Stranded on the Back Roads of Tibetan Sichuan
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos Kit Yeng Chan

Getting stuck on a flooded road after a landslide on the flanks of Chinese Tibet can serve as a good reminder of the yin and yang of human nature.

Sichuan travel

I woke up abruptly when something hit against the outside wall of my tent. It was pitch black all around. Crumpled clothes and bags filled up the small space separating my fiancée's curled body from my right side.

"It's time to go, laowai." The last word means foreigner in Mandarin Chinese, and brought me straight back to where I physically was on Earth. I quickly tried to regain the strength I needed to balance back to life, and realized that the voice I heard was not that of a dream, but belonged to one of the monks we had met a few hours ago. They were seated around a makeshift campfire like maroon stains of hope, their faces burning softly into the blaze's yellow shades, still able to wait composedly through tragedy.

As stuck as we were, we had no choice but to follow a mixed group of Chinese tradesmen, peasants, and Tibetan monks to the tent-town of a group of roadside workers. All of us, regardless of race and religious beliefs, had been bundled to the same destiny by the callous hand of Fate. Strangely enough for China, we all queued up and entered into the big tent where workers and whoever else in our same situation had already clustered around two long wooden tables. A few lucky ones, particularly women and babies, were slung over several flimsy camp beds. They tried to catch some sleep as the men drank tea from metallic cups, chain-smoked, and murmured around the tables while a beaten-up television cast black and white shadows from one of the tent's darkest corners. I felt like we didn't belong here, and moved outside.


Flirtin' With Disaster

We were all victims of a small natural catastrophe: the last sixty kilometers of the harrowing road from Xinlong to Ganzi—a remote stretch of western Sichuan which, regardless of geographical borders, is still a part of Tibet—had been washed out by the river. A consequential landslide had destroyed part of the road, interrupting the transportation's flow. We had drawn the shortest straw: sandwiched between passengers and luggage at the back of a mini-van, we reached the trouble spot in the evening after having waited for hours in Xinlong, a Tibetan one horse town perched between a mountain slope and a narrow gorge. We were travelling from Kham into Amdo, two ancient Tibetan states which lay unscathed by travel restrictions in the modern Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai.

Today was a typical example of the yin and yang of travel: the same morning, we had awakened in Litang, one of the highest towns in the world, where we attended to its magnificent annual horse festival. The parade of characters, horsemen, and good times pushed our travel thermometers to very high degrees. We were so giddy that we decided to take the hardest, less traveled but shortest road to Ganzi, the gateway to Amdo in Qinghai province. This road bypasses a grueling drive back to Kanding, saving travelers a loop back east and cutting directly to the north on the way to Qinghai province. Stepping out of Litang, we easily hitched a ride in a police pickup driven by two young and courteous agents.

"I doubt it's OK by the book to help you," one of them told us, "but we will. Get in the car." He was still too young to care about the real weight of his badge. He pulled the backdoor open, and let us slide onto the backseat.


You Win Some, You Lose Some

Riding in the police's pickup, the two hours of intermitting pools, cracks and impossible slopes of windy gravel road to Xinlong were reduced to a four-wheeled powernap. This road is hard for buses: it rises up to a peak so high you drive into the clouds before tumbling down into the Earth's goose bumps that give Xinlong, "the new dragon", its breeding nest.

Our bliss was unfortunately pretty short. In fact, just before we entered Xinlong town, one of the two policemen responded to a call on his radio. He pulled it close to his left ear and listened carefully, his eyes fixed on the mounting round slopes all around us. As soon as he moved his left arm down and away from his face, he turned to us and said "there are problems on the way to Ganzi." His young face kept a professional, albeit sorry expression. "Transportation is blocked," he continued slowly. "Let me see what I can do." The policemen deposited us in Xinlong's center next to a row of minivans and stopped to make a few calls. Each and every time, the friendly cop's face never smiled. After trying at least six different people, the young man left his radio fall down to his side and stood there looking at us but trying to bypass our bodies. It was certain: we were stuck in Xinlong, and nobody knew for how long.

"The road's blocked by landslide," a Chinese driver with skin the color of nicotine-soaked cigarette butts came around us to confirm the bad news as he started the bargaining for a ride. "I have a minivan. We are waiting to go to Ganzi anytime, but we must wait for news. At least, here in Xinlong there's food and accommodation available." He had a point. We sat on the sidewalk and the same scene went on for about four hours. Chinese drivers would come, give us and an increasing group of other needy passengers minimal updates on the road's situation, and then they would disappear as quickly as they had come. Some would try to propose an inflated "best price" to get four of us in their cars and leave immediately. In the Yin and Yang of travel, at the moment we represented the tiny white dot amidst a sea of black darkness.

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