Starting from Xining, capital of Qinghai province, the Qinghai Tibet Highway stretches 1,947 km (about 1,210 miles) into Tibet with an average elevation of above 4,000 meters. Winding along the Kunlun Mountain, Tanggula Mountain, Tuotuo River, and vast grassland, the Qinghai Tibet Highway amazes travelers with its appealing landscape along the plateau.
Being the world’s longest asphalt road and at the highest altitude, it reaches its top point at the 5,231-meter-high Tanggula Pass. About 980 km of the road is more than 4,500 meters above sea level, and 630 km of its length is bedded on permafrost, soil that is permanently below the freezing point.
Freight transportation still relies on the road. More than 80 percent of goods still go via the highway, while people mostly take the train. Since opening to traffic in 1954, the central government has spent nearly 3 billion yuan ($362 million) on three major overhauls. It was asphalted in 1985.
Future development – Tibet Expressway
Now the Chinese scientists are doing a research project on how to build expressways on the alpine area taking the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway as the target area. The middle part of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is situated at the altitude of over 4,500 meters with years of frozen earth, 50 percent of oxygen content and annual solar radiation of 8,000MJ/m2. Its average annual temperature is below zero and minus five degrees centigrade. Under such harsh natural conditions, we are trying to break the bottleneck of building expressways over 25-meter-wide roadbed and 80-centimeter-thick road surface in order to complete the opening of the national expressway network. To this end, we have to overcome the fragile ecological environment, sharp contrast in temperature, long-term temperature below zero and strong ultraviolet radiation.
Besides, with the global warming, the degradation of the frozen earth will surely affect the construction of the expressway in dozens of years, which remains a problem to be tackled. It is still a challenge in the world to build bridges and tunnels on the areas with frozen earth such as on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.
Furthermore, we will take a full consideration of the conservation of its fragile environment in the construction of the expressway.
Compared with the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, the Yunnan-Tibet Highway and Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet expressway is less difficult due to its relatively flat terrain between the Kunlun Mountains and Tangula Mountains while the other highways all have to cut through many mountains, rivers and fracture zones. Of all the highways to Tibet, the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway is the shortest in mileage and the smallest in scale, and will be the lowest in cost and shortest in the period of construction.
In June 2013, the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway has been included into the 12th Five-year Plan(2011-2015). It is an infrastructure with strategic importance. When it will be opened depends on the determination of the Chinese government and the technological support for building expressways on frozen earth. We are confident that we are capable to build this expressway thanks to our years of research results, which have also been tested in the construction of other roads such as the expressway from Gonghe to Yushu of Qinghai. It has boost our capacity in building expressways on the high altitude areas in freezing weather, improving service for transport safety and provide guidance for road designing as well as environmental protection.