The Reclusive Tibetan Roadways


I had been backpacking around China alone for a couple of months. I was (until my money ran out) free – free of restrictions, and free of responsibilities. The only problem I had was that I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin beyond ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. This wasn’t such a problem in the big cities where a bit of English was spoken, but in the more rural areas I had to resort to smiling and nodding enthusiastically. Although frustrating, I tried to look for the positives in my inability to converse – it was strangely liberating – I was free to transcend social conventions to some extent.

I had come to China looking to break the mundanity of my former office job. China is such a vast and varied country that every day offers something new and challenging. I was happy to be alone, free to pick the next day’s adventure without interference. I had taken control of my own destiny, rather than idly watching the weeks fly by from my computer desk. So far, I had spent most of my time in the relative safety net of the cities. With the time on my visa running out, I decided to try and get off the tourist trail.

In southwest China, straddling the border between Sichuan province and Tibet is a string of roads that carve a route through the Himalayas, connecting the little villages along the way, forming the ‘Tibetan highway’. Although Tibet is an autonomous region of China, access for western travellers is largely restricted to tours run by Chinese travel agencies that, arguably, provide a very sanitised view of the region. The Tibetan highway never crosses into Tibet though, allowing you to explore the villages at your own leisure, without constraint, offering an authentic flavour of Tibetan culture.

I planned a route that would take me from south to north by bus, through the mountains at altitude, unsure of what to expect along the way but drawn by a fascination with Tibet and it’s struggle for independence from China. I travelled by day and slept in whichever village I reached by night. It was better to travel by day to enjoy the gorgeous panoramas available out of the bus windows. Whichever direction you looked in, the view of the mountains and valleys was good enough for any postcard. The buses I took were old, broken things that made too much noise and offered little in the way of extravagance. They often had ripped seats and wall-panels, exposing bare metal and springs. They were comforting if not always conformable, a reflection of the area – cut off in the foothills, industrious and unconcerned with luxury. My life was in the hands of drivers who threw those jalopies around tight mountain corners with little concern for the ominous drop that was only ever a few inches to one side. The temperature changed from near freezing to sweat inducing from hour to hour, and whenever a window was open, the interior of the bus would fill with dust kicked up from the gravel roads.

I felt excited and free on the buses; they were a fun experience in and of themselves. I started to feel hamstrung by my lack of language skills though. I usually shared the buses with rural men, travelling from one village to another, often accompanied by their livestock and regularly poking their heads out of the windows to smoke. Spending upwards of 12 hours a day on a bus without talking to anyone was beginning to dishearten me. I wanted to talk to the people, to get to know the area better but I couldn’t.

Then, at a stop near a little one street town of wooden buildings, a man garbed in a single red sheet wrapped around him like a toga got on and sat next to me. He spoke to me in English. He was a monk who lived in Tibet, who was on his way to see his mother. He asked me about myself and where I was from and why I had come to China. I found it difficult to put into words – that I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to be in control of my life but I wasn’t sure I was. He said he wanted to see the world as well, but he could never go as far as Europe or America because he would be too far from his family. He said his studies in the monastery he’d been in since a teenager helped him feel in control of his life though. We talked more and found we were the same age – born on the same day! “I think we are the same person,” he said, “but we are living different lives.”

About the Author: I am a part-time web developer and part-time traveler with a fear of flying and a love of trains. I’m currently living in London, plotting my next getaway.

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