Road Stories #44: Hitchhiking along the Tibetan Highway
We had already been on the road for approaching 9 hours and we were once again stuck in traffic.
‘Why are Chinese drivers so impatient?’
We already knew what had happened as we had witnessed it many times already that day. On a bumpy, poorly tarmaced surface with two lanes, some inconsiderate bastards couldn’t wait any longer and had to drive in the wrong lane. When after 10 metres they inevitably encountered a big truck coming the other way, they would try to get back in lane. When dozens of cars are trying to do this coming both ways, the impeding chaos is hard to untangle. So there we were waiting, as the rain fell steadily and our patience being worn away.
This was our first introduction to the Tibetan Highway…
Our original plan to jump onto, what many Chinese call the most beautiful road in China, had already suffered a detour. The relatively short distance between the cities of Ya’an and Kangding was being relaid so we had to divert south and then north again, adding a few hundred kilometres to our journey. Luckily, we had managed to catch a lift doing just that with two really nice guys. The going was so slow though due to the aforementioned stupidity of Chinese drivers and the terrible state of the road, so it was pitch black when we rolled into Kangding after a morale-sapping 11 hour day. Fortunately, our drivers were thoughtful dudes, and after speaking on the phone to a girl living in the city, they organised us a bed in the local Youth Hostel. We welcomed sleep like the loving embrace of a mother.
As Tibet is off limits to all but the most dedicated and organised foreigners, our intention had been to get as close to Tibetan culture as we could by visiting the Tibetan town of Litang, high up in the hills of western Sichuan. The next morning, in driving rain, we pushed on again. While we were hitchhiking we also saw a new sight for us. Chinese hitchhikers! Apparently the route to Tibet is extremely popular with young domestic travellers and we can confirm that in the region there were lots of people thumbing west as well as us.
We eventually scored a lift with a lovely young couple who were driving all the way to Lhasa and who we willing to drop us off in Litang. The man spoke some English and it was interesting to hear his reasons for visiting Tibet. To Chinese people, Tibet is an exotic place which promised a return to nature, an inviting call for city-dwellers. We were intrigued by his descriptions but thanks to the Chinese government we would never get to go that far along the road.
The scenery on the drive was stunning though, Tibetan Buddhist stupas clinging to the side of lusciously green hills wrapped in colourful flags. Dramatic precipices, soaring peaks. It had the lot. Apart from being taken away by the dramatic nature it was also interesting to observe the 100s if not 1000s of Chinese people cycling along the route. I must say I didn’t envy them though, my lungs would have exploded, my legs bowed and my courage faltered in the face of the miserable weather and the challenging climb they were undertaking.
We rolled into Litang after first missing the entrance. What we saw was not exactly what we were expecting.. but that is a story for another time.
written by: Jon