What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 27, 2015.
Day 7: Wachang – ???
I have a terrible nightmare of skidding off the edge of a cliff. I am on a motorcycle with big panniers and a wide console for a stereo and all the other stuff certain bikers want for their rides. It seems clunky and overbuilt, unstable. I’m coming down one of these narrow Tibetan roads carved into the side of a mountain. The weather is overcast and stormy-dark, but it feels dry and dusty. As I come to the corner, the bike won’t turn. It won’t turn — it is racing towards the void. I throw the bike into a skid and put everything I have into staying on the clifftop, lean into the ground as hard as I can to increase friction. I am still skidding, as if time slowed down, towards the edge, towards the abyss.
I slowly wake up to find I am in fact in a tent in Wachang, standing on my knees, trying to tip the tent over onto its side. I crawl back into my warm sleeping bag and wait for the alarm to go off. Soon enough it does, and I get up and break down camp. By 7:02 AM I am standing where the cars, if they ever were going to, would come pick me up. At 8:30 the bus to Muli pulls out, and I try to get the driver to give me a ride to the crossroads below Muli Monastery, but I can’t explain it. He drives off without me. I ask someone standing in the street if I can use his cell phone to call Hannibal, but he takes a cigarette from me and walks away. I wait another hour, then two. At 10:30 I start walking on the road that leads down into the gorge. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
At the first stupa I pass I leave behind the book James gave me, that I read yesterday. I put out the prayer that somebody will take it and give it to a kid studying English. Maybe it will be read again. But I don’t feel it’s possible for me to carry it one more step. Without it, my bag feels immediately lighter, better. Maybe I can do this after all.
It takes me about two hours to climb down to the crossroads, cutting across people’s front pastures and frightening their piglets, choking on dust from Chinese SUVs barreling up to the monastery, and gauging the weight on my shoulders and hips. It feels okay. At the crossroads I head for what looks like a little restaurant, but a shopkeeper calls me off. There’s no restaurant — just a big gas station and a few disorganized five-and-dimes. I sit in the shopkeeper’s store, and he hands me two pieces of Wrigley’s Peppermint Gum. I ask him if there’s a bus to Dongla and he says no. I ask him if there’s a bus that goes in that direction, and he says no. I even ask him if he has cigarettes and he says no, so I go off to another crappy store to buy a pack. Later I realize I was asking if he had rice (fan), not cigarettes (yan). Of course he had cigarettes.
After sitting on a stool in the store for a while, I am joined by the police. They want gasoline and energy drinks. The kid with the good jump shot who I had played basketball with is riding along in plainclothes. He comes over to visit me, and I give him a stick of chewing gum. We chew in companionable silence for a minute. He asks me where I am going, and when I say Daocheng he gives me a thumbs up. Then he buys me an enormous pack of buckwheat granola bars and a bottle of water. “Good luck,” he says once the uniformed police officer is done harassing some tourists. They leave.
I keep sitting on the stool, next to the horrifically bored shopkeeper whose shop is in utter disarray. He has become tired of staring at me and now looks at the opposite hillside. The mid-day heat is causing the air to shimmer slightly. I think of the happy-seeming Tibetan families just up the hill, bringing in the corn harvest or trying to convince the ox to pull the plough. Often the whole family is out in the field, sheltering under the walnut tree, a few Tibetan ponies grazing on the cornstalks. Here in this crossroads town the flies buzz all afternoon, and garbage chokes the gutters. The shopkeeper leans back in his cushioned chair and avoids looking at me.
At this moment I know, as if I have already known for a long time, that I will not backtrack to a dusty Chinese city, will not take the bus back to Muli, will not fail to enter Tibet. It’s suddenly obvious that I will keep going until that point where the world forces me to turn back. This knowledge is purifying. A nagging question has been answered and it no longer weighs me down. Whereas before I had carried my failure with me, now I feel strongly that I will not give up. I will simply carry on, heading north and west, even if it means surviving on buckwheat granola bars for a while. I feel good in the decision — not excited but resolved.
I pack and hoist my bag, set the straps, bid adieu to the blasé shopkeeper, and start walking north. After a while a Tibetan in a pickup gives me a short hitch before he turns off to cross a bridge. Then a while later a Chinese trucker picks me up and carries me past nightfall. He and I develop a quiet friendship. At some point we stop and take a nap near a massive hydroelectric plant. We are woken by the driver of another truck yelling at us. It turns out that he’s part of a four-truck convoy who happened to be running ahead. We spend the next couple of hours with the windows rolled up, in a cloud of dust as we slowly pick our way down a rutted and potholed dirt track.
At some point the truckdriver gestures at a turnoff and asks me if I want to get out. I keep asking him which road leads to Daocheng and eventually he puts us back on the road up the river, following the three other trucks. At another point I see three closed mineshafts in the course of a few miles on the other side of the dry riverbed. I assume that there had been some aborted attempt at mining up here — the rivers are famously good for panning for gold. Then we come on a great dam that strangely lacks a hydroelectric plant at its base, and I realize that those weren’t mineshafts. They were access points to a vast water diversion that takes the water further downhill, where the energy is greater.
The entire run of the river is an ecological nightmare. In some places the river is sixty feet wide with churning whitewater. In others it is perhaps fifteen feet across and comparatively trickling. Reservoir after reservoir is newly full, with tree trunks half-underwater and the trees dying, half-brown. In one reservoir I see the wall of a house floating near the shore. Around each dead lake stands an eerie silence and a smell of rotting fish. There are signs prohibiting fishing, swimming, diving, and drinking the water. Everywhere the hills are striped with high-voltage electrical cables.
Sometime after sunset our convoy of trucks rolls into a small town on the hill above a dam. My truckdriver explains that we will eat dinner. We go into a small, cinderblock room with a single compact fluorescent lightbulb where a boy a few years younger than me prepares us dinner. He makes extra eggplant for me, delicious and spicy, and there is also very good pickled cabbage. The other truckers all ignore me at first, and then we get on good. They want to talk about the size of my nose, which is only a preamble to talking about the size of my penis. They measure between their palms penises that belong on stallions, and then they ask me how big mine is. I start to indicate a more realistic size, but they shake their heads until I indicate a heroic dimension, then they cheer. Later we inspect American money, and I give a dollar bill to the one who ends up paying for dinner.
I get back in the truck, and we drive up the road another few hundred yards. Then it’s time to part ways. I shake my generous driver’s hand and head down the road. I’m right by a great dam, hundreds of feet high. I’ve learned the logic of Chinese dams by now, and sure enough I’m soon walking down a tunnel hewn from solid stone — no reinforcement — with only my headlamp for light. The eerie drips and echoes, and the great puddles I must skirt around remind me of my Grandpa Bob, once a devoted amateur spelunker in Western Pennsylvania. I personally don’t understand the allure of being underground, but there’s something impressive and otherworldly about those who do. Eventually I make it to the other end of the tunnel.
Here there is a yard for big machinery beside the road. The guard dogs hear my walking sticks and take up a tremendous howling. One manages to slip through the fence and starts coming at me. I warn him with my stick: any closer and you die. Or at least that’s the intention I’m trying to send his way. The dog backs off. I keep walking, occasionally turning back to check on my pursuer. He keeps a healthy distance for a hundred feet, and then I’m in another tunnel. He doesn’t follow. This tunnel has a more uneven floor, covered in puddles, and it seems to go on for longer. Eventually I get scared, looking at the watermarks on the ceiling, hearing the distant echoes of the dogs. I get a little bit spooked, so I sing the theme song toIndiana Jones. It is widely known that you cannot feel fear while adventuring and singing this song to yourself. After ten or fifteen minutes I emerge from the other side of the tunnel and find myself beside another enormous, dead lake.
I don’t want to sleep by this lake, so I commit myself to walking until I am beyond it. There is anyways something charming about night hiking. At least there are fewer cars to stir up dust. After a while a car comes up behind me and slows when it pulls up. The passenger says, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I say yes, and soon he invites me to take a lift. The man is a programmer from Beijing out here on holiday, and he speaks fairly good English. We talk for a while and then reach his car. It turns out that the Tibetan boy driving him was a mechanic who had been summoned to help change a flat. They drop me off by some stupas on the edge of the dead lake.
I walk for another hour or maybe two, passing an orange tabby cat, a big bullfrog, and a cow. I end up pitching my tent on the side of the road where there’s a flat spot of sharp gravel. Water rushes loud in the gully below — a tributary that today feeds the lake — so this campsite qualifies as being away from the evil-seeming reservoir. I am happy as I pin the guy wires under heavy stones to notice a dry wind blowing from the west. Perhaps my tent will be dry when I pack it on the morrow. I am energized to write in my journal, noting the joy of the sound of this running water and the occasional but truly desperate lowing of a nearby cow before falling into a deep sleep.
Day 8: ??? – ???
I rise early, as I’m uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping on the side of the road during trafficbearing hours. While striking camp I look across the stream at a large Tibetan house with a pleasing puff of smoke coming out of the chimney. I walk down and take water at the stream, avoiding eye contact with a mean-looking bull. Perhaps this was the one making all of the racket last night? I add the iodine tablets and head off down the road, but before I’ve made thirty steps a young Tibetan man stops me and invites me in for tea. I accept and soon am sitting around a wood stove in a great room drinking butter tea. Three or four youngsters are all piled under some heavy blankets in front of Chinese cartoons, while the two older generations of Tibetans — two couples — sit around the morning stove watching the day’s soup bubble. The same butter tea plunger as at Muli Monastery is employed here, and the tea is quite good. They also give me a bowl of day-old rice and pour tea over it. It’s delicious and filling. Eventually, the man offers to take me to Daocheng on his motorbike for 500 kuai, but I decline. That’s all the money I have, about eighty bucks.
I leave and walk up the road. Another forty or fifty steps later a pickup truck comes up behind me. Not knowing how many other cars might come by today I stick out my thumb. They stop and take me on: four Chinese men telling jokes and laughing. I wonder if they will take me all the way to Daocheng, but soon they stop. The road in this section has slumped four or five feet down: the beginning of a landslide. The men pile out of the truck and start chatting with the operators of two backhoes that are starting to try to clear the mess. One hands a five-gallon bucket from the back of the truck up to a backhoe operator. I figure it must be hydraulic fluid.
I walk across the slide area. There are still pebbles occasionally rolling down from one hundred feet or so up the bank. I have to calculate whether it is safer to walk on the slumping side, which seems likely at any moment to slide the rest of the few hundred feet down into the lake, or to walk on the narrow section that is not slumping but might be the target of any falling debris. I walk quickly on the unslumped side and make it to the other side. There, it seems trucks and cars have been stopped for a day at least, waiting for the road to be fixed. Chinese people stand around a makeshift fire, bored. I look back at the slide zone and notice high above it, tilting off the cliff, two woodframe shacks. I wonder what the fatality rate for backhoe operators clearing roads in rural Tibet is, and then I continue on my way.
I walk down the road for a long time, not seeing any cars in either direction. There are herds of goats perched high up on hillsides and herds of yaks just barely off the road. I also encounter several pig families, piglets running in fear from me until they reach a certain distance from their mothers, at which point they press themselves against the side of the road till I have passed. A Tibetan girl is collecting special tree branches and tying them into great bundles. Perhaps they are for burning as incense. I pass through a Yi village and smile with an old woman who has many gold teeth and wears her people’s distinctive headdress.
Then I come upon a section of road that is stunningly beautiful: rocky crags leaning over the road, great spires reaching from the lake up towards the heavens, and a sheer cliff face that looks to my unstudied eye to be a spectacular piece of climbing. Hundreds of feet down there is a little creek that must over the eons have carved these spectacular formations. It runs swift for a ways and then slows into a sandy trickle as it meets the lake. Some garbage bobs against the shore.
A ways further on I catch a ride from an older Chinese fellow in a white jeep. Before riding in this vehicle I don’t know if I ever really understood the meaning of the term, “Bucket of Bolts.” I can report that this car really does sound like a mechanic’s toolchest on a trampoline. There are all manner of different clanks and clunks in the engine. The transmission lets out a wide range of different whines. And the suspension is so thoroughly shot that one regularly hears and then promptly feels the shocks bottoming out. Furthermore there is a well-developed exhaust leak contributing serious gasoline fumes to the cab, which linger even with the windows rolled all the way down, as we keep them for the entire journey.
Luckily the driver is a nice Chinese fellow, probably looks older than he is and he looks pretty old. We develop a strange sort of camaraderie, both trying not to hit our heads on the roof too hard. We have varying success. At a few points he takes a set of chuckholes a little bit too fast and the whole car leaps again and again. This gives me some paranoia about my bag falling out of the back. I keep turning around when I see a big bump coming, just to have the pleasure of watching my green canvas bag leap up in the air and momentarily into view. Just about the time I’ve convinced myself the bag won’t fall out, however, I start getting scared for my computer, which sits in the middle of the pack. Again I wallow in miserable paranoia for a bit, till I manage to attain a tired acceptance that whatever happens will happen, and there’s no good worrying.
We drive for hours and hours, passing even more dry streambeds and dead lakes. At one point my driver manages to run the undercarriage aground in a particularly deep rut. The two of us ineffectually try to extract the jeep until some competent Tibetan young guys driving a delivery truck come along. One of them takes charge of the situation, requisitioning a long pole from a disassembled log cabin sitting on the side of the road. The three Tibetans and I use this to lever the jeep out of the puddle on one side while the driver gets muddy placing rocks and boards under the raised tires. Finally the Tibetan leader gets in the jeep and drives it crazily out from its ditch. We all get back in our vehicles, and the old Tibetan woman who has been watching the undertaking while continually gesturing at the turnip she cradles and saying something to me in Tibetan continues on her way.
This hitch takes me so far up the river that we pass hydroelectric plants still under construction. The river here is strong-flowing and beautiful, sometimes taking up the entirety of the gorge, which leaves us thankful for the crude, unlit tunnels. I in particular am thankful not to be walking through them. But eventually I develop a slight headache from the fumes, and I’m not totally disappointed when we finally reach the trademark tents of the Chinese road crew and my driver visits with his buddies and sends me on my way.
The road here is nearly abandoned and totally beautiful. I walk for a long time, only encountering one truck coming the other way. These truckers wish me well on my journey and feed me all manner of delicious pastries along with giving me a Hi-Tiger. They draw me a map that doesn’t seem to be much use, and they take a picture with me. I sit on the side of the road and eat the food I cannot take with me. I realize I have not been afraid all day long.
Over the next few hours several cars pass me, and finally one agrees to take me. Three Chinese tourist men are going to Litang, and I ask them to take me. I cram my bag in the back seat with me (the trunk is full of wet bedding), and we go speeding off. This car has great suspension, gosh what good suspension, I keep thinking. We pass a view of a distant hillside spotted with deciduous trees all yellow and red. We also pass a strange section of forest that is blocked off by chain-link fence and cyclone wire. I wonder about it as we pass. But after perhaps twenty minutes the Chinese men tell me to get out of the car. The driver attempts to trade his cheap sunglasses for mine. I refuse. Before they drive away, I show them the map the truckers wrote for me. No good, they say, and they draw another one. This one’s equally in Chinese and so to me rather useless. They drive off, and I look at a beautiful field and consider camping in it. But no, I’ve only hiked a few hours today and really should press on.
After twenty minutes or so, I come upon a beautiful Tibetan couple taking an evening walk with their three-year-old son. I show them the map I have saved on my phone and ask about the way to Daocheng. They have to think a long time about how one could get from here to there — we don’t seem to be near any of the towns on the map — but then they agree that if I continued up this road I would eventually reach a town where I could turn left and get to Daocheng. More importantly, they ask if I’ve eaten. I take them up on the invitation, in part because I know that they have working telephones, and I really feel like I should make contact with my family and with Hannibal up in Xining who is eventually expecting me.
I walk with the husband back up the hill to the compound ringed with prison-esque fences. (Much later I find out it was some sort of mine.) At one point, frustrated at our lack of communication, he calls a young girl who speaks English and hands the phone to me. We have a desultory conversation — her English isn’t that great, my Chinese worse — and I hand the phone back to him. We make it to their modest cement-block house. The woman starts a wok filled with water to boiling atop a wood stove. Meanwhile I manage to get the husband to call Hannibal on his telephone. The first thing I say is, “Can you tell my mom I’m okay?” It’s a relief to hear my friend’s voice, to speak fluent English, to think about an end to my trip. Hannibal talks to the man in Chinese and determines that I’m actually on a road that leads to Litang — the stop I was intending on making after Daocheng. I’ve already crossed out of Muli County and am well off my map. We decide it would be easier and wiser if I just continued to Litang.
Afterwards the wife makes me a massive bowl of instant noodles — beef and sour vegetable flavor, though we leave the beef packet out — and she adds a bunch of dark-green lettuce and two fresh eggs to the pot. It’s delicious and filling. While I slurp great quantities of noodle, they draw me a crude map of where I’m going. Then the husband considers it, shakes his head, and asks for a fresh sheet of paper. Now he draws a beautiful, intricate map showing the course of the river and where the road departs from and rejoins it. I point at each named place on the map and transliterate it into a crude pinyin.
As dusk begins to settle over the deep valley I pack my bag back up. I give some stickers to the son, who immediately starts sticking them on nearby trees and doors and vehicles. Then I walk a ways further till I find a small field next to the river and pitch my tent there.
Day 9: ??? – Litang
I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of a field mouse eating one of the buckwheat granola bars I had left outside the tent. I pull them back inside and return to deep sleep with dreams I don’t remember. I wake up to the sound of my alarm and look at my phone. It’s six-thirty in the morning. I go back to sleep and wake sometime later to find that my phone is dead, so I won’t be able to take any pictures today. I strike my very damp camp, leaving the nibbled granola bar for the mouse.
I walk up the road for a long time, alternately filled with the beauty of the place and depressed by the constant press of a young pine forest. I fantasize about a wide valley floor, no trees at all, ringed by dramatic peaks. What is this Tibet with no nomads?
Eventually I start up a tall hill, heavily switchbacked for motor vehicles. These have been the bane so far of my walk: a hiker can go pretty much straight up and down a mountain, but not without a path. Instead every kilometer of crowflight takes three kilometers of walking back and forth up and down gentle slopes. However this hillside shows evidence of once having had a much steeper road up to the ridge. I decide to take it.
I head up a gully towards the steep road cut. It’s more vertical than horizontal, and I’m thankful to be going up. Climbing feels good; descending hurts my knees. I reach the road cut, which is really more of a lumpy landslide than a track for cars. Soon I can feel all of the muscles in my legs and I press onward, invigorated by the burning. After twenty minutes, though, the road ends abruptly. I consider turning back, but it’s too demoralizing. Instead I hallucinate a goat track up into the pine-covered hillside and decide to press on.
There is no goat track. Also, the slope here is more of a cliff than a hillside. Somehow the pines cling to its side, and I do to. It’s awkward with my heavy pack catching branches and shifting my center of gravity back. But at least I’m going up, where I can grab knobby roots and flaking trunks and hardy shrubs for support. I make maybe one hundred yards of progress, till the slope levels out a little bit. The road, the real road, is nowhere in sight.
I cut through a wide patch of brambles. The sun is hot. There the road is. I clamber up onto it and throw my bag down. Made it. I drink some water and listen as a distant whine of a motorcycle winds its way up the valley, my head filled with fantasies of a vacant back seat. Instead it’s a caravan of three motorcycles, each carrying three Tibetans plus provisions. We all stop at the pass to look at prayer flags and share cigarettes.
The rest of the day is a long valley with terraced Tibetan villages every few miles overlooking the river. Some of them are abandoned and crumbling back into the mud from which they’re constructed. Others are choked with garbage and crude new stupas and lazy strays. Tall, heavily budding pot plants grow in courtyard gardens; spindly-weak ones choke the ditch beside the road, competing with other weeds. A single tractor passes me going the other way. The exhaust pipe angles up and out, pointing its carbon-black exhale at me
Day grows long. The valley folds itself back up into a gorge. I start leering at flat spots, though I know I should keep walking for a while longer. A motorcycle catches up to me and stops to chat. A Chinese man with a real smile and a horseshoe of hair around a shiny bald pate. He’s also traveling from Muli to Litang, and I’m to understand he plans to open up shop as a carpenter. Behind him on the bike he has a modest, well-built wood toolchest and three handsaws with blades angled at forty-five degrees. He’s trying to give me a ride, and I keep thanking him but indicating that there’s literally no room for me. We shake hands and he rides off.
Another hour of walking later a pickup truck comes roaring up behind me. It’s filled with four Tibetan men wearing threadbare, elegant suits and mala necklaces. I explain where I’m going and ask if they’ll give me a ride. The driver shrugs. One guy gets out and takes a leak. I throw my bag in the bed and climb in after it. We drive up the steep, rutted one-lane road at a high speed. Soon we pass the carpenter from Muli, and I wave at him. He smiles and waves back, buzzing slowly down the evening road on his loaded bike, looking for all the world like a Miyazaki character. Four bone-jarring hours later I’m chilled, my face is caked with road dust, my soul has been lifted by a smolder of sunset seen from a high pass, and I’m in Litang searching in the dark for my hostel. I find it, take a shower, and go to sleep without dinner. My period of lostness is over.