Safe and sound in a shit, literally subterranean hotel room in Xinlong, where I've stopped for a short day after a big day of 100+km yesterday coming off the Plateau. Xinlong, a muddy, unprepossessing concrete plop by the riverside, is not a place that merits much discussion, except as a place to get plenty of sleep and binge-watch Archer. Instead, and in its place, I would like you to consider a topic near and dear to my heart: tunnels.
On the ‘pro’ side of the tunnel debate, I submit the following: hundreds of vertical metres of climbing saved, travel time across the mountain cut to a fraction of what it would otherwise be, grateful legs.
As for the ‘con’ side of tunnels: TUNNELS ARE FUCKING TERRIFYING.
On my map, the G318 running east from Litang shows as a predictable squiggle climbing the mountain, complete with about 400 metres of up-down. Naturally though, this being China, as I approach what ought to be the climb, instead of a climb, there is a yawning black hole in the mountainside. You should grow accustomed to this travelling here: if the map that you are using is more than six months old, the roads have changed. This is not an exaggeration: you can actually count on it.
The sign at the entrance gives the tunnel’s length as 2830 metres. This is an insanely long distance to be trapped underground with the speeding gamut of cars, trucks and heavy equipment in a dark, close, poorly-ventilated space, if you hadn’t given yourself ample time to consider the psychic gravity of what actually entering this tunnel means.
Emerging from the tunnel’s mouth in the opposite direction are a small group of Chinese cyclists who, even if they most probably evince the national tendency to be incredibly cavalier about personal safety, also have not passed out from carbon monoxide. Canaries in the coal mine. Fuck, here we go.
There’s a narrow kind of elevated walkway along the side – I think, I’ll stay out of traffic and just walk the bike here. But the walkway is full of giant, hidden, yawning holes with a half-metre drop, and anyway is randomly scattered with construction debris that wholly prevents progress. Plus by a couple hundred metres in, the light from outside is gone, and the idea of being trapped in this dark, loud, terrifying, echo-y, airless tube for the 40 minutes that it would take me to walk to the other side is not psychologically viable. I wait for the trucks behind me to pass, then get on the bike and begin to pedal like hell.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a jerk, and this is the age of social media, so of course I stop to take pictures. And I’m also reliably craven, so when a giant truck rumbles up behind me, I jump up onto the walkway and wait for it to pass. Which seems wise, given that the insane drivers in the tunnel are doing things like driving in the oncoming lane to pass each other, with generally zero visibility.
The part of me that worries about flossing is likewise worried about the fumes I’m breathing as I’m pumping along, which really seems pretty academic given the speeding, murderous traffic in the confined space, but I keep sprinting and – thank god – light begins to spread along the walls. And then, just like that, I’m thru. Out onto the nomad plains, the brown hills dusted with light snow like confectioner’s sugar. Appreciating the tableau of yaks and marmots and the periodic dots of white tents where nomads are probably watching cat videos on their smartphones, because of course even nomads have smartphones now and there isn’t really much else out here in the way of entertainment.
Hours later I’m down in the lowlands again around 3000 metres and the sun is about forty minutes from going down. I’ve been riding along the river road with its steep canyon walls and generally enjoying the fact that the construction along the way means that the road is both pleasantly bad and low on traffic. But the steep walls mean that there are zero hideouts to camp in with flat space, and I’m not super keen to be out on the roads after dark, for a variety of reasons. Hell, even if I were, Xinlong is 50k away. It’s too far to ride tonight.
So I do what any sane person does: I ride up to the temple (hint: look for the gold roof) of a small village by the river and ask if they have a safe place I can put up my tent for the night. As an interesting aside, travelling here Chinese literacy is actually a pretty big problem: of the four people hanging out on the temple grounds, only one can read Chinese.
Ah, but we get there. Of course I can stay – no need for a tent, there’s a bed near the wood stove in the kitchen. And would you like dinner? We made vegetarian steamed buns. Here’s some butter tea! Oh, you are a western person and like butter tea! How wonderful!
Doing a night’s worth of communication via mime, tiny bits of shared language and Google Translate is a bit exhausting, but also pretty amazing. And here’s the weird thing: when you travel Tibet, you’ll see huge piles of stones everywhere carved with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. And you think, who in the hell has gone and carved Om Mani Padme Hum on these anonymous thousands upon thousands of stones? Well, my hosts, as it turns out. They show me the work they’ve done over the last six months; it’s a yard filled with stones, plus another, plus the wall ringing the gilded prayer hall. For a kwai a repetition, they carve the mantra, over and over and over, earning merit as well as a living. And when they go back to Ganzi, their home for which I’m bound in a couple days’ time, they tell me they will begin to travel to Lhasa.
I make the walking gesture with my fingers. No no, the big guy, the one with the belly says. Then he makes the gesture for a full prostration. Then he does it again. ‘Ganzi to Lhasa?’ I ask. ‘All of you?’ They all just smile; he makes the prostration motion again.
It is 1600 kilometres to Lhasa.