Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Tibet Szechuan Highway Day 1: Ain’t no mountain high enough

The four day bus ride across remote north west Szechuan turns out to be one of the most jaw dropping travel experiences I’ve ever had. It starts innocuously enough at 7am on a Friday morning when we (Dutch couple Lisa and Milan and I) catch the bus in Zongdian. Sharing the bus with us are Tibetan men of all ages – all smoking heavily and most dressed in sheepskin coats, many wearing cowboy hats. Up front sit three younger women who flirt with the driver and, as far as I’m concerned, distract him from the distinctly important job of focusing on the road ahead.

And it is a job. For the first hour the road is paved and straight, then it turns to dirt and begins to curve and twist steeply upwards. It’s barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass and on our side of the narrow track steep cliffs fall away first 20, then 100, then 200metres below us.

We climb for an hour, maybe more till turning a corner we find we’re at the top of
the first of a series of high mountain passes, and all around us are mountain peaks standing pink and blue grey against the early morning sky. They are so high that the tree line is a jade collar to great cliffs of grey stone towering above. In the valley far below us are green meadows and white tumbling rivers and above us fields of wildflowers – pink, yellow, indigo and blue – stretch up the mountainside.

Two hours later we cross the last of the mountains and the driver pulls to the side to let the engine cool before the descent. The air is clear and sharp and there’s not quite enough oxygen to draw a deep breath. The sky is a deep blue pool above us and is so close that it feels as if I could reach up and dip my fingers in it.

When we begin our descent the driver decides this is the moment to call a friend on his mobile phone. The dusty track twists and curves and on our right is a sheer drop of hundreds of metres. There is no verge, no barrier, just our bus careering downhill towards the next corner. I can’t look out the window; the drop is too frightening to contemplate. But when I look ahead at the road all I can see is the driver gesticulating as he talks to his friend.

Eventually we make it to the bottom, leaving the pine clad mountains behind and dropping instead into a valley where fields of wheat wave gold in the sunshine. Flat roofed houses, white in the heat, remind me of Morocco or Spain though close up they feature brightly painted details that are undeniably Tibetan.

We wind through the valley for two hours then climb again for hours up to another high pass of 4650m. Trees disappear to be replaced by stunted gorse bushes, heather and more meadows of wildflowers. The air thins again and I feel a headache being to build as the altitude bites.

As we slowly head down again (though this time only to the high grassland plateau (3800m) that surrounds Daocheng, our first destination) it becomes obvious that we are now firmly in north west Szechuan, a Tibetan autonomous region that is so steeped in Tibetan culture it feels nothing like the China we’ve temporarily left behind.

Yaks wearing their heavy black and white shaggy fur (more like a shag pile carpet than a hide) graze on the wiry grass. Nomadic herdsmen in their summer encampments high in the mountains gaze at us and wave as we pass, their teeth white against their ruddy wind burned faces.

Tibetan cowboys ride by on suped-up motorbikes with leather tassles on the handlebars, their long dark hair streaming glossy black in the wind behind them. And everywhere you see the gold and red of Buddhist monasteries wrapped in multi-coloured prayer flags.

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