Profile: Heroic man builds legendary road towards prosperity

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KUNMING, June 29 (Xinhua) -- From a multimillionaire to being heavily in debt, Sonam Dondrup spent four years creating a heroic life on a road.

Once a successful businessman, he poured all of his savings into building a road to lead his community out of their village, which had been isolated from the rest of the world for 1,300 years.

"Building a road for my village has been my dream since I was a child. Only once there was a flat road, connecting the outside world, could there be hope for a future," he said.


Sonam Dondrup's hometown is Bala, a village hidden in a canyon surrounded by steep mountains in the city of Shangri-La, in southwest China's Yunnan Province.

Bala was originally home to an ancient tribe that fled from wars into the isolated area, where the descendants made a humble living by farming the barren soil for over a millennium.

Even in the 1960s, the only road linking the village to the outside world was an unsurfaced, winding horse track of less than one meter wide on the cliff.

"With no electricity, telecommunications, or a decent road, our village was mired in grinding poverty and backwardness, totally cut off from the outside world," said the 59-year-old Sonam Dondrup who, like other children in the village, never wore shoes until he was nine.

A defining opportunity came in the form of a seeming misfortune when he hurt his left eye in an accident at the age of 10.

"My father and I trekked for five days in the mountains to the hospital in the nearest city, only to find that I had already missed the optimal time for treatment," he said.

"My father dragged me with a rope tied around my waist," Sonam Dondrup said. "The mountain routes were so dangerous that no one would dare to walk while carrying a child on their back."

Even though he lost his eye, his first encounter with the city was impressive enough. "I was totally shocked. Wide roads, roaring cars, dazzling products... Life out of the mountains was amazing."


This childhood memory was rooted in his mind, making him leave the village at the age of 13 when his father gave him all the savings the family had -- 35 yuan (about 5 U.S. dollars) -- to support their eldest son.

To make a living, Sonam Dondrup tried all kinds of businesses and had successfully accumulated nearly 10 million yuan by 1998. Six years later, he returned to the village to fulfill his childhood road dream, with many people thinking he had lost his mind.

"Everything seemed to be so difficult," Sonam Dondrup recalled. "Some construction teams just gave up when they saw the dangerous landscape."

He sold almost all his properties, and lived in a boneshaker of a mobile house. He even went to a bank 58 times to apply for loans.

With such perseverance and firmness, an asphalt road, leading the villagers down 750 meters in altitude with 52 bends, was constructed in early 2008 when the Bala village was able to access electricity and communication signals for the first time as well.

"I remember the road opening to traffic on New Year's Day. The elderly in the village saw the cars at their doors for the first time and just couldn't hide their excitement," Sonam Dondrup said. "They were also thrilled about electricity, turning the lights at home on and off again and again."


Now the shabby houses in the village were renovated and reinforced. Villagers could easily go to the city via the road, and the once-isolated Tibetan village became a popular tourist site named Bala Gezong, with its original beauty well preserved.

Tourists from across the world are attracted by its panoramic vistas and the ancient culture contained in the snowy ranges in Bala Gezong, not too different from the mountain paradise of "Shangri-La," described in James Hilton's "Lost Horizon."

Sonam Dondrup is the president of the Shangri-La Bala Gezong Tourism Development Company, which he founded in 2008. Providing jobs for more than 300 people from the Bala village, and other villages nearby, the company brings a household about 100,000 yuan a year.

"Before the road was built, all my family members could only earn a total of 2,000 yuan per year," said Gesang Cering, who works for the company as a tour guide.

The increasing prosperity brought by the road has seen the return of more village kids who long dreamed of escaping their hometown.

"There were only 14 households in the village in 2000, but as more people are moving back, the number has climbed to 35," he said.

Now the villagers can engage in tourist businesses, including guiding, horse-riding, and professional hiking.

"I thought Sonam Dondrup was crazy at the beginning, but now everyone regards him as a hero," he said.

Sonam Dondrup said some big companies offered him a partnership in hydropower and mining projects in the area, and promised him high profits.

"I rejected the offers outright. I can not let them ruin the environment," he said.

Sonam Dondrup has never quit the idea of green development. During the outbreak of COVID-19, his company spent 20 million yuan planting trees in the entrance area of the tourist site of Bala Gezong.

"Despite few tourists, we utilized that period to improve the ecological environment," said Sonam Dondrup.

The local government also invested 150 million yuan in a tourist town, where people can enjoy lodging, catering, and other services to help him develop tourism further.

"We got so tired of 1,300 years of isolation and lagging behind, so we will protect our hometown and make it better on the road, also a lifeline we built," he said. Enditem

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