 3,200 yuan a year.

"The training helped a lot because I learned when to prune branches and how to use fertilizer," Lan Guichun said.

Every villager's small vineyard has its own concrete road which allows trucks to enter and transport the grapes to the winery, making life more convenient.

"About 10 years ago, every ton of grapes had to be carried up the hill to the winery," said Xiao Shan, general manager of Jiuzhaigou Natural Wine Industry Co.

"The rocks and dirt roads made production very difficult."

The poor infrastructure also made it difficult to take delivery of materials brought in from Shandong province which were used in the production and packaging processes.

Ten years ago, the journey took about two weeks, but the road means it now takes half that time, he added.

The improved access has also boosted profits, which have risen tenfold in the past decade, from 10 million yuan to 100 million yuan a year.

Last year, an e-commerce company was set up in Chengdu, the provincial capital, to sell the wine online.

Cheaper crops

The standard of living also rose because it became cheaper to grow and sell crops, which meant the villagers could spend the money they saved on themselves.

"Cultivation costs were very high before the road was built," said Mao Yongfeng, Party chief of Xiaojin.

"We estimate that the improvements helped people to save about 3,200 yuan each per year, meaning they had more disposable income."

The road also enabled many villagers to herd yaks, which brought in an extra 1,500 yuan per person a month.

Before, the steep mountain path was dangerous, so herders were unwilling to risk sending their animals to the highest elevations where the best grazing land was to be found.

Instead, they grazed their herds on inferior grass at lower altitudes.

Once the road was completed, the herders were able to send their yaks higher, resulting in leaner, tastier meat and better profits.

The autonomous prefecture, in the western part of Sichuan province, is traditionally one of China's poorest regions.

At the end of last year, 15,200 people of its population of 920,000 were living in 123 villages that were classified as "impoverished".

Tourism and tea

Yang Min, Party secretary of Wori township, has tried to raise living standards through the use of local resources.

In 2014, a 3-meter-wide road was built for pedestrians.

Last year, the government provided more funds, which allowed the road to be widened to 5 meters, meaning it became suitable for large vehicles, which resulted in an upsurge in tourism.

Every household has seen its annual income rise by 2,000 yuan since the road was widened.

The township is just 35 km from Mount Siguniang, a renowned tourist spot in the east of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Despite the close proximity, the poor roads around Wori made travel difficult, resulting in most visitors ignoring the township and paying most attention to the mountain.

However, after the road was sealed with asphalt, tourists began to flood into Wori to sample its distinctive Tibetan traditions and culture.

Nan Zhonghong has benefited from the influx of visitors.

The 74-year-old ethnic Tibetan used to make a living by growing apples in Wori, but after the road was sealed she found a new way to earn money by providing entertainment and traditional Tibetan food with butter tea.

"I am really happy that more people now come to visit us," she said. "The road has brought many new friends."

During the peak tourist season (usually July and August) around Mount Siguniang, Nan entertains about 30 tourists a day.

"Our income doubled to 50,000 yuan last year," she added.

Despite the improvements, life is still challenging for the people in this mountainous region.

One of the most important tasks is ensuring that the road remains open and is well-maintained, especially along the highest stretches.

"In winter, the road is usually covered by snow and mud, which makes it difficult to ensure it is clear," said Ma Quanfang, a 77-year-old in Wori.

"People come out to sweep away the snow, but the mud is much harder to remove," he added.

"Sometimes I have to spend four to five hours a day clearing away rocks and mud that have piled up."