The Tibetan landscape is primordial, temperamental and unforgiving. Riding out here is glorious, but it also makes you acutely aware of your own mortality. The sheer height at which we exist everyday not only squeezes our bodies and slows our lungs but also causes the weather on the plateau to move at an alarming pace. A quick turn in a valley and it could be pouring rain, another ten minutes and it’s sunny again. The only looming indication of what is to come are the long black tentacles of rain clouds crawling over the ridges. It’s the spontaneity of the tropics coupled with the malice of the mountains.
On the grasslands you are fully and utterly exposed, an insignificant addition to the landscape at the whim of changing winds. Days are bright and nights are cold; when the sun is out you hate it and when it’s gone you miss it. In two weeks we experience every possible iteration of the elements: sun, rain, snow, fog, lighting, landslides, hail. We pass over so many mountain passes above 14,500ft (4400m) that they all mix together. It’s this very race against the landscape, a revelry in defiance, and a slow, tacit submission to the fate that nature has sentenced you that makes driving into this landscape so exhilarating.
Each day on the plateau manages to shake us in different ways:
Outside Luhuo we are caught in the most powerful storm we’ve encountered in China, one that shakes our bikes and our bones as it drenches the hills in fear. It begins in a sprinkle as we turn the corners of a newly built road, excited and enthusiastic about the unbelievable panoramas that have become the panoramas for our cloudy afternoon. Completely alone on the 317 toward Sertar, we make it up two more switchbacks, the wind picks up and the rain increases —soon getting so heavy that I can barely see the road, even with my facemask up. It’s not until we slow to a stop that I can hear the distinct clanking of hard projectiles rebounding off the gas tank. It’s started hailing too. With no other option, we decide to push on. We watch the first lighting strike as we crest the mountain. Soon it’s on top of us. I try counting the break between thunder and lighting, doing what I was always told in elementary school to find out how far the lightning is away from you. I can’t even finish the fourth syllable of the “one-one-thousand” before I see the crackle. We’re literally being enveloped by the clouds as the temperature continues to plummet. We continue down the road essentially blind, and my hands losing feeling even through the heated grips. Jie tells me that there’s no chance we can be hit by lighting while on the bike, but as we skid through recent landslides that and being pushed of the cliffs by a sudden flow of rock and mud are all I can think about.
A roadside traffic hut appears around the corner just in time. We shuffle our bikes under the awning as much as we can, and hide in a small room where an old Tibetan woman is beckoning us to come in. Outside, the yaks anxiously dart across the grass. Inside there are no lights but there’s a fire in the iron stove. We try to dry our hands with the heat as the old woman chants in a low voice, counting prayer beads in her right palm. Her three young children (or grandchildren) stare up at us in silence, probably not knowing what to think.
Some days just the altitude itself is overwhelming. On the high plains from Yushu to Gonghe, one of the highest and toughest sections of the whole drive, we end up in the most run-down town I’ve ever seen in China. Up at 14,400 ft the weather has begun to hover around freezing, the sun is quickly fading and there’s no other settlement for 120 kms; we have nowhere else to stay but here. Laying in bed in a hotel with no bathroom, running water, or heat, we can feel the weight on our lungs, each breath expending more energy than it gets back. When we wake up it’s snowed. We spend the morning clenching our shoulders as we force our way through an area called “the grassland of 10,000 monasteries,” the only thing that seems to be the basis of permanent settlement in these areas
Other days it’s just the utter beauty of the scenery around us that leaves us breathless
There’s also the human presence on the landscape. On the roads past Daofu this is what’s most surprising. Where the canola flowers in full bloom have colored the fields yellow, the buildings around the road begin to expand in size and intricacy. Houses are made in all wood except for a stone inlay at the base –the only wooden houses we’ve seen besides those in Miao villages— a sharp contrast to the concrete blocks that have been poured into main city centers. Built like turrets with flags stuck into all sides, I tell Jie that it feels like we’re driving through Camelot.
We pull into a field in a small village called Mazi where a father and son are moving long cords of wood and ask what they are doing. It turns out the unfinished house on the hill is theirs, and they invite us up to take a look around. Inside, we find what can only be described as a half-finished wood mansion, with ceilings more than ten feet high and wide doorframes hand-carved with intricate geometric patterns. Three generations are working on the house side by side: the youngest 12 and the oldest his 80-year-old grandfather. All in all they say it will take them seven to eight months and cost 2 million RMB, all of it done with wood that was collected four years ago –the monks have since then put a ban on any cutting of the nearby forests.
We ask why there are so many new house’s like this being built here, after all the family already has a house right next door. Nobody really has an answer, but the son offers something up: “one family started building a big house, and after that everyone else had to have one too.”
Outside of Wengda we find ourselves staying in one of these houses. With the rain refusing to ease up, the night getting darker, and the eddies of mud only getting deeper, we’ve ended up here after knock on the door of the closest house to ask where we can stay. The grandmother that answers doesn’t speak much mandarin, but makes it clear that we should just say with her and her family. The rest of the family seems a bit skeptical, but after they see our motorcycles and the state of our clothes, they rush out to help us park and wrap up our bikes. Once inside, we realize that the brick section on the bottom floor of these buildings are barns, this one with four yaks in it and two calves. As I go upstairs help unroll tatami mats in the shared living & eating space, Jie helps to try to milk one of the cows. Later that night, our hosts, a Han Sichuanese man and his Tibetan wife who’s inlaws house this is, pull out a tin can and show us part of the reason this area is so affluent. It’s full of dried caterpillar fungus –the “Golden Worm.” The worm, used in Chinese medicine, is only found in these area’s and has increased in price by almost 1000% in the last twenty years, now literally worth more than it’s weight in gold ($41,000 per kg). Apparently this little worm is enough to make many people very rich --or at least enough people rich that others felt like they should keep up
The paradox of Tibet is that despite all odds, despite how merciless this environment can be, this place is teeming with life. Not only does domestication thrive on the plateau, but so too do an entire gamut of animals: from miniature field mice to the grandiose of the golden eagles that swoop oddly close to us in open river valleys. As a person amongst this, you can’t help but feel some sense of camaraderie. The magic of Tibet is that it lets you know you’re alive, and because of that it’s unforgettable. It reminds us why we’re out here, to live a life that reminds us how alive living can be.