A highway linking Medog, the last roadless county in China, with neighboring Bome county in Tibet formally opened to traffic on Thursday, ending the county's isolation from the outside world.
The 117-km highway, which cost 950 million yuan (155 million U.S. dollars), links Zhamog Township, the county seat of Bome, and Medog in Nyingchi Prefecture in southeastern Tibet.
The road will be accessible for 8 to 9 months per year, barring major natural disasters, said Ge Yutao, Communist Party chief of the Tibet regional transportation department.
Getting out of Medog used to be a dangerous journey that required people to climb over Galung La and Doxong La, two snow-capped mountains rising over 4,000 meters above sea level. The mountains were the site of frequent accidents, such as landslides and avalanches.
The opening of the road is a great relief for Gyaltsen, a 59-year-old retired official in Medog and a former representative of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature.
He submitted several proposals on road construction in Medog during his ten years as an NPC deputy.
Gyaltsen almost missed hearing the premier's government work report in March 1992 due to the long and arduous journey from Medog to Beijing.
It took him 14 days to walk from Medog to Bome, another day to reach the regional capital of Lhasa by bus, and yet another day to go to Beijing by plane to attend the annual meeting.
Mountain paths connecting villages and towns were once the only travel routes in Medog, which is situated near Tibet's border with India and nestled among snow-capped mountains. Complicated geological conditions and frequent natural disasters had thwarted seven previous attempts to build a highway in the area since the 1960s.
An adobe road dug along cliffs was built in 1994, but was only accessible between July and September. Frequent fatal traffic accidents have occurred on the poorly-built roads.
The building of the new road was approved by the State Council, China's cabinet, in 2008. Work officially began in April 2009.
The lack of modern transportation infrastructure has isolated Medog, dubbed the "secret lotus," from the outside world and restricted its development, said Ngodrup Dorje, former head of the county government.
Foot travel and horses have long been the only transportation method for goods in Medog, which has a population of 12,000, and locals have had to pay inflated prices.
Before the road opened to traffic in Medog, a half kilogram of cucumber or green pepper sold for as much as 25 yuan, five times the price in Lhasa. A can of beer sold for 10 yuan, more than twice the price of a can in Lhasa.
The isolation has also hampered medical care in the county, as the mountains are covered in snow for more than half the year and medicine could not be brought in from outside.
"People in Medog are most afraid of being sick," said Yang Dongshan, deputy head of the county people's hospital. "Many patients who were not in serious condition have died due to lack of medicine or delayed treatment on the way to hospitals in other places."
The opening of the Medog road will greatly lower transportation costs and commodity prices and will also improve medical care and educational facilities, said Tashi, head of the Medog county government.
With the opening of the road, people in Medog have higher expectations for their future.
Yang Mingqing, a man from neighboring Sichuan Province, plans to redecorate and expand his restaurant in Medog to prepare for the growing number of businessmen and tourists.
The road also gives Tashi Dondrup, a 12-year-old student in Medog, a bigger dream.
"I want to further my study in a Beijing university," he said.