Two days before this, it was sunny and a mild -4 degrees in Dartsendo (Kangding). Then clouds rolled in, and air felt thinner and colder. Once we found that the onward bus to Litang had been cancelled due to blizzard and another one may leave the next day, conditions ahead seemed too dangerous to cycle. Especially that it takes two days to reach the top of the mountain pass. So here we are, busing out of Dartsendo and hoping that fairer days await beyond the notorious 285 kilometers of G318.
Up to the first mountain pass (4,410m) other than the relentless incline the road conditions are quite good.
Then we pass Xinduqiao (3440m) and we hit roadworks: mud, puddles, large bumps, stones and lumps of torn-up asphalt make such sections the dread of Chinese cyclists gunning to Lhasa. Every KM we see their messages left on the road markers. Our driver stops to fit the wheels with winter chains. Very encouraging indeed.
Such are the fringes of the Himalayas, where you can often experience all four seasons in one day. The second pass (4,659m) marks a very clear distinction between the vast grasslands of Ta Gong or the misty, forested gorges of Ba Mei. Everything has been replaced by tectonic creations, with mountains looking more like they have been thrown from the sky, rather than pushed from the earth. The view towards the high Tibetan plateau takes our breath away.
As crazy as this road may be, carving through the most dizzying of peaks, we are not alone. And I’m not talking a couple of trucks like the one we saw in Kangding; there are massive PLA army convoys, some returning from Tibet, some slowly climbing up. One line must have nearly 50 trucks! We ask why there is such intense military activity up here, and they say they could be fresh recruits on driving practice, with a number of vehicles carrying supplies to Tibet. Further up, a section of asphalt has been washed away, bringing the entire traffic to a halt. We only get moving again 3 hours later and the driver starts shouting Litang! Litang! to make sure none of us got lost on the mountain.
We finally arrive in Litang in the dead of the night. We’ve been on the G318 for 15 hours. Not so bad, considering that this drive takes 10 to 12 hours in summer. Pedalling our way here would have been a Sisyphean delusion.
Unsurprisingly, because of the intensity of the bus ride, the night doesn’t progress much further than climbing under the electric blanket to escape the cold and writing this. We are bunking at Medok’s Potala Inn. She is Tibetan and one of the few local business owners who support the thin trickle of visitors to the area. In the morning we find her rosy-cheeked and doing laundry right on the sidewalk which sparkles with a robust layer of frost formed overnight. And just like that, there’s no denying it any-longer. Winter is here.
Litang sits at 4,014m, hemmed in on all sides by huge mountains.
This is a Wild West sort of town, clustered around one main street – with open-fronted shops stocked with horse rigs and cowboy gear – and the market – where nomadic Khambas are shopping or selling huge blocks of yak butter. Yak is the staple here: we find yak burgers, yak meat pies similar to the Dabing pancake from China proper, and yak soup, of course. We are shamelessly happy to wolf down an animal we find adorable either dead or alive.
Yak carcasses hanging in Litang’s market.
Litang is the turf of Tibetan nomads. It’s a lot like Tibet, but without all the damn cops.The women wear thick woollen tunics with sashes and their hair is literally wrapped upon their heads in a single massive braid with interlacing red ribbons. The men are gruff, with large daggers attached to their belt and with a mass of long, braided hair adorned in handcrafted silver jewellery bristling underneath cowboy hats. To watch them dart through town on pimped-up motorcycles makes me whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Whenever a break is due, we find the men in the back of the market, shooting pool.
Tibetan kids are a rag-tag troupe of ruddy faced tykes. We make eye contact across a yak carcass. Sparks fly right away. I have forgotten how liberating is to laugh for no reason, just happy to be alive. We’re gonna miss these cheeky bastards, for sure.
This little dude is the spitting image of John growing up with his nana’s noodle soup and just as fussy I’m sure :)
Everyone is super-friendly, yelling “tashi delek” (hello in Tibetan), even when we reach the fringes of Litang and the home of the very poor. This is a very different world, one that neither of us thought still existed outside the issues of National Geographic.
On the north end of town we find the Litang Chode Monastery, the region’s largest, with several hundred resident monks, but looking peacefully deserted. The huge yard allows a stupendous view towards the mountains.
Inside it’s lavishly decorated and we see Dalai Lama’s photo for the first time on the territory of China. Considering that the Dalai Lama is not “chosen”, but “found”, I find it remarkable that Litang was the birth place of two Dalai Lamas – the 7th and 10th.
This monastery has been in use since 1580, but all art and music relating to Tibetan Buddhism was banned from ’59. It’s only in recent years that monks have been allowed to wear the traditional robes and conduct their rituals again.
There are Tibetans who WALK here from China or from India, on their way to Lhasa. Herzog made a hypnotic documentary about that.
Up on the hills behind the monastery, to the left, Tibetan prayer flags mark a site for sky burial. This ritual is also observed in parts of Mongolia.
The place is soaked in sun. I can see how one could just sit here, let this calm energy sift through and forget about time. Frankly, I see no reason to go.