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2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Road….What Road? 

A Shortcut From Ganzi to Litang, China

Road from Ganzi China to Litang Tibet

Entering Tibet was the last thing on my mind while exploring the Sichuan-Tibet highway. I was more intrigued by how a border drawn on a map cutting across the eastern corner of the Tibetan plateau—also known as Kham—had impacted the culture in this remote mountainous region of Western China. Political tensions still flare up occasionally, encounters with mile-long military convoys are common, yet everyday life is still mostly peaceful.

The Chinese Government’s policy to pay handsome settlement allowances to Han Chinese migrants to enter Tibet and set up business has resulted in mass migration to more financially viable places such as Lhasa. In Lhasa, flashing Chinese neon signs collide horribly with the backdrop of Potala Palace. I was more interested in exploring the plateau on the Chinese side in order to see how much Tibetan culture had been affected in this far flung and forgotten corner of the world, which had been closed for a long time to foreigners. 

In Kangding, the Sichuan-Tibet highway splits off into two sections: north and south. I decided to take the more arduous and less travelled Northern Sichuan-Tibet highway as far as Dege, the beautiful border town now acting as gatekeeper to Tibet proper. The motivation to go north was the challenge of the journey itself; passing through the beautiful Tagong Grasslands, up into the clouds crossing over the Chola Mountains at Tro La Pass—which climbs to an altitude of nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. Altitude sickness is a real threat here, and if that does not get you, the terror of the bus ride skidding along the icy dirt road will. 

The most memorable experience along the early stages of the journey—prior to the momentous task of climbing up the Chola Mountains—was a small 1-street town lying between Ganzi and Dege and called Manigango. The town was comprised of a line of dusty shops and houses on either side of the dirt road, an appalling official Chinese Hotel where all foreigners must stay (I didn’t), mangy dogs salivating over hanging yak meat drying in the blinding high altitude sun, and one modern building which I later found out to be a school.

On alighting from the rickety rackety bus, I was immediately surrounded by old women selling trinkets, begging children, dogs, dust, and chaos. I had been warned back in Ganzi not to stop here by two travelers who had stayed in the Chinese hotel a few nights beforehand. They received a rude awakening at 2 a.m. by the Chinese P.S.B., who forced them out of bed under the threat of arrest in an attempt to extort money. With this in mind, and under the cover of chaos, I managed to flee with an old lady who offered an alternative place to sleep, gesturing with her hands to her face in an angled prayer-like posture. I gladly took her up on the offer. The local crowd was supportive by allowing me to slip through and escape out of sight from any spying eyes.

After settling down with the Tibetan family for a couple of hours, I was invited to go to the school for a secret rendezvous with at least 50 kids while under the cover of darkness. The school looked modern from the outside, however looks were deceptive. Once inside the padlocked gates, the school was an empty shell with absolutely no teaching supplies in sight, hardly any books, paper, or even desks and chairs for the children to sit on. I had a memorable late night experience interacting with the kids seeking to learn English and eager to showcase and practice their language skills with a foreigner. Political tensions still run deep in these remote parts, and the English language is not part of the curriculum, since less knowledge and communication is better for the controlling parties.   

After a couple of days spent in town waiting for the next bus to pass through, I was ready to take on the next stage of the voyage—from the Tro La Pass to Dege. It was a stunningly beautiful and scary road trip which took about five hours of constant ascent to the highest point at around 5,000 meters, where a monk started chanting and throwing tiny pieces of paper covered with prayers out of the window. The bus finally descended coughing and spluttering in sympathy with the passengers to Dege, with my shattered nerves and a pounding headache finally alleviated at a more reasonable 4,000 meters. 

Dege itself is a picturesque border town famous for its lamasery (Tibetan monastery) containing Buddhist scriptures and printing blocks dating back to the 18th Century, including “A History of Indian Buddhism,” comprised of 555 woodblock plates and the only surviving copy in the world. One could write much more about Dege alone, however, as this is a tale of travel rather than history, I will continue on with the road trip where the Northern Sichuan-Tibet highway had certainly lived up to its reputation for being one of the most treacherous yet stunningly beautiful roads in the world. 

But the highway turned out to be less than half as dangerous as the shortcut I persuaded a monk to take in a taxi back to the town of Ganzi, where I wished to return in order to explore Sichuan more deeply. After a day of pounding the streets talking to drivers of all manner of transport, including minibus, taxi, tractor, horse, and an expensive 4-wheel drive, I was thwarted at every turn. I knew a road existed between Ganzi and Litang, as I could see it marked on a map, however nobody was prepared to take me and I was constantly told impossible, impassible, and way too dangerous even for a 4-wheel drive to attempt. The thought of having to backtrack another twelve hours to Tagong really did not inspire me, and I kept looking at the map containing the road that did not exist.

Frustrated and hungry, I entered a noodle shop where I ordered a spicy bowl of La Mein. I was soon joined by a monk who overheard me and offered to take me to Litang in his taxi. I did not know that monks drove taxis, but it did not surprise me in this remote part of the world. I have never experienced the behavior of some the monks, including persistent begging to the extreme the entire time I was eating, paying, leaving, and walking away.

I weighed the pros and cons, checked out how roadworthiness of his taxi, even as he assured me that he could manage it since his family lived in Litang and he had made this journey before. We made arrangements and it was agreed that the best time to depart was dawn the next day. Back at the small guesthouse where I had been staying, I started to have some serious doubts, more in relation to getting arrested or being kidnapped. I chatted with a young woman who told me a little more about the road I was taking. Apparently it was dangerous because of regular landslides, flash floods, and was an impassable dirt track throughout the year, even worse than the Tro La Pass. Again, altitude sickness was a major issue, though I had no idea how high the road that "was not there" actually went.

At the start of the journey there was an empty guard post with a flimsy bamboo pole restricting entrance, which was pretty easy to circumnavigate. The dirt track followed the path of the river, which had cut a gorge through the mountains like a knife through butter. The scenery was absolutely mind-blowing. The gushing waters of the Yalong River were to my right and a steep sheer rock face to my left—so steep you could not see the sky. Parts of the road disappeared completely into the river. At times you could feel the back wheels spinning while trying to grip onto the terrain below. It was a slow painstaking drive which took hours skirting along a very narrow path, at times blocked by debris from a recent landslide. I honestly thought that this was going to be my final resting place. It was a heart-pounding, taxi-tilting, adrenaline rush like I have never experienced in my life.

At times the road descended down to the fast-flowing river and we had to make a couple of crossings through the most shallow parts. There were a couple of houses scattered through the lower valley where horseback was the only mode of transport for the occupants. Glimpses of people were rare and thoroughly rewarding when they did occur. Imagine the look on their faces upon the sight of a white foreign woman sitting in the back of a taxi smiling, or should I say exhibiting a frozen grimace of terror in the shape of a smile? It is funny how you react to this kind of fear; my response was an uncontrollable fit of laughter, and the monk's answer was to constantly chant his prayer to the heavenly gods.

We finally made it out of the steep gorge. To my surprise we happened upon a little village settlement. I was advised by the monk to lie down in the back while we passed through. He did not want to attract the attention of any P.S.B. in the area and I did as told. Once through the village the condition of the road improved for a while. We started to slowly climb upward, the gradient becoming steeper and steeper, to such an extent that it felt like the taxi was going to start rolling backwards. And this continued for a good couple of hours. When the road finally started to level out, the Tibetan Plateau suddenly opened up around us.

My brave monk escort started to suffer from altitude sickness. He was having difficulty seeing the road with a blinding headache pounding his skull. We pulled over and he took some herbal medicine he was carrying in a vial tucked into his robes. After resting his head for a while he felt strong enough to continue the journey, encouraged by the thought of surprising his family. He was also spurred on to make the last leg before night and freezing temperatures descended upon us.

The closer we got to Litang, the more sky burial sites we passed, with dark shadows cast by the massive wingspan of vultures circling above. It had been an incredible shortcut to finally reach our destination of Litang, the famed birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas. The risks had been well worth it. I had never felt so alive by the end of this part of my journey.

Note: This journey was undertaken before the devastating Sichuan earthquake. My heart goes out to all the people of this incredibly beautiful but sometimes cruel part of the world, no matter what their ethnic origin. Wherever I have traveled, it is my experience that people just want to get on with their lives and live happily in harmony side by side as equals. It is unfortunately, the greed of distant people in power who create such divisions between cultures. I hope one day the pain will finally heal, whether its cause is natural or political.