'Sky Road' brings high rewards to Tibet

Gyara Gyatso has spruced up the rooftop patio at his hotel just in time for the hot months ahead, incorporating floral lumbar pillows, blue-patterned dinnerware and a separate beverage cart. In one corner, cozy pieces of furniture face the gilded, bronze-tiled roof of the nearby Jokhang Temple.

When the lights are turned on at night, Gyara Gyatso invites the hotel's guests to come to the patio, lie on sofas and appreciate the temple's glowing, golden roof under an array of stars while sipping cups of homemade highland barley wine or yak's milk yogurt.

Summer breezes caress Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, bringing the city's best views of the year along with tens of thousands of tourists seeking Tibet's romance, all carried by the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, aka the "Sky Road".

Gyara Gyatso, who owns two hotels, is preparing for his busiest time of the year.

"In May and the following five months, Lhasa Railway Station will see thousands of people every day, most of them from other parts of China," said the 37-year-old native of Shigatse, a city 285 kilometers from the regional capital.

In the past decade, the tourism boom that has resulted from Tibet's greatly improved transportation infrastructure has seen a growing number of locals and people from neighboring provinces, such as Qinghai and Sichuan, flooding into Lhasa to seek business opportunities.

For centuries, Tibet was cut off from the outside world by its remote location, extreme climate and intimidating altitude. Until the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened in 2006, connecting the region more closely with the rest of China and the world, the massive Tibetan Plateau thwarted all but the boldest travelers and explorers.

The 1,956-km railway-China's highest and longest train route-is a feat of modern engineering that any country would be proud of. As transportation has always been an engine of economic and social development, it has put Tibet's economy on a fast track.

Statistics from the regional development and reform commission show that Tibet's GDP topped 147.7 billion yuan ($21 billion) last year, five times more than before the railway opened. Meanwhile, the average annual per capita disposable incomes of rural and urban residents reached 11,450 yuan and 33,797 yuan respectively.

A long-held dream 

"Without the railroad, I would never have been able to start my business," Gyara Gyatso said. He explained that the idea of running a hotel or travel agency took root in 1998, when he left Tibet for the first time and joined the People's Liberation Army, where he came across countless people yearning to visit the region.

While serving in the southwestern province of Yunnan for two years, he noticed an invariable reaction when he introduced himself as being from Tibet: A dreamy, almost nostalgic look crept into people's eyes. "I want to go to Tibet," they told him wistfully.

He understood their strong desire to see Tibet's rare wildlife and distinctive natural and cultural heritage, and he could also see the business potential. However, at the time, Tibet's inaccessibility meant it wasn't easy for travelers to visit the region.

The poor transportation facilities forced Gyara Gyatso to set aside his dream and return to Shigatse in 2000 to work for a company that produced specialty items, such as yak meat and yak's milk yogurt. Six years later, the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway brought him a step closer to his vision.

When he heard about the opening, he booked a round trip between Golmud in Qinghai and Lhasa to conduct "market research". Weaving through groups of tourists with various accents and even different nationalities on the train, he felt sure Tibet's improved accessibility and affordability would see tourism expand rapidly.

He quit his steady job and started selling cordyceps sinensis, a mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine. He later became a second hand car dealer in a bid to raise enough funds for his business.

Finally, in 2015, using a bank loan and the money he had saved over 15 years, he invested more than 2 million yuan in his first hotel.

"My parents and friends tried to talk me out of taking the risk," he said. "But I could not afford to ignore the opportunities amid the tourism industry's skyrocketing development."

The week after opening, he welcomed his first batch of guests; two families from Guangdong province. Even though there weren't enough guests to fill all 50 rooms, their more-than monthlong stay boosted his confidence and he earned over 8,000 yuan.

That year's summer vacation period was a "cardiotonic" for Gyara Gyatso, as tourists poured into the hotel, booking almost all the rooms. He was so busy that he had to postpone plans to pick up his parents and have them stay at the hotel to celebrate his success. He made more than 100,000 yuan in the first half of the year.

"Many farmers abandoned agriculture to set up businesses catering for tourists, work as tour guides or drivers, run family hotels or restaurants, or make handicrafts for the rising number of visitors," he said.

According to a regional government work report, Tibet received 33.68 million visitors last year, which generated tourism revenue of 49 billion yuan, compared with just 1.8 million visitors and 1.9 billion yuan in revenue before the railway opened.

Local benefits 

Gyara Gyatso is among hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who have seen great benefits from the railway, which has made traveling more convenient and created many job opportunities.

In Sama village, a 30-minute drive from downtown Lhasa, generations of farmers and nomads have relied on growing highland barley and tending black yaks for their livelihoods.

Before the railway opened, villager Nyima Tsering never imagined that his life would someday depend entirely on his own endeavors, instead of being at the mercy of the weather.

In the beginning, pure luck gave the villagers a small fortune. In 2004, much of Sama's farmland was expropriated for the construction of Lhasa West Railway Station, Tibet's largest freight terminal. The villagers each received compensation of about 150,000 yuan, which freed them from backbreaking farm work.

"At the time, it didn't look like a huge opportunity to most of us. Rather, it bothered us, because the groans of the engines and the blare of the horns broke the tranquility we were used to," Nyima Tsering said.

However, the village Party secretary, who had previously worked for a freight transportation company, saw huge potential in the location. The year the railway began operating, he persuaded the villagers to use some of their savings to found Zhentong Logistics Co.

Nyima Tsering was one of the first to respond to the call, and he became the company's general manager.

Lacking funds for a large-scale operation, he began a trial by buying 30 small vans. However, his long experience of farming could not guarantee a financial harvest, so the company hired a senior manager from Beijing to take the helm for the first two years.

"All goods and materials transported to Tibet via the railway arrive at our station, including oil products, building materials, grains, fertilizer and food. So, our fleets are busy carrying them across the region," Nyima Tsering said.

According to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Co, the station's cargo throughput reached 5.75 million metric tons last year, more than 17 times higher than in 2006.

The station's prosperity has boosted Zhentong Logistics' development; it now operates more than 130 vehicles, and made a profit of more than 4 million yuan last year.

More opportunities

With the station and its surrounding area becoming a logistics hub, Nyima Tsering sees an opportunity to open a hotel and restaurant to serve passing truck drivers. Many villagers choose to work for the company and the station as drivers, loader or cleaners, rather than travel far away to find jobs.

"Now, our villagers have more Mercedes Benz cars than the total number of vehicles we used to have. Some people have even bought vacation homes in Chengdu (Sichuan's capital)," Nyima Tsering said.

In the near future, more rail lines in Tibet will be connected to the rest of China, which will further accelerate the integration of the regional economy and culture with the rest of the country.

For example, construction will soon start on the 1,900-km Sichuan-Tibet Railway, which will link with the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway upon completion. It has already attracted investment of about 200 billion yuan. Construction of the Yunnan-Tibet and Xinjiang-Tibet railways is also planned.

Gyara Gyatso said he has made two important decisions in his life so far: joining the PLA when he was 16; and coming back and hosting guests after the railway opened.

"The first helped me to understand the outside world, and the latter helps the world to better know Tibet," he said. "When we have more railroads to further vitalize the once-isolated plateau, I will feel that my decisions were even more correct."