One story has it that when the first car appeared on the streets of Lhasa half a century ago, a Tibetan youngster gazed at it with ardent curiosity and fed it grass as if it were a horse.
That first car was owned by the 14th Dalai Lama, who imported spare parts from India and assembled them in Lhasa. He used the car to shuttle between his summer resort and the Potala Palace, a distance of 2 km.
Nowadays, it is not only one privileged man who owns a car, more and more ordinary people in Tibet have their own cars too.
Tianlu Automobile Co. Ltd, the largest motor vehicle seller in the Tibet Autonomous Region, sold more than 300 cars in the first three quarters of this year. Most buyers were private individuals.
The demand for cars has grown at an annual rate of 10 percent in the past four years. Santana, Alto and other economy brands are among the favorites, with prices around 100,000 yuan (US$12,000). Although these are some of the least expensive cars on the market, they cost 10 times that of the average Tibetan family’s annual income.
Ngawang Danba, a businessman on the Bargor Street in downtown Lhasa, said: “A vehicle is very useful for a trader. I have bought two trucks and a minibus to ship local medicines and raw materials to neighboring provinces and bring vegetables and daily necessities back to Tibet.”
Poce, a computer engineer, thinks a car is indispensable to the fast pace of modern life.
“It saves me a lot of time. Life has been more convenient since I bought a car last year,” he said.
Pagba Cecheng, a regional government official, outlined two major reasons for the rise in private car purchases in Tibet.
The average per capita disposable income of urban residents in Tibet reached 5,907 yuan (US$710) in 1999, up 8.6 percent from the previous year.
Instead of buying televisions, refrigerators and other luxury goods or depositing money in bank accounts as they did in the past, many urbanites are now spending most of their new wealth on private cars and houses.
The construction of many highways and the establishment of 100 satellite towns in recent years have also encouraged people to buy more cars.
About 50 years ago, yaks and cowhide rafts were the most commonly used means of transportation. It is different now, however. Tibet has a quite developed highway network that centers on Lhasa, the regional capital.
All counties have access to roads. Highways, totaling about 24,000 km, play a vital role in developing the local economy as the region has no access to railway transport services.
A recent sample survey of 120 residents in Lhasa showed that 35 residents have a strong desire to buy a private car.