Apr. 15, 2019 -- Members of the People's Armed Police Force spend their working lives repairing dangerous roads and safeguarding travelers.
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about the Tibet autonomous region, focusing on the area's history, the cultural and business sectors and poverty alleviation measures.
Imagine driving along a narrow mountain road where one side is a wall of rocks that could tumble down at any minute and the other is a steep drop into a deep, fast-flowing river.
The unfenced road, rugged, mud-slicked and about 2,000 meters above sea level, only allows one car to pass at a time and when drivers tackle hairpin bends, they cannot see any ground, just a broad expanse of sky.
This is not an imaginary scenario; until relatively recently, it was the terrifying reality along a 20-kilometer section of road linking Bomi county and Bayi township in Nyingchi city in the southeast of the Tibet autonomous region, often known as "the roof of the world".
Notorious for constant mudflows, roadbed collapses, landslides and rockfalls, this stretch of road has seen so many vehicles and passengers plunge over the abyss that the local people have awarded it the grim nickname "Tongmai graveyard", a reference to the nearest town.
Despite its fearsome reputation, the section is unavoidable once drivers set off along National Highway 318, which runs for more than 2,000 km from Sichuan province to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Since 1996, the highway - dubbed one of the most dangerous roads on Earth by guidebook publishers, travel magazines and adventurers - has been manned year-round by members of the Chinese People's Armed Police Force. The officers maintain the road surface, guide traffic and try their best to protect travelers' lives.
The deep, quick-flowing Yigong Tsangpo River, which runs through the "graveyard", is straddled by three bridges of differing sizes and materials. In 2000, a catastrophic landslide hit the gorge, causing severe flooding that cracked a concrete bridge built in the 1950s.
To keep traffic flowing, local authorities began erecting a temporary steel bridge. At the same time, a small wooden bridge was built alongside it so construction materials could be delivered to the officers.
The bridge, a single-track structure only capable of bearing a maximum load of 20 metric tons, was completed at the end of 2000.
Wang Faming, an armed police officer, was deployed at one end, and while his mission - to ensure the safety of the bridge and repair the damaged road - may sound simple, the work was tough.
"Loose rocks fell every day, hitting cars or pushing them down into the gorge. Our daily task was to save cars and people," he said, adding that dozens, occasionally hundreds, of people were trapped, injured or even killed every year by the frequent accidents.
As the single-track bridge was followed by a lane change, vehicles blocked the road every day. According to Wang, the longest period of congestion lasted several days and the tailback extended more than 10 km.
"The constant rainfall kept the road muddy and the mountain slope was very steep, so trucks often broke down and completely blocked the cars behind. We couldn't let those cars stop there, though, because they were at risk of falling rocks, so we had to direct them one by one until they retreated to a safe place in the nearest town," he said.
In addition to directing traffic day and night, Wang and his comrades patrolled the bridge daily to ensure that every screw in the structure was tight and solid. They also filled holes in the road surface, despite the potential danger.
He recalled that in 2005, an officer using a steamroller to smooth the road surface was thrown over the 100-meter-high cliff when the roadbed collapsed. Luckily for the officer, the machine flipped in the air, throwing him onto a patch of grassy land. He survived, but sustained a broken back.
The journey is no longer as dangerous, because a new bridge was opened to traffic in 2016, the road has been widened and sealed, and tunnels run through the mountains to protect vehicles from falling rocks.
Despite the improvements, Wang remains, checking the bridge and maintaining the road as usual. "Nineteen years later, I am proud to be a guardian of the bridges," he said.
If the "graveyard" seems daunting, think again. Before drivers need to summon up the courage to tackle it, they have to face 72 stomach-churning switchbacks that zigzag sharply, dropping nearly 1,800 meters before the road crosses a gorge known as "Dead man's ditch", which contains the Nujiang River.
Mo Wei, 31, and his comrades live at the top of the switchbacks, which are man-made and stand more than 4,000 meters above sea level. The officers are responsible for maintaining a 90-km section of highway.
Last month, as spring approached and the temperature rose, cracks began appearing in the road surface. Mo was busy showing a young colleague how to use a machine that fills the cracks with asphalt. His lips were dry, cracked and peeling due to long exposure to the elements.
"I have lived here for 14 years and I feel we work hard during every season. There is no time to rest," he said.
To Mo, the discomfort caused by the plateau's thin atmosphere, altitude sickness and strong ultraviolet rays is dwarfed by frequent, unpredictable acts of nature.
"In summer, we face mudslides, landslides and all kinds of disasters, while in winter, starting in October, we have to deal with heavy snowfall and thick ice that can trigger avalanches," he said.
Jian Yusheng, director of Mo's team, said that during summer the asphalt road surface often reaches a temperature of more than 160 C, causing black smoke to rise from it.
"It is under such conditions that our team repairs the road, shovel by shovel. After a whole day, only our eyeballs are white, even though we wear face masks," he said.
The road was sealed in 2012. Before then, Mo and his team knew nothing about asphalt maintenance. They used carts to carry sand from nearby mountains to even out the road surface.
Though the asphalt often gets so hot it burns the skin, that's a trivial concern for Mo.
"Our predecessors shed sweat and blood to create these 72 amazing switchbacks. We are proud to guard this road and continue that spirit," he said.
The narrow gorge that contains the fast-flowing Nujiang River is crossed by a suspension bridge that opened to traffic in January.
It is sandwiched between steep mountains that are notorious for "dropping rocks when the wind blows and collapsing when rain falls", said Shi Jianmao, an armed officer, quoting a popular saying.
A timely warning
In 2006, Bai Gang, a former soldier in the People's Liberation Army from Shaanxi province, decided to devote himself to protecting the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, so he joined the armed police and was deployed at the gorge.
When he arrived, his comrades told him to work "like my head was hanging on a belt" - a slang expression that means to be ready to give up one's life at any moment.
Bai quickly realized that they were not exaggerating. That winter, the section of road on a nearby pass called Ngamjug La was hit by heavy snowfall and Bai was sent there to clear the way.
"The snow was more than a meter deep, and we couldn't see the road at all, so we had to walk 20 to 30 km looking for the road by feeling the ground with our feet, and marking out the road before we could drive our snow plows up to clear the snow," he said.
"What we feared most was an avalanche. Once, an avalanche engulfed and pushed a coach carrying dozens of passengers 100 to 200 meters."
For the past 14 years, Bai has been engaged in maintenance and disaster relief work on an 86-km section of road. Since 1996, when his unit began working on the section, at least seven officers have lost their lives to acts of nature.
"Working down here in the gorge, we cannot see the sky. A person can be hit by a rock in the blink of an eye and rolled into the torrent," he said.
The old stone bridge stands next to the new solid steel structure, but no one is allowed to use it. Clearly visible on a nearby mountain are three large characters - zheng, fu and shan (meaning "Conquer the mountain") - which were carved into the hill by the soldiers who built the old bridge back in the 1950s.
"The spirit left by our predecessors moves me and it has encouraged me to work in this place for so many years," Bai said.