The Great Sichuan-Tibet Highway Adventure, Part II

I don’t have much faith in my sense of foreboding – I’m always wrong when it comes to omens. But if I did believe in prophetic images, perhaps the Yak ass sold outside the bus station would have indicated that my life was in grave danger and that getting on the unheated, broke-ass bus headed to Litang in the middle of November was a foolish idea.

Yak ass

The bus wasn’t the only thing in bad shape: the passengers appeared to be a motley crew of monks, cowboys and outlaws. And at 6:30 A.M as we pulled out of the station, the bus was already filled with cigarette smoke, discarded sunflower seeds and expectoration. Sitting alongside the driver was a window wiper, the man in charge of making sure the driver could see out the window.  Who needs working defrost?

Cowboy friend on the bus to Litang

As we set off straight up the snowy mountainside it became immediately apparent that we needed snowchains ASAP. Small cars and construction vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road, some had spun out of control and were stuck for good, others were still attempting to make the climb.

As the bus rolled to a stop, all the men jumped off the bus.  Naively I thought they were helping with the chains and prodded Vinnie to lend a hand. As he was standing to get off the bus we both noticed the men whip out their goods and started peeing. One even squatted in front of the lights.  This is how we learned about our bathroom situation (there won’t be one for another 12 hours). Vinnie sat right back down.

Once the chains were in place, we weaved in and around the stalled vehicles, making it to the top of the first peek. Dawn broke. I somehow fell asleep…

Road to Litang

…Only to be jolted awake as the chains hit the pothole ridden dirt road. I nearly flew out of the seat.

The bus ride was bordering on fun – we clung to the seat handle in front of us and held on for dear life, nearly enjoying the jolting, bucking ride. The sun was shining, the snow was melting, and we were driving though picturesque Tibetan mountain villages.


The rear wheel spring had detached from the frame of the bus.  It turns out that the window wiper doubled as a repair man, and we definitely needed him because as Vinnie tells it, this was a particularly serious break down. Happily we were close to a one-road town – a town that happened to have a working repair shop equipped with an arc welding machine.

The repair shop
The dejected window wiper/bus repair man
Waiting out the bus breakdown

An hour later we were on our way, but had no idea how long the tire would stay in place. Frankly, we only worried about the tire for a brief period of time, the stellar view out the window provided more than enough of a distraction.

Gorgeous views on the way to Litang
The view from the bus

Of course, the view can only distract you for so long.  Soon we noticed that the road was completely covered in ice, and the 3,000 meter drop was not protected by a guardrail, but a string of prayer flags.

Guardrail on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

The bus continued to climb and climb and climb.  Along the way we ran into spot of trouble where trucks had slid off the road, and cars were stranded in the middle of the hill. But our bus driver had the power of Buddha on this side – our seatmates, the Monks, chanted the entire ride. In addition to the Monks, the bus was filled with the sounds of Tibetan women singing keroke, cell phones blaring chinese/german techno and shrieks from me.

Those shrieks were well deserved, because the turns became sharper, the lanes icier and the bus driver more intent on making good time. I wrote  my obituary for a good two hours (it all goes into a college fund for my neice with the provision that she visit my remains in China).

This was hell, even for the most mild mannered person in the world. Even Vinnie had enough by the 10th hour. At hour 11 he was yelling at Monks and Tibetan ladies.  Twelve hours after we left Kanding, we pulled into Litang, the highest city in the world. By that point I didn’t even care that the jolting, the chanting and the kereoke were over, I simply wanted to know how the hell were we going to get down off of this mountain.

There was no way that my bruised, chapped ass could handle another bus ride.

7 thoughts on “The Great Sichuan-Tibet Highway Adventure, Part II

  1. Wow! You really take us there. Was this bus recommended by the guidebooks?? And I was worried about my sister taking the bus from Boston to NYC… Just got back from Nicaragua where we passed and were passed by school buses and trucks with people hanging off the top and out the back.

    1. There is only one bus route and this is it. The guidebook does recommend against this route in the winter, but we took our chances. Now that I’ve done it, I would also recommend against it in winter :p

      I would love to repeat this part of the route again in the spring or summer. It was the most stunning views I’ve ever seen, and the experience of sitting on that bus added to it (for the first 5 hours at least)

  2. Honey, is your bruised, chapped ass off that mountain yet? Man, this is a far cry from getting a $15 massage on some beach in Cambodia!

  3. I think I almost threw up reading this. I don’t worry often, but Kris, you painted such a great picture of the danger you were in that now I want to get all maternal on your bruised, chapped ass.

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