Tibetan dreams on the 318

For many young Chinese, the G318 Highway has become a rite of passage. The road spans almost the entirety of the country, but has become famous in recent years for the amount of people that follow it as a guide to ride, drive, or even walk to it’s terminus in Lhasa. Chinese travel to Tibet has increased dramatically in the last ten years, especially with the completion of the Beijing-Tibet railway in 2006 . But the 318 is something different, something to prove. Every day hundreds set off on the 2144km trek (with more than 4500 meters in elevation change) from Chengdu to Lhasa –a place as mysterious, romantic, and different for Han Chinese as it is to the West.  The 318 is now a well-trod pilgrimage, done not by the devout who prostrate up the unforgiving Himalayas, but rather by the youth of China in search of a challenge and fulfillment that life in the modern, urban PRC doesn’t seem offer –or perhaps in search of recognition from a society asking them what they have to offer.


We found ourselves first on the G318 halfway to Chengdu in a traffic jam caused by no accident, only over-eager drivers so desperate to pass that they ended up in a 5km gridlock. This is the less worn portion of the path, but the road is good overall and it’s a straight shot into the city.

Arriving in Chengdu we’re welcomed by a cousin of one of Jie’s coworkers, Tan He, who has offered to let us stay in his studio on the edge of the city. Our host, it turns out, is a prolific painter and his studio is a three-story, unfurnished villa in an unfinished gated community. Tens of massive in-progress canvases are tipped up on easels as we walk into the entryway, only dwarfed by the literal piles of already finished paintings stacked together in side rooms, on the staircase, and filling the doorway. Tan He laughs and in his round, nasal Sichuan accent tells us its nice to have us here so he can have an excuse to take a break –all he does is paint all day. I believe him. Spending two days with him, the impossibility of his schedule unravels. He doesn’t sleep when it’s dark, instead he works through the entire night; he prefers to sleep at around 10am, closing all the blinds in a hotel room across the street from his studio and sleeping until early afternoon, when he’ll wake up and continue to do the same thing again.


At dinner our first night in Chengdu his ever-present giggle continues to fill the room as he pours glass after glass of beer for himself and introduces his soft spoken assistant and another friend, the three of them all graduates of China’s most prestigious art school, the China Academy of Art.  The conversation shifts from casual small talk to thoughts on art to politics, especially that of Tibet where he travels frequently. The Tibetans are welcoming to artists, he says. There’s a debate as to how Tibetans fare under the Chinese system. His position is unclear, in one sentence he scoffs at the idea Tibetans are at an economic disadvantage, “[Tibetans] are rich, they can get 8000 RMB for one yak.” In another he seems note on darker aspects of the situation:  “they must be killing people every year [there], how do you think the population could possibly hover so consistently around two million.” All throughout the laughter doesn’t stop. An eccentric through and through, he is nevertheless our first insight into what the 318 holds.

Chengdu itself is in the lowlands. At a meager 400m elevation and with a view blocked by skyscrapers, looking around in the city you’d barley know you’re at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. But from the people that live here, it’s clear that it’s a place where cultures in China mix and collide, a city with a mix of people unlike many in China. After dinner we’re whipped up into a club high in a Chengdu skyscraper wearing only flip flops and shorts. Inside a private room, we mix with a crowd of foreign educated Han Chinese and Tibetans who are singing Cantonese karaoke.  Out of the party, we wander to the city center, and around a square that we aren’t allowed to walk in because it’s blocked by police for worries of unrest –the entire thing towered over by a statue of Mao.

 

Late the next day we meet up with Zark, a young Tibetan guy we met at the party, his hair greased back as he steps out of a custom green cruiser with a hand-done tan interior and full-wheel chrome rims. He is the other flow of the G318: originally from Kangding, the capital of Garze autonomous prefecture. After studying abroad in Australia, he now lives in Chengdu and has recently started his own wine distribution business. He is one of the many Tibetans now living in the Sichuan capital, some more flush with modern Chinese culture than others. The next day as we’re getting ready to leave the city a young Tibetan mother walks past us on the street in a straight blue and yellow long-sleeve dress down to her ankles, her hair braided and draped in orange yellow and turquoise stones set in silver.

Outside Chengdu, our first section of the G318 doesn’t go well. In the flatlands we fly by groups of bike riders in neon raingear, honking with some sort of common-felt affection.  Halfway through the day though, the roads are all under construction and their condition begins to deteriorate; rain turns the surface into pool after pool of grey mud as we only manage to push our way through 40km of road in 5 hours.  By next year there will be a freeway here, almost half of it in tunnels, and bikes and motorcycles will no longer be able to ride this route. As the sound of intermittent explosions made by the construction crews continues through the night it becomes more and more clear that this, like many of the in-progress roads we’ve ridden on, are the first-hand of Chinese development.

 

In the morning the guesthouse is in the clouds, and we sit in the living room drinking tea, looking at the walls full of signatures of those who have ridden this route. We’re not far from the city but the birdcalls are crisp and clear; an old man walks by with a bamboo thermos, while another drives up in a motorcycle with two baskets of peaches on each side  Over our intercoms in the morning we talk about the significance of this road for all those who have ridden it before us. Wondering out loud, is this rite of passage for us?

When we come out of the tunnel at the top Er Lang mountain a few hours later, everything changes. The air is a crisp baby blue and small cotton clouds tumble into the pine green valleys. Both of us are almost overcome with happiness at first real sun we’ve seen in a long time. We also seem to have finally found the answer to a question Jie asked the first week of the trip: when do the mountains begin to open up? Past Er Lang mountain, the 318 stays high, twisting around the walls of earth and mimicking the turns of the rivers below as it thrusts toward the plateau.


In the first mountain city on the highway, Luding, we stop to meet arguably the most famous motorcycle mechanic on the 318, Deng Shi (邓师). Deng Shi has fixed motorcyclist’s bikes on this road for 24 years –a history told by the myriad, technicolor banners that hang from the walls of his shop, draped and signed by the different motorcycle clubs that have stopped here over there years. He apologizes for being late; he was an hour up the road helping a motorcyclist who was broken down. Next to us on the couch is a middle-aged motorcyclist who broke his foot on the the same portion of the 318 we were just on, his bike falling over on him as he slipped out. Unphased, he’s in a great mood. He tells us he’s here today in the shop trying to figure out how he can get a scooter shipped here to continue the journey.

“You get it –other people jus don’t understand this feeling,” he says

 

We begin to re-tune the bikes and Deng Shi helps change out the jet in my carburetor so that it will preform better at higher altitude –a task he seems to have done thousands of times.  And although he warns we may only get up to 40km/h once we’re at altitude, the new jet and an air filter hollowed out with a pocket knife (a trick we learned from mechanics in Chengdu) have the 125 clocking in speeds as high as 80, even at 4600 meters (15,090 ft). 

 

Before we leave, Dengshi puts stickers of the Om mani padme hum ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པདྨེ་ཧཱུྃ on our bikes, a Tibetan mantra recited by devotees and inscribed on prayer wheels in every monastery. He says yellow is the highest color in Tibetan, the most noble, and that having this saying with us will make our bikes, and us, more welcome on the plateau.

That night we get into Kangding, and start to scratch the surface of what is clearly becoming Tibet. Unlike the aird plains in my imagination, though, there is water everywhere. Waterfalls smash out of the cliff faces in the canyon, fat with summer rains and we drive on roads that curve with massive rivers not even mentioned on maps. Almost all the houses we pass are framed by flowerbeds.

 

Kangding itself, the capital of the Tibetan region in Sichuan, is frontier town slotted into the mountains, an amalgamation of tight alleyways, red paper lanterns and houses in different combinations of black red and white tiles that all convene into a low-rise concrete downtown that straddles the river. Once in town, the mix of people begins to change too. Girls walk by dressed in long, tight ankle length dresses, some with deep and pale reds paired, others are dressed in all black except for a red strand of fabric braided into long obsidian hair. A Tibetan guy in his mid-twenties in a traditional comes by and plays us a song on an instrument neither of us have seen before. As we eat dinner at a noodle shop, we watch the clouds tear across the jagged edges of the mountain across from us, ripping like silk across upturned scissors.


We stay at Zhilam hostel halfway up one of these mountains. It’s one of the nicest hostels we’ve ever stayed in, both in terms of comfort and aesthetics, and the staff are some of the friendliest, most knowledge people we’ve encountered. They teach us basic Tibetan phrases as we snack on homemade carrot cake and answer everything we ask about travel plans, Tibetan culture and their views on life. The middle-aged Tibetan manager talks at length to us about how he cant stand all the trash people litter through the Tibetan countryside, “I even wrote a whole proposal for [a waste management system] in my hometown. But even though the government spent the money to establish it, they haven’t maintained it since. It just sits there; what a waste.”  His co-worker, a 21 year old with a dyed orange undercut from Sertar, is focused more on the practicalities: “I just moved here [from Sertar] because life there was boring, every day I knew everybody I ran into –I just wanted something new.” 

One night, after a journey deep into rural Kangding to find hot springs –doctors orders for Jieming who had a cold— we found ourselves at a bar run by an extremely personable 28 year-old who says his name means “gentleman,” because it was what his father wanted him to be (and who asked for his name to be withheld here). We sit in the main room while he tells us about his issues with modern Chinese society, “ in China [for anyone to care] you have to have a house, a car, money… I don’t care about that stuff.” He says he wants to go abroad, but that because he is from Garze, he’s not allowed to get a passport. However, recently he was offered an opportunity to go to France to begin importing a new beer (the bar only serves imported beers); he seems to think it will work, his friend was able to help him get a “massive pile of [official] papers.” He's consistently has to circumnavigate the government, he says, they only seem to cause him trouble – they even impounded the food truck the bar used to run in the streets of Kangding.  

 

We’re soon called into the other, private room, where it turns out a young, Tibetan government official is having his birthday party. The bar owner says sometimes running a bar helps him out in other aspects of life, “everyone comes in here: government officials, police, whatever!  If they’re drinking, doing drugs, or something’s getting passed under the table, I know about it … I know everyone’s secrets.” Round after round is consumed as different members of the birthday party get up to take turns singing Tibetan folk songs. Casual, yet enchanting, it’s the best performance of Tibetan song we hear in the whole region.

 

The next day we take to our final stretch on the 318, driving up the Zheduo Mountain (4200m, 13,779 ft) pass toward Xinduqiao, a rough farming community now thick with hostels and hotels for those on their way to Lhasa. The pass is the highest the bikes (and we) have ever been on this trip, and although we don’t move fast, both machines chug their way up to the precipice of grey and tan rock flanked by deep grey clouds. We stop and talk to some young cyclists, and one hiker, from Inner Mongolia. Where our bikes make the 2000m climb in a matter of hours, this pass takes them the whole day. They leave in surprisingly good sprits, both parties equally impressed by what the other is doing.

In Xinduqiao we try to sneak our way around Chinese photographers to get a glimpse of the 7556 meter (24,822 ft) Gonga Mountain, the biggest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Weaving through prayer flags at an old monastery, we manage to catch its fading peak before a storm starts to roll in.  At our hostel, the owner mentions that when he opened seven years ago, he was the only Han Chinese person in town. Now, the whole common room is full will Han Chinese on their way to somewhere in Tibet. Some, like those at the table next to us confirming their six o’clock wake up, seem to be doing it as fast as possible –just to check the box. Others, like a girl who lingers in the lobby as we make tea in the morning, seem to be on a more personal journey (one albeit limited by the twenty days she gets off work). So far though, it’s not gone as planned: “I went to [Larung Gar, the worlds biggest Buddhist institute] but I couldn’t find that feeling. It just wasn’t there,” she says to us across a table of hand made miniature gardens.  I guess we’re chasing that feeling too.

 

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