Height of ambition

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Publish Time: 2020-07-22 Author: Yang Yang From: China Daily

Vision and determination form the foundation for a road that leads a picturesque but isolated mountain village to a more prosperous era, Yang Yang reports.

Sonam Dondrup enjoys the high life, literally. For some, life is a choice made, a road taken. For Sonam Dondrup it is a road built, and a high road at that. He is in his beloved Balha village, perched about 3,000 meters above sea level. He is wearing sunglasses, Tibetan costume and polished black leather boots as he saunters into the rose garden across from the Balha Tayung Stupa in the village. All around, thousands of pink plateau roses are in full bloom in the bright sunshine under a majestic blue sky dotted with white puffball clouds. It is a beautiful scene, but for centuries it was isolated and impoverished. Sonam Dondrup has given the area a new lease of life.

In March, when the Balha Kardzong Tourist Park was deserted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonam Dondrup, 56, its founder, also a Communist Party member, says he regarded it as a good opportunity to restore the environment. He led 120 employees and villagers in planting more than 40,000 roses as well as 30,000 other types of trees, such as cherry-apple, cedar, apple and camellia, around the park.

Holding a rose in his hand he makes a short video for TikTok. He poses and says: "Hi, everyone. I'm Sonam Dondrup. I'm so happy that the roses are blooming in the first year after being planted. So beautiful. Welcome to Kardzong Snow Mountain to see them yourself. Tashi Delek (good luck)." He smiles while pressing his palms.

Sonam Dondrup is trying to introduce the world to his beloved village that sits at the foot of the mountain, one of the most beautiful of its kind in Southwest China's Yunnan province.

For about 1,300 years Balha village, too isolated to be marked on any map, and set in the deep Shangri-La Canyon in Dechen Tibet autonomous prefecture, has been largely cut off from the world. Sonam Dondrup spent four hard years trying to change this by building an asphalt-covered road. Against all the odds, he succeeded and opened the village to the world.

He has about 66,000 followers on the short-video platform, but his heroic feat of building the road has been widely praised by audiences across the country through widespread media coverage. The beautiful views of Kardzong Snow Mountain and his story have attracted scores of tourists. However, due to the pandemic, fewer tourists have arrived since January but his debt of 850 million yuan ($121 million) that he borrowed to build and maintain the road grows every day.

"We are confident that we can survive the hard days. It's all temporary. We have gone through the most difficult time," Sonam Dondrup says firmly in a stentorian voice. He was referring to the period from 1999 to 2008, when he established a tourism development company in the Kardzong Snow Mountain and struggled to build the 6.5-meter-wide, 35-kilometer-long concrete road that connects the village with the No. 214 National Highway.

It all started due to an accident in 1974 when villagers wanted to build a water mill and the 10-year-old Sonam Dondrup was helping out. As they were forging iron, a sliver of molten metal flew off and hit him in his left eye. Two villagers helped him get back to his home, but it took a day to climb the cliffs. There was no doctor in the village.

His father, working away from home, came back a month later, and decided to take Sonam Dondrup to hospital in the nearest city Zhongdian. It was the first time that the child left the mountain.

Sonam Dondrup by the road. [Photo/Xinhua]

Early bitterness

The only road that connected the village with the world outside the mountain was not completed until 1978. Even with the road which was less than a meter wide, it was impossible to travel in winter and spring, when thick snow packed the mountain, or during the rainy season when the road was flooded. Once, 12 young men died on the road in an avalanche. Children were not allowed to walk on the road alone. When children had to go out, adults needed to tie them to their waists in case they fell off the cliffs into the surging Gangqu River hundreds of meters below.

When people fell seriously ill in the village, young men were called to carry the sick person on their shoulders, walking on the dangerous road for a week before arriving at the nearest hospital. Sadly, some didn't make it.

In 1974, before the road was completed, it was even harder for people to get out. Sonam Dondrup's father tied a rope around his own waist, the other end of which was tied to the kid, who did not stop crying on the way during the five days and nights before they reached the hospital, but it was too late. He lost most of the sight in his left eye.

However, the world he witnessed beyond the village inspired a dream in his heart. Everything in the city was new to him-the colorful lighting, the roaring, wheeled "monsters", the electric mills, people wearing pretty clothes, and butter tea shops. What amazed him the most was the roads, clean, smooth and comfortable to walk on without huge rocks lying in the way.

He still remembers the uneasiness he felt when people looked at his weather-worn face and soiled clothes, which reminded him of the remote backward village he came from, where people still lived without electricity or cars.

On the long way back home, the coarse road blistered and cut his feet. He suffered and dreamed that one day he would earn enough money and build a road for villagers to go out and see that new world.

At 13, against the family's will, he left home and started exploring the world with a bag of crude crystals he collected to sell and 35 yuan his father borrowed. He started as a vendor in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, although could not yet speak a word of Mandarin. Thanks to the reform and opening-up, which started in 1978, and also due to his hard work and vision, his businesses grew and by 1999, he was a multimillionaire in Shangri-La.

A mission impossible

However, every time he traveled back to Balha village, he was always sad to hear stories of villagers' mules and horses, laden with goods, falling off the narrow road into the Gangqu River.

In 1997, Zhongdian, considered to be the mysterious land described in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, was renamed Shangri-La. At the end of 20th century, hundreds of thousands of people arrived looking for its fabled landscape. This inspired Sonam Dondrup, who, having visited many places around the world, knew that his hometown by the mountain was unusually beautiful.

"The altitude rises from 2,000 meters above the sea level to 5,545 meters, so that we have a 'three-dimensional' ecosystem and tourists can see incredible views at different altitudes," he says.

Without a proper road, the 1,300-year-old village's traditions and customs remained intact, and are the soul of the snow mountain, he adds.

He says he believed that with a tourist park, villagers could live a more financially secure life, and such development would not destroy the environment.

"Reasonable development should be allowed, because it's people's basic right to live a comparatively comfortable life," he says.

In the park, people can admire the scenery but not take anything away except their memories, he says.

In 1999, he set off on the long hard journey to pursue his dream. He registered Balha Kardzong Tourist Development Co and told his family that he was going to build a concrete road that would connect Balha village with the No. 214 National Highway using his own savings. This was greeted by raised eyebrows and no little mocking from not only his family and friends, but also other villagers. "Sonam Dondrup is mad," they said.

However, the bigger barriers were yet to come. It took one year for the local government to approve the proposal. Then came the assessment of the development plan.

After eight days of investigation, experts decided that the Balha village was a beautiful place without any pollution. Building a road on the cliffs was a mission impossible, they believed, not to mention that the construction would unavoidably damage the natural environment.

But Sonam Dondrup was nothing if not strong-minded.

"I want to ask you (experts): Are you going back home on foot or by car? Do you use electricity at home? Do you watch TV? But we don't even have a road, not to mention lighting and TV," he said to the assessors.

Three years passed before the plan was finally approved in 2004.But it came with one condition: The development must keep environmental impact to a minimum.

"Which was the fundamental principle we followed when building the road or developing the tourist park," he says.

To avoid damaging the natural flora, Sonam Dondrup designed 52 turns on the 35 km road, many of which exceed 90 degrees. Once, he fined the construction team 25,000 yuan for felling a tree without authorization.

There were other difficulties-funding, construction and land acquisition. He was not only trying to persuade banks to lend him money, but also confronted with the problem that designers and the construction teams were reluctant, with good reason, to work on steep cliffs.

As a result, he spent two years leading a team to survey the topography, spending many days and nights in the valleys and on the cliffs.

The project finally kicked off on Sept 10, 2004. However, the construction was often stopped by villagers who did not want their precious land to be used by the road.

Sonam Dondrup knocked on their doors one by one but was always rejected. Once an old woman came out and before he opened his mouth, she spat on his face and cursed: "You fraud! You want to steal our land."

"Villagers' misunderstanding was the biggest difficulty for me," he says. After many rounds of negotiation, he finally reached agreement with the villagers.

However, loans from banks ran out very quickly, and he had to sell his restaurant, hardware and machinery store, house and car, but still he owed a debt of 100 million yuan, so he had to hide from his creditors and was mocked by the villagers who declared "Sonam Dondrup is the No. 1 idiot".

A wealthier community

Luckily, his perseverance finally bore fruit. Apart from the road, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure were also built.

On Jan 1, 2008, all the projects were completed. Residents in the ancient village finally caught up with the modern world. It takes just over an hour to travel, by car, between Shangri-La and the Balha village. It used to take a week by foot.

The beautiful snow mountain is attracting an increasing number of tourists. His tourism company hired 300 villagers, improving annual family incomes from 2,000 yuan to over 100,000 yuan. In 2000, most villagers had moved out of Balha village and only 14 households stayed, but now 20 families have moved back.

Tsering Norbu, 29, is one of the university graduates that returned to the village after working for three years outside. He is now in charge of the branding section of Sonam Dondrup's company. Like many people in the village, he says Sonam Dondrup is a great hero who has suffered so much to help his people.

"Without him, poor families would have been left isolated. Even if they could have moved out, how could they live and develop? Now the company benefits 300 households in nearby villages," he says.

Tsering Norbu also points out that the government has been supportive with good policies and financial aid, by giving an amount of 150 million yuan as a subsidy for the development of the tourism industry.

Kalsang Tsering, 36, has been a guide in the tourist park since 2007. He says before the road was built, elderly people in the village did not know the outside world. He remembered when he was little, when people from other Tibetan areas came, he could not understand their language so that he thought they were Han ethnic people.

Standing on the terrace of an old three-story wooden house in Balha village, he says that the tracks through the woods that people once used to graze yaks and sheep have become an attraction for hikers.

"You can go directly to the foot of the snow mountain, which looks like a Buddha lying on his back from the left, and from the right hand side it has a natural pagoda-shaped peak," he says.

The color of the mountain changes throughout the year-yellow, green, red and white. In rainy seasons, the mountain is shrouded by fog and clouds. On sunny days, the first rays of sunlight shine on the snow mountain, he says.

"Before the road was completed, I wanted to leave, but now everybody wants to come to my hometown. I do not need to leave," he says, smiling.

"I am very satisfied with my life here. We used to be poor and backward, and when we went out, we felt ashamed because people looked at us strangely. Now since the road was completed due to our hard work, people come, so we are very proud of ourselves and our hometown," he says.

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