The high road

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

The north face of Mount Everest is a dazzling and pristine white in the sunshine of a July morning as, below, a monk in crimson robes steps out of the highest monastery in the world. He wanders across the courtyard and joins a straggle of people gathered outside Rongbuk, an idyllic and remote Buddhist retreat lying in the shadow of the majestic mountain. But something is wrong. The monk stares across the remote landscape in bewilderment as a bulldozer belching black smoke tears up the ancient dirt track in front of him.

Rongbuk monastery, 5km above sea level in the Tibetan Himalayas, has for decades been the last point of civilisation for expeditions heading up the north face of Everest. But apart from the few groups of mountaineers who pass the retreat on their ascent, the 30 monks and nuns who live in the monastery have been rarely touched by the modern world. One morning this month, that changed forever.

At 9am on July 6, with a clatter and a smoky roar, an extraordinary and controversial project by the Chinese government - to build a 100km road halfway to the top of the world - arrived on the doorstep of Rongbuk in the shape of a dirt-caked bulldozer with a red flag flying from its roof.

By midday, the bulldozer had been joined by a small convoy of steamrollers, cranes and trucks and a ragtag mob of labourers, some in their early teens, carrying crude pickaxes and shovels. This was the advance guard of an army of peasant workers commandeered to blast a road all the way to Everest Base Camp in just three months.

For China, which sent the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into the hermit kingdom of Tibet half a century ago, this grandiose scheme will pave the way for a spectacular curtain-raiser to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Next May, runners will carry the Olympic torch along the new road to base camp then pass it into the hands of a relay team, who will attempt to take it to the highest point on Earth.

For green groups, campaigners for a free Tibet and many serious mountaineers the road is a travesty that will seriously disturb an already fragile and overburdened environment. Not only will the road bring busloads of tourists to the face of Everest, it will also act as a powerful symbol of the mainland government's desire to quash any notion of Tibetan independence in this wild western outpost more than 5,000km from Beijing.

For the monks of Rongbuk, the project has come as a bolt from the blue. The monastery sits close to a site reputed to have been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. 'We had no idea this was going to happen until the machines began to arrive,' says Lobsang Choedeng, a 57-year-old monk who has lived at the monastery for 20 years. 'I am worried about what this road will bring to us.'

China has been remarkably tight-lipped about its US$20 million road-building scheme. It was quietly announced by official news agency Xinhua on June 18 as the first pieces of heavy machinery arrived on the lower reaches of the dirt track the new highway will replace. The monks, the tour guides and the mountain businesses that eke a living out of hikers and climbers knew nothing until bands of labourers began to arrive.

Few foreigners have been allowed to see what is going on. This is partly because a temporary track is in use for most of the drive from the China-Nepal Friendship Highway to base camp, but also because the permits westerners need to enter Tibet and the Everest area have been restricted in the past three months. It was only by joining a trekking party then breaking away from our official tour guides that we were able to witness the full extent of the effort China is co-ordinating in Tibet to burnish its national image in the run-up to next year's Olympics. Mainland authorities intend the road to be unveiled in glory before the games and are doing what they can to keep the construction under wraps until then.

Once faced by the equipment and work crews, however, there is little doubt about what is happening. It is an example of landscape alteration on an epic, almost biblical, scale. From the valley floor through barren, stony mountain passes to base camp, 5,200 metres above sea level, whole villages of workers have been trucked in to live in tent camps and work in teams of about 100, under the command of PLA officers.

Many of the workers are Tibetan villagers bussed in from across the autonomous region. Men, women and teenagers are paid 30 yuan a day to work up to 12 hours in extreme heat at oxygen-thin altitudes, digging trenches, breaking rocks and heaving boulders out of the path of bulldozers and diggers. A third of their wages is withheld to pay for their food, unless they are able to supply their own.

The first snows arrive in October and the pressure to work quickly is obvious. All day, army officers in Toyota Land Cruisers dart between the groups of workers, barking orders.

There are many young faces among the labourers. At a spot just 800 metres downhill from Rongbuk monastery, we lose our guide long enough to talk to a 15-year-old boy. As he takes a break from shovelling and sifting stones, Chisu, who lives in a village 80km away, in western Tibet, says cheerfully: 'I came here with my family and friends. The work is hard but if we arrange our own food we can earn 30 yuan a day. In our farming village, no one can earn that much, not even the grown-ups.'

When asked if he knows about the Olympic Games and the torch relay, Chisu gives a blank look and shrugs. 'What is that?' he asks. 'Nobody has told us what the road is for. They just said there is work for everyone and the road must be built quickly, before the winter comes.' As he speaks, his foreman tugs his arm and orders him back to work alongside a girl and boy who also look like teenagers.

The project has been organised with military precision. Contractors spent the past few months rounding up thousands of workers from local villages so that labour was in place when the scheme was announced. Construction worker Dawa Tsering, 42, explains: 'The contractor came to our village and told us he needed 30 to 50 workers and that anyone who wanted to go could go. I don't know what this road is for. I suppose they just want to make it easier for Chinese people to visit Mount Qomolangma [the Chinese and Tibetan name for Everest].'

Other workers have flooded in from provinces such as Gansu, Henan, Sichuan and Anhui, travelling for days by bus to reach the works site.

Because of the high altitude, the work is particularly onerous. 'We've got work at the highest part of the road and it's very tough for us, but we need the money to support our families back home,' says a 32-year-old from Gansu province. 'We're not used to working at these altitudes and the bosses here are always insisting we work faster and faster.'

There is good reason for the urgency. Although the torch relay is 10 months away, the Himalayan winter snows will have arrived by late September, making work impossible. From now until then, workers must contend with blazing sunshine during the day before huddling beneath blankets in their tents to endure nighttime temperatures of zero or below and icy mountain gales.

One kilometre further up the road, in a small settlement where hikers and mountaineers can sleep in large tents heated by cooking stoves, 58 small Tibetan businesses are waiting anxiously for the bulldozers to come into view. Their livelihoods are threatened by the new road. 'They might come up here next week. They might come next month. But when they come, I suppose we will have to leave,' says Tashi, whose tent is hosting a group of four trekkers paying 40 yuan a night each.

'Nobody has told us anything officially and we don't know what will happen. We didn't know about the road until we heard about the workers further down the mountain. Then tour guides began to tell us they were going to build a road all the way to base camp. We thought it was a joke.'

Although they pay government tax on their earnings and have run their rudimentary guesthouses for up to four years, the owners of the 'Everest Hotel', the 'Base Camp Holiday Inn' and their ilk say they will have no course of redress if they are told to pack up and leave.

'That isn't the way it works under this government,' another of the tent owners says with a wry smile. 'If they say we have to go, we have to go. There is no argument.'

A spectacular display of stars lights up the sky over the Base Camp Holiday Inn as we settle down for a chilly, breathless night almost 5km closer to the heavens than we are used to. Our 23-year-old Tibetan tour guide, Phoun, is relaxing with a bottle of beer.

He tells us the road will bring exciting changes.

'Five years ago, no Chinese people came up here, only westerners,' he says. 'Westerners like to ride up in a four-wheel-drive car then hike up to base camp, and they don't mind staying in places like this. Chinese people like to come in a tour bus and they don't want to hike. They like to come and take photographs and return on the same day.

'When the road is built, more Chinese people will come because they can ride all the way to the top in a tour bus. Maybe they will build a better hotel or some guesthouse here. They are planning many special things for 2008 but we don't know what they will be. Maybe it will be better for us. We don't know.'

Beyond Tibet and China's borders, news of the road to Everest has caused rumblings of concern. Climbers are shocked by the project and are deeply concerned it will attract more tourists to the area.

They are worried about the effect the influx will have on the environment and the serenity.

Doug Scott, who, in 1975, became one of the first two British climbers to reach the summit of Everest, describes the road as 'something of a desecration'.

'That area happens to be one of the most holy valleys in the whole of the Himalayas,' he says, referring to the belief Guru Rinpoche achieved spiritual enlightenment in the Rongbuk area before bringing Buddhism to Tibet. 'Most of us go into the mountains not just to achieve the summit but also for the solitude, to get away from it all and to make a connection with the natural environment. This road will bring the city to the mountains. All the infrastructure of a modern resort will be up there, as much as the high altitude will allow.'

Environmental groups are also up in arms about the project. Greenpeace, which says melting glaciers in the Himalayas are threatening major rivers in the region, has questioned whether the road has 'followed necessary environmental-impact assessment guidelines'. Says Greenpeace China spokesman Sze Pangcheung: 'It is an ecologically sensitive area and if you create massive tourist traffic there is also a possibility you will change the microclimate.'

Matt Whitticase, spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign, believes the road will 'scar irreparably the world's most iconic mountain'.

'It is symptomatic of China's determination to concrete over Tibet's beautiful and fragile environment, transforming it into a mere tourist attraction,' he says.

The objections have come too late, however. The stealth and speed with which the mainland swung the mammoth project into operation meant work was already irreversibly underway, and the landscape of the approach to the north face of Everest irredeemably altered, before the first crescendo of concern was heard. It is a striking lesson in how quickly things can change in modern China. It is a particularly harsh lesson for Rongbuk, which has steadfastly resisted the influences of China since the 1951 invasion and which evaded the destruction suffered by many monasteries during the Cultural Revolution.

As the work continues outside his monastery, Lobsang Choedeng uses the cautiously diplomatic tones Tibetans employ when addressing sensitive political issues. 'Modernisation is good,' he says. 'But it will bring many more Chinese people flowing into the area and I am afraid Tibetans will lose their jobs.

'Most of the Land Cruisers that come up here now with tourists and trekkers are operated by Tibetan people. With a good road, people will come here with big tour buses operated by Chinese people.'

His concerns clearly run deeper and, after a pause, he adds: 'I am afraid this road will bring many people and they will have a negative influence. They may not respect this sacred place in the way we do. We have a very special way of life here and I am very afraid that, with this road, we may lose it.'