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Where there's a road there's a way

By Cheng Si | China Daily | Updated: 2018-08-30 09:04

Founding the Pallha Gezom scenic spot in Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, was 54-year-old businessman Sodnam Dondrub's grand plan to revitalize his hometown and improve villagers' livelihoods.

Building the 35-kilometer road connecting the national highway to the poor village where he was born and developing the scenic spot have exhausted the fortune he made after moving out of the village and left his company 1.4 billion yuan ($205.75 million) in debt.

Sodnam Dondrub was born into a family in the rural village of Pallha, 80 km from Shangri-La, that survived by hunting and growing corn.

"Life was so hard, we had no modern road, no electricity, let alone cars or trains," he said.

His left eye was burned in an accident at a village iron smelter, and he said, "I saw electric light for the first time when I was 10 years old and had to go to see a doctor in Shangri-La.

"I walked five days with my father on a narrow path beside cliffs getting to the hospital but was told I missed the treatment period. I still can't see properly with my left eye.

"This was because of the transportation. With no road to modern cities, when villagers got ill they were carried out by young men, but they usually died before reaching the hospital."

Sodnam Dondrub, yearning for a more modern way of life in the outside world, left the village when he was 13, with just 35 yuan to his name.

"I thought about the situation the villagers and my family lived in and swore to help build a road for my village if I got rich," he said.

He saved the money he made from working in a lumberyard and used it to open a shop. He then invested in real estate and opened a chain of hotpot restaurants, becoming a multimillionaire in his mid-30s.

"I thought it was time to use the money to build the road and bring villagers out from that poor place," he said.

However, villagers did not understand his good intentions and even his father opposed his plan, fearing the road would take up the villagers' farmland. Sodnam Dondrub was disconsolate, because he also needed to overcome big engineering challenges if the road was to be built.

The precipitous location of Pallha village, at an altitude of over 1,500 meters on a mountain and surrounded by cliffs, scared off a number of engineering experts and road construction teams.

But Sodnam Dondrub did not give up, and tried to learn about surveying techniques to push ahead with his plan. His dedication convinced experts to come on board.

After years of negotiations with villagers, construction of the road started in September 2004. It was finished in 2008, shortening the time to get to Shangri-La city from a five-day walk to a 90-minute drive.

He said the four years spent building the road was the most difficult time of his life.

"I used up all my money, about 30 to 40 million yuan, when we'd done half of the work," Sodnam Dondrub said. "I sold off all my houses and assets to continue. I didn't have the money for a meal at the time."

The road brought hope to the backward area, with electricity and communications networks connected to the village. Most villagers left during construction of the road, but Sodnam Dondrub encouraged more than 20 households to move back to the village soon after the road was finished.

He then turned the village into a tourist attraction, Pallha Gezom, which opened to the public in 2009.

"The villagers used to earn about 800 yuan a year but now we have a modern road to bring travelers in, their income has greatly improved to around 100,000 yuan a year on average," he said.

However, the 1.4 billion yuan bank loan he used to complete the project has left Sodnam Dondrub facing interest payments of no less than 100 million yuan a year.

"The attraction is expected to earn 60 million yuan this year and we've also received financial support from the government, but that's far from enough," he said, adding that he had borrowed from friends to meet the interest payments and was stepping up promotions to attract more tourists.

"I never regret doing this as the villagers now live a happy life," he said. "While I'm afraid to leave the burden to my family after I die, I'm convinced my hometown has a promising future."

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