When drivers wind along the treacherous road on Quer Mountain in Southwest China's Sichuan province, they often toss lucky cards into the air to pray for a safe ride.
More than any deity, they have a nine-man maintenance crew to thank for their safe journey on this section of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which was China's first pathway to Tibet and is considered the country's most dangerous road.
The Quer Mountain section, said to be the most risky part of the highway, has claimed dozens of lives and been the site of hundreds of traffic accidents.
A 7-km-long tunnel through the mountain was finished earlier this month and will open next year, cutting the time it takes to reach the other side from 2 hours to just 10 minutes. It will also free drivers from fears of landslides and avalanches, and relieve maintenance workers of an exhausting job.
Their work includes removing debris from frequent cave-ins along the dirt road, clearing garbage and ditches, as well as smoothing the road along a 10-km-long loop near Quer's snow-capped peak at an altitude of about 5,000 meters.
"We take care of the most dangerous parts of the Quer Mountain road," said Yang Hougang, leader of the maintenance team, adding that some spots have nicknames, such as "the ghost beckons" and "the tiger's mouth."
At "the ghost beckons," frequent avalanches trap vehicles on the narrow road, which is bounded on one side by a steep cliff, said Yang.
In fact, gridlock lasting for a day or even a week is common due to avalanches, falling rocks, or simply two cars that can't get past each other on the narrow mountain road. When that happens, trapped drivers and passengers escape to the workers' dorms to eat and spend the chilly night. In return, drivers often offer the workers free rides down to the county seat.
However, the most challenging part is not the work itself, but the inhospitable environment, which has an average yearly temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius. The oxygen content of the air is half of that on the plain, and the area lacks tap water, stable electricity supply and cell phone service.
Yang and his colleagues have to fetch water at the foot of the mountain. After supper, they often watch the news and an episode of a soap opera, then turn off the TV an hour later before the solar generator blares its warning about low power levels.
Most of the workers have followed in the footsteps of their fathers, who were the first group to help build and maintain the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which opened in 1951. However, their children are reluctant to take on the job.
"My 21-year-old son said he would rather do a job in the city that pays him 2,000 yuan ($291) a month than make 5,000 yuan for what I'm doing," said Yang Xuming.
Their work is tough on family life as well. It takes workers days to reach their homes in Sichuan when they want to visit. Six of the maintenance team members are divorced.
After the tunnel opens, the team will move down the mountain to another section of the Sichuan-Tibet highway at an elevation of 4,300 meters. Their new job, taking care of an asphalt road, will be much easier.
"I'm longing for retirement, when I can go down the mountain and find a wife again," Yang Xuming said.