The Great Sichuan-Tibet Highway Adventure, Part I

Let me clear up one thing, the word “highway” implies a certain level of road development. This post should rightly be called, “The Great Sichuan-Tibet Snow-Covered Dirt Road Death Sentence” because truly, that’s what this was.

The guide book said not to travel to Western Sichuan in winter.  Does mid-to-late November really count as winter?  Yes. It. Does.

While in Chengdu, we tried to make certain that the roads were passable.  All we heard it that it’s “very cold” but no one mentioned that the lack of guardrails or the fact that the road is actually an ice covered, single-lane path on the edge of a 9,000 foot cliff.  So we took the physical challenge.

The bus ride to Kangding took eight hours, it was a beautiful introduction to the Daxue Mountain range and the joy of riding in a smoke-filled bus that hasn’t seen a proper cleaning agent in 15 years. This proved to be the less dangerous part of the trip.

The nearly two lane road followed a gurgling river to the peek of each range and through the plateaus in between the endless mountain ridges. As we got to the top of one mountain, another would appear before us. And even though we were climbing several hundred vertical feet, we were never a far drop from the river. (This is an important part of my escape plan.  I always felt like I might survive if the bus flew off the road, straight into the water.)

Rope Bridge on the Sichuan-Tibet Hghwy
Rope Bridge on the Sichuan-Tibet Hghwy

We drove by tiny villages where I was surprised to find women carrying huge bundles of wood across the rickety foot bridges to their house that appeared to be all alone in the mountain forest. The scenery was gorgeous: waterfalls peeking out between the lush trees that stretched up into the sky.   There were huge construction projects where men were busy logging wood, hauling rocks and damming the river.

Top of a mountain on the way to Kanding

As we got higher the green vegetation gave way to rock.  Just tons of brown-grey rock. It felt like we were on top of the moon. The houses turned into even more massive construction sites with boulders of every size being crushed, hauled and moved away to create tunnels, bridges and god knows what else.

Chinese Construction Sign
Chinese Construction Sign

I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘this doesn’t look so dangerous!’ but I haven’t yet mentioned the actual bus ride.

In China you don’t just drive with your eyes, you drive with your ears. As we took blind hairpin turns high in the mountain, the driver would lay on his horn, warning incoming traffic that we were coming round the bend. Enormous construction vehicles careened straight towards our bus, just missing a head on collision. It was a professional game of chicken with screeching brakes and smoking skid marks (on the road).

This was some IRT Deadliest Roads action and we were shocked and thrilled to finally make it to Kangding…

And when we finally found a hostel, this is what it felt like inside:

Damn cold in Kangding
Damn cold in Kangding

Read Part II of the Great Sichuan Highway and our trip to Litang.

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