Yading – Daocheng – Litang
My lips are a constant paste of half-dried mucus and dead skin. It’s been that way for days, since the sickness in Yading when I lay shaking in a fever sleep for 36 hours straight, the bedclothes twisted around me and reeking of sweat, and myself wondering if I can really go on? But what else is there?
The sickness becomes like a well that you have to climb out of, so far down into your own tiredness and weakness and reluctance that all you want is something comfortable, something familiar –Netflix and coffee and sleep and Mexican food. But no. I leave the Super 8 in Yading on the third day, and the manager is clearly glad to see me gone, speaking into Google Translate on my phone: ‘This stay the Chinese Communist Party has no knowledge!’ Out into the sun, 25km along the river road, exhausted and crashing in a hollow hidden beside the highway, instant noodles and twisting sleep and into another endless morning of climbing.
I am over it. I am beyond over it. The road climbs up onto the Tibetan Plateau proper above 4000m and the earth is brown and bare and sun-scorched and rocky and dry and my head is swimming with dizziness and lightheadedness from the altitude. Every structure, with its walls of flat stones and wooden windowframes, flies the red banner of either China or the Communist Party. There is no choice. Tibet has always been a part of China.
I inch on for hours, crawling across the skin of the Earth like an insect, wanting just to lie down and sleep. Yet somehow, each time I’m done with it, over it, there comes some fresh wonder, and suddenly I am back in the experience again. There on the S216 the road crests, and I swoop down into Daocheng.
I descend past a wide dry stony riverbed and all along it there are the yellow-green buds of spring poplars, the houses brown and flat-roofed with animals behind walls of stones. Rewu monastery stands like some kind of ancient, austere, gilded vision across the valley. Vast chortens of broken mani stones dot the landscape, and there – smiling and fingering strings of prayer beads and saying tashi dele! are actual Tibetan people. It’s all so like a postcard of Tibet it immediately makes me smile.
In Daocheng itself, the city centre seems weirdly overdeveloped for such a small place, and is filled with literally dozens of empty restaurants, a single bored employee seated inside just looking at their phone. I wander the centre until I find a restaurant that’s actually patronized, and when I sit down, what do they serve but noodle soup? Lord, anything but noodle soup again.
Up again the next morning, cycling past endless fields of stones, red-cheeked Tibetan women waving from the roadside, their hair in long black plaits. Dogs barking in dusty yards behind walls of stone; yaks, rangy cows. Following the olive-drab river valley, winding slowly uphill, men gathering dead wood with the hollow thunk of axes into little trailers attached to ubiquitous puttering tractor-motors. People circuiting around the stupas like community living rooms, a place to gather and socialize while they walk clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels. Climb up into a strange high landscape above 4000 metres, endless fields of boulders left over from a vanished ice-cap. In a very Chinese detail, there is a point of interest by the roadside to commemorate an interesting geological feature that was destroyed in the construction of the road itself.
I descend from the pass at 4600m with the air suddenly frigid and the wind blowing a gale, and ask if I can shelter in the lee of the large vinyl tent of some nomads, and they’d invite me in, share food and tea. Of course they have smartphones. A teenage boy, Jongja, follows me out to my tent and watches me make up my camp bed and lie down with such intentness and for such a prolonged period that I can only conclude that a) there is essentially nothing to do here but stare at the walls, and I’m accordingly high entertainment, or b) he is going to murder me. But though I’m happy in my little tent sheltered from the wind, just before nightfall a new man arrives to the camp on a motorcycle, and the vibe off him is strange, ulterior. I resolve to leave before he wakes in the morning.
When I wake at daybreak the sky is cold-pressed lead and there are a few flakes of snow in the air. I’m dead tired, but I immediately begin packing up my tent, a single cold hard Snickers bar in my stomach, which is quickly becoming a staple of my cycling diet.
By the time I’m halfway up to the top of the pass on the other side of the valley, legs shot and screaming with lactic acid, the weather’s developed into a full-on snowstorm, and the ice flakes are blowing sideways into my face like needles.
Yet Litang is still 75 km away, and after the rough transit of the last week – a wreck, a sickness, and more than 10 vertical kilometres of climbing, I need a real sanctuary and not just another night in a tent with instant noodles.
So: up to the top, so tired, so cold, then down, down, down. Numb hands, numb feet; my glasses are fogged over and covered in water droplets and I can only see thru a small window in the corner. The road curves down into a haze of snow and cloud, and I’m wearing so many layers beneath my helmet that it feels like I’m packaged.
Yet far beyond exhaustion, the whole day spent endlessly thermo-regulating, putting layers on, taking layers off, chilled or pouring sweat, I finally make it into Litang. Checked into my hotel, the evening is cold, drizzly and damp, people wandering the tumbledown streets in the murk, passing like apparitions. The town feels rough, Tibetans like frontierspeople in broadbrimmed leather hats, fingering prayer beads or spinning prayer wheels. Monks in maroon robes and sandals, the strange floppy yellow hats of the Gelugpa sect on their heads. Even after days at altitude I’m breathless climbing the stairs to my room. But I’ve arrived.
In the monastery up above the town a gargantuan 10-metre-tall statue of Tsong-kapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, dominates a prayer hall. The ceilings and walls are a riot of Tibetan Buddhist iconography – benevolent dieties, fierce deities engulfed in flames – and offerings of yuan notes overflow from nooks and niches where supplicants have stuffed them.
I feel like there’s something to be worthy of here, the landscape and the culture so wild and unique, and myself so privileged to be able to witness and to transit it. But really what is there to say? The Tibetan religious aesthetic seems to be things piled and heaped and tangled – prayer flags and stones, statues and skulls, mandalas and thangkas – such that the accumulation bears testament to piety and to intent.
I wonder if what I am doing is so different – this tangle of words, of photographs? It signals intent, yes. But does it add to something worthy? That very much remains to be seen.