Chinese surveyors are about to fan out across the country’s huge western part and risk their lives to create more detailed maps of the largely uncharted region. China does not know exactly what the terrain looks like in an area of more than two million square kilometres, including 70 percent of Tibet. The underdeveloped west is rich in resources, but the lack of information about how to get around and where to look poses a major obstacle to economic development.
China needs maps on a 1:50,000 scale where two centimetres correspond to one kilometre in real life. Because of severe weather and high altitudes, China cannot just rely on aerial photography, but must do it the hard way, sending out mapmakers to cover the region from the ground level. Recent history shows this is highly dangerous, as a total of 42 surveyors were killed in the early 1970s trying to map the Tibetan plateau on a 1:100,000 scale.