Just as the railroad opened up the American West, the dust track of Route 219 eternally altered the Tibetan and Chinese far west, making accessible in days a region where travel was once measured by months and seasons.
The road along the western frontier stretches from dusty Yecheng – a town far beyond it’s heyday on the southern rim of the Taklamakan desert – to Lhatze, where it meets the more substantial Friendship Highway between the Himalayan capitals of Kathmandu and Lhasa. Built to assert Chinese control right to the crests of the Himalaya, the track – for it is never much more than that – winds for over 2000km through some of the starkest and most absolute landscape in the world. Peppered by occasional distance (km) marker posts and an endless string of telegraph poles, it crosses some of the worlds highest motorable passes (at least three exceeding 5000m, and one above 5400m), and winds across the Aksai Chin, an inhospitably bleak high-altitude desert, elevated above 5km.
From a hitching perspective, traffic is light, and rides both difficult to come by and very expensive. In Yecheng travellers visibly not of a Chinese nationality can expect to pay up to ten times more to set off than the local fair of around Y100. The presence outside Mazar of a checkpost, specifically looking for non-Chinese travellers, coupled with threats and rumours of traffickers vehicles being forfeited, lead to an understandable wariness of foreigners, and consequently prices average around $50-$70US. There’s no public transport as such. Land-cruisers can be hired by the wealthy at a cost of $2000-$3000.
The workhorse of the route, as across most of Western China, is the ubiquitous Dong Feng (‘Do Fen’) lorry. Almost always Enamel Blue, with painted Buddhist icons on the doors, a cracked windscreen and screen pillars fatigued from years of vibrations, these Soviet-era trucks ply the tracks and haunt the repair shops of the region!
The trucks appear to be privately owned and operated, either by a solitary driver, or an extended family group. Travelling with a group does cut down on space, but the family nature possibly provides greater security to hitchers, in what is otherwise an extremely isolated journey. Some of the individual drivers you couldn’t trust so far as you could throw… The drivers fill their trucks with a bizarre assortment of items, and sell them through shops or roadside stalls in Ali, from where they filter through the rest of Ngari and even so far as Lhasa.
The truck itself comprises a cab for 3-4 people, behind which the flat bed of the truck is loaded up to the canvas covered staples with cargo and supplies for the journey. Passengers generally travel in the back with the cargo. Inanimate travelling companions range from the obligatory (2 drums of diesel fuel, drivers sleeping roll, spare tyre inner tubes) to the optional (Pepsi, onions and hundreds of melons) and the bizarre (plastic garden furniture, and livestock – animals can’t be successfully kept in Ali year-round). If you get in with the right drivers, you certainly won’t go hungry!
A word on safety. The road is very high, exposed and isolated. There is no backup in the event of an accident or emergency. For this reason travelling in a group of trucks, and preferably with a balanced family unit (to benefit from the moderating influence of the gentler sex!) is strongly recommended. The temperature plummets overnight, a fall exacerbated by wind-chill through the back of the truck if, as is often the case, you keep driving non-stop. Food is generally (though not necessarily) provided by the drivers – acquire a taste for Tibetan Tsampa! Something to return the favour is a nice touch. Finally, remember that in the event of a serious problem, you would be on your own, equipped with only what you carried with you.
A dusty, fly ridden, truckstop in the desert of South Western Xinjiang strikes few people as the place to spend a holiday, but toward the end of July 1998 the Abra truckstop was – rather poorly -playing host to six travellers for almost a fortnight each. Our reasons for being in what we were fast making the premier regional tourist attraction was to find a ride into Western Tibet. A ride crossing the Kunlun Xian (mountains) and the high plateau of the Akasi Chin which separate the low deserts of Turkistan from the high plateau of Tibet.
Finding a lift initially seemed simple, but promised rides invariably failed to materialise after a night around the local rumour mill. Timekeeping is a low priority in the region as a whole. The drivers we eventually travelled with – a Tibetan family of brothers and a wife from Kham, in Eastern Tibet – fell several days behind schedule after overdoing their alcoholic celebrations at our agreed price of nearly $70US a person. It took another couple of days of watching them loading, reorganising, and unloading cargo, before we finally set off.
Our eventual departure time of three in the afternoon was carefully chosen to take us through the checkpost at Mazar in the dead of night, hopefully passing a sleeping sentry.
The narrow valley of Mazar was still far off! There was great anticipation in the back of the lorry as we started to move, unseen under the canvas skin, out of the truck compound and south; finally beyond the 3km post! Shortly after the trucks turned and returned to the compound to retrieve something forgotten, but the setback was short-lived!
Seen through the a slit in the canvas back of a truck, this corner of Xinjiang had a timeless air. Beneath the scorching sun, Uighur men were riding or leading donkeys along the desert road, between horizons virtually unobstructed by human endeavour. The occasional mud house stood as the only discernible human feature beside the road. Small villages clustered around the flashes of green that marked out oases.
It was in one of these groups of houses that our drivers unwisely stopped to change a puncture that had been troubling us through the last few unpopulated miles of desert. Stopping in a village, it wasn’t long before a child caught sight of us, and the village policeman had hauled us out of our cocoon into the public glare.
It rapidly became apparent that the policeman didn’t know what to do or expect,but he wanted his pound of flesh… Figures of $3000 were being suggested, though this fell rapidly. The situation diffused itself when he came to copy down our passport details. He produced a crisp white notebook from his breast pocket, and with a flourish took the first passport. As a native speaker of the Uighur language, most closely related to old Turkish he was faced with an array of foreign scripts and languages across the pages of the passports he had confiscated. Taking Bruce’s passport, he laboriously copied down the letter-shapes, from a couple of randomly selected pages, to spell out a nom de guerre – “P A K I S T A N B R U C E”. In the face of our unsuccessfully stifled laughter, he hurriedly decided to send us on our way before he lost further face in his village.
From the 1100m elevation of the Tarim Desert, the road moves into a more rocky setting, and climbs rapidly through gorges through the mountain barrier, eventually reaching the 5060m Chirangsaldi La (pass) just before Mazar. A late dinner in a high valley was our first ‘official’ stop, and our first introduction to our drivers hospitality. A meal of Tsampa and Butter Tea, around the light and warmth of the fire, which together with their laughter broke the otherwise absolute and frigid surrounding darkness.
We drove onward until around four in the morning, when we halted a second time. Major reorganisation of the cargo we’d been trying to get comfortable with took place, with boxes and sacks being flung off into the surrounding darkness. The drivers plan was to bury us deep in the midst of their merchandise to avoid any problems at the feared checkpost ahead.
Being totally buried brought beneficial thermal effects, and meant we got even more intimately acquainted, but also meant we were totally trapped, totally unable to see or hear what was happening outside, totally unable to flee, or even to follow the time. The trucks started up again, and jolted along the track. They continued to roll for an interminable time (later ‘termed’ as around 2 hours). Then, the trucks manoeuvred and finally stopped. Silence fell once again, disturbed only by muffled breathing amidst the cargo, and footsteps on shingle outside. The tension mounted as more people started to move around the truck, and started shouting through the night’s calm. Then the suspension dipped as someone climbed aboard. The ropes holding our canvas roof down were being undone, vibrations from their thread feeding into our nest of onions, inner-tubes and rucksacks. Someone was rummaging through the cargo just above us, piercing our cover as we lay still, silence being our only defence. Was this the checkpost? Was there an eager PSB officer inches above us, making sure there was nothing untoward about this nocturnal cargo? How had he known? Had our drivers turned us in? Had word of the afternoons episode preceded us? Or was it our drivers trying to dig us out?
The familiar hearty laugh and broad grin assured us all was OK as the man we were coming to recognise as the family patriarch reached us. We’d passed straight through Mazar without being noticed, and had stopped in a deserted and frozen valley, eagerly awaiting the rising sun.
The sun soon obliged, rising fast into the sky, chasing shadows down one valley side and up the other. Tibetan style breakfast was Tsampa and butter tea, but anything warm was welcome! Our drivers had a box of instant noodles for their passengers, which we added to the tea, creating a novel culinary fusion, but was not a union that impressed the Tibetans!
Breakfast was both a relieved & relaxed affair. The populated areas of the desert fringes was now behind us, and the drivers were visibly more at home in the mountains than on the plains. Ahead lay a long and dramatic ride across the most remote and deserted mountain range in the world.
Much as the first day was made up of desert and villages, the second saw us passing through numerous rocky valleys, laboriously working ever further up into the sky.
From Mazar, the road undulates over passes and into valleys for 250 kilometres before reaching the Aksai Chin. The road here was well built, and traffic relatively heavy – large conveys of army lorries carrying coal, beer and other supplies trundled slowly into and out of Tibet.
309km, and 30 hours from Yecheng, we crossed a 5100m pass in tandem with a large army convey carrying supplies toward Ali. There was very little army traffic on what in reality is a military highway. The road climbs relentlessly through the valleys of the Kunlun Xian, ever upward to the Aksai Chin. Unfortunately, the trucks were less resolute…
We stopped for lunch in the early afternoon on a narrow slither of moth-eaten grass. This was still Xinjiang, and the local people were ethnically Turks. Our drivers tried to buy a goat for dinner from a Tajik shepherd with his flock at the side of the road. After some friendly though unsuccessful bartering, he joined us for Tsampa, butter tea with noodles, and Xinjiang watermelon.
Beyond Kangxiwar we watched the sun set that evening over a 5400m pass. Once the sun had set, the temperature plummeted as we lurched onward and upward to the Aksai Chin.
After driving through the night, we woke to the desolate sight of the Aksai Chin. A high altitude desert, too peripheral and too barren to have been of historical value, the Aksai Chin was to become one of the main focuses of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war.
In 1914, the British Indian government, eager to capitalise on their current strengths and formalise their north east boundaries with Tibet, held unsuccessful talks with Chinese and Tibetan delegates in the Indian hillstation of Simla (Shimla), the result of which was each of the three parties left with differing ideas of the borders drawn.
Fifty years, and various governments and dynasties later, the Indian government recognised the borders inherited from pre-independence India (the MacMahmon line, defined along the Himalayan watershed), while the PRC in China recognised limits of influence defined at times more advantageous to the Chinese state.
In Autumn 1962, while the attentions of the world were focussed on events around Cuba, differences between the Chinese and Indian interpretations of the border lead to a series of battles along the Himalaya, from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. The better equipped & positioned People’s Liberation Army won substantial victories, before retreating along most of the border to the line recognised by India. Today, China still occupies the Aksai Chin, an area of Kashmir ‘above’ Laddakh, and Chinese maps generally extend 100km into Indian Arunachal Pradesh.
From a traveller’s perspective, little more can have been at stake in the war than national pride (though the Aksai Chin now is an essential link on the West Tibet road). Aside from a couple of tiny villages, the expanse of the plateau plays host only to brackish lakes and smashed beer bottles. The midday sun scorches, and exposed nights freeze. The flat expanse of plateau contrasts strongly with the endless valleys of the previous days.
Eventually, a lake marked the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and, over a greasy lunch of very Turkish noodles at Sumish we found ourselves – rather unsteadily on the narrow benches – at least technically inside Tibet. However, there was no sign of any Tibetans, the only ‘locals’ being Uighurs, moved there from Xinjiang for road maintenance.
The road then meandered, gradually falling from the height of the Aksai Chin before rising again to the 5000m Lungmo Co [lake] near Changmar. We reached there in the early evening of the third day, facing a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
At one the next morning, and for the first time on the journey, we stopped to sleep. A small concrete and mud compound, with equally rampant dogs and bedbugs was our first taste – or more accurately smell – of Tibet on the journey. The heavy smoke of a yak dung stove, with its welcome heat and faint orange glow had a particularly homely feel after so long in the back of a truck.
The morning of the fourth day was virtually preceded by our drivers raring to set off once again. After four hours driving – around 8.30am – we found ourselves once again awaiting repairs, this time beside a river, in a landscape of wide valleys and hills. A landscape we were fast coming oblivious to.
Around km830 there was another small and uneventful checkpost.
We spent much of the day driving around Banggong Co [lake], part of a long straggling body of water, stretching across the border almost to Leh. A small fishing boat moored outside a building was enough to kindle the drivers attention, and we were left sunbathing, incognito at this most unlikely of ‘resorts’, while they backtracked to what must be one of the highest fish restaurants in the world!
Leaving the lake early evening, we passed the old Tibetan town of Rutog, near which was another checkpost. That night we stopped about four hours from Ali, sleeping in the cool dry air, under a bewildering array of stars.
The fifth and final day dawned early as ever. The final few hours were uneventful until suddenly, through the slits in the canvas that had been our eyes for much of the past week, the sights and sounds of a city flooded in! We’d finally arrived at Ali. The trucks swung into a courtyard, and in the space of a bewildering couple of minutes, we parted – them with their Yuan, us with our rucksacks – ready to go forth and find a bed to collapse on.