Tibet-Sichuan Highway

Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, November 8, 2007

After our journey down the tourist route of China we set off on the Tibet-Sichuan highway, a road only opened to foreigners in the past few years. Before we left Chengdu we had 2 uniquely Chinese experiences. We went to see the 'national treasure,' the giant panda, which despite looking impressive is arguably the most inept animal in the world. The women only get broody once a year and the men have one of the weakest sex drives of all animals; even when they do get it on there is a high chance of interbreeding and the panda sperm not working. They live in the rainforest which makes their black and white fur completely un-camouflaged and their diet of bamboo totally un-nutritious. To make things even worse, despite their size they have no defense against predators. Have they ever heard of Charles Darwin? Its only because of artificial insemination at this breeding sanctuary that they are not extinct.

Afterwards we headed to the 4th Chinese food festival to try some national delicacies including battered crab, black sweetcorn, stuffed Yorkshire puddings in the style of a calzone pizza, and rabbit head. You eat the meat of the side of the cranium then tear open their jaw to feast on the tongue and brain - it was pretty vile.

The journey west from Chengdu took us through a spectacular green valley wide enough for a 1 lane road and a river. Throughout the journey we were flanked by mountains that grew increasingly taller before arriving in Kangding at 2700m. The town is situated in the only flat space for hundreds of miles, forming a thin Y shape between 3 imposing mountains; at points it is less than 50m wide. This is where Tibet begins and is an intriguing mix of Chinese and Tibetan culture. We made the mistake of sleeping in a hostel next to a monastery and were woken at some random hour by some monk praying on a load speaker system. Whereas the Lonely Planet woppers we met there regurgitated paragraphs from the book about how their was little to do, we found it fascinating to observe life in this remote place; Chinese people speeding around in flash cars past Tibetan monks and old women carrying tin buckets full of vegetables.

We were warned about the dangers of the 280km road to Litang which can be closed for 6months a year due to the weather: Watching snow fall heavily the night before we left was an ominous sign. We were crammed into a 16seater minivan with a chain smoking driver and set off on an icy road that clung to the side of a mountain. The first pass we crossed peaked at 4300m as we gradually climbed until we were level with the clouds and visibility was near zero. Thankfully the bright sun had thawed out most of the ice by the time we crossed the next three mountain passes at 4400m, 4550m, and finally an altitude sickening 4718m above sea level (the same height as Mount Blanc - the highest point in Europe). It was the most spectacular journey we have ever done but ridiculously scary as most of the road had no barriers protecting the bus from a sheer 2500m drop. It was also painfully slow because after every few miles forward there was a U turn that took us the same distance backwards as we crawled up and down the Himalayas.

When we arrived in Litang we cursed ourselves for coming. The town is at 4018m above sea level and within a couple of hours Kerry was bed-ridden through altitude sickness despite the best efforts of the herbal medicine we had taken. It was also snowing which made visibility horrendous and sent temperatures outside down to -20. Then there was a fire in our hotel which switched off the electricity (including heaters and blankets) for the night, sending temperatures inside to near -20. 

When we woke, fully clothed, the sun was out and the view was absolutely spectacular. Litang is situated on a small plateau surrounded by 6000m + mountains that look like they were drawn onto the horizon by a small child; rising sharply from the ground and forming rigid triangle shapes. The pictures do more justice than words. Despite not being in Tibet, Litang is a Tibetan town where everyone speaks Tibetan, and despises the Chinese. Very few foreigners come here and everyone we wandered past stopped to say hello or have their photo taken, so they could see themselves on the digital camera. We had a game of football with the locals (i nearly died after a few minutes of running because of the altitude) and sat with a monk outside his monastery for an hour admiring the view. This was the most amazing place i had ever been.

As we walked through the streets at dusk a local on a motorbike stopped to say hello and i jokingly asked for a lift. He took me on a tour of the town and then to his mums for a chat and some milk tea, which she forced down me despite my protestations. When we drove back to meet Kerry and Richard (the guy we traveled this route with) he invited us to his own house where we sat with his whole family eating potato dumpling. They gave us Tibetan names which I cant remember, however Richard's translated to Dalai Sun, and he removed his hat to reveal a full crop of bright ginger hair to their delight. Despite having thick jet black hair, everyone in this house wanted to know how they could get their buffon to look like Richards. 

After a challenging day horse riding we decided we had to leave because altitude sickness was giving us a thumping headache all day. Before leaving we went to a sky burial, a funeral bestowed upon respected members of the Buddhist community, but banned by Chinese authorities until the late 1980s. If your at all squeamish you should skip this paragraph. Buddhists believe the body is just a carrier for our soul and the body should be returned to nature as soon as it is no longer needed. On the top of a hill, the master of ceremonies, dressed in white overalls, begins hacking at the dead body with a saw until limbs are torn off and insides are on show. This man is special in the Buddhist world and is not allowed to marry or have children; the job being passed on to one of his nephews. Then he stands back and a huge flock of vultures feast on the dead meat until after an hour nothing remains but a few bones. It was a surreal experience, gruesome and intriguing in equal measures. It hit home what was actually happening when a vulture flew off with 3m of intestine hanging from its mouth.

We headed on to Daocheng in the hope of reaching Yitang national park. Unfortunately the park and road was closed due to fighting between the Tibetans and Chinese and we could only go if we bribed the police. Daocheng itself is a town set up for the eventual influx of tourists to the area; there are dozens of tourist souvenir shops and hotels but hardly a single tourist. We only stayed for the night but the shop signs provided the greatest exhibition of Chinglish I had ever seen, pick your favorite from:
1) Happy to come to eat the shop
2) Mitigation Hairdressing
3) Obey and reach the general merchandise
4) Revitalise one henry of department stores in weather
5jThe Sixth comprehensive door frame supplies store

Abandoning hopes of reaching Yitang we spent 12hours on an eighteen seater minibus with 28 other passengers heading south to the town of Zhongdian in Yunnan province. Many years ago a fictional book was written in which a place called Shangril'la was considered paradise. The Chinese government claimed Shangril'la was in China and a political bidding war ensued over where this mythical place existed. They plumped on Zhongdian, which has pretty nice scenery, but anyone who claims it is 'paradise' is as misguided as Glenn Hoddle was when he selected David Batty for the penalty shoot out in the 1998 world cup. The town itself is quite dull, so to attract the tourists the authorities built an 'old town' in traditional Ming dynasty style. Its so 'old' its still being built. Throughout the town there are claims of being part of Tibet, restaurants, hotels and shops named Tibet this, Lhasa that, Yak this, Potala that. However, there are no Tibetan people. The town should be named after Disney, not paradise, because its like a big amusement park. Nevertheless it is nice to be somewhere with running water and an altitude closer to 3000 than 4000m.

I never know how to finish these blog entries so I'll leave with some useless information about Buddhists in Litang - those who don't get the honour of a sky burial just get chucked in the river and fed to the fishes.

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