The town of Manigango sits astride a crossroad in north-west Sichuan. Turn right here, and an ancient dirt road will lead you into Sichuan’s extreme northwest, the birthplace of Tibetan legends and the burial place of heroes, home of yak-riding nomads and cities built of prayer stones. This is Shiqu, the last town in Sichuan.
Just over a month ago, when my little convoy reached the afore-mentioned crossroads, Shiqu County was a mystery to me. Three day’s drive from the provincial capital, Chengdu, and a full day’s drive from the nearest airport, I’d never had the occasion or opportunity to visit before. The road atlas had shown nothing more than tantalising possibilities on the road ahead, a thin, green line meandering between the Bayan Har and Trola mountains, skirting nature reserves, passing monasteries and oddly-named villages.
That morning, several days after the lost passport debacle, we had been delayed by the mountain-fringed, holy-watered beauty of Lake Yilhun Lhatso. As everyone reluctantly returned to the cars after an hour spent happily clambering around the lakeshore, I consulted my notes and discovered that we had fallen behind our schedule, which now predicted that we would roll into Shiqu well after dark.
I panicked quietly as we drove on to Manigango and the junction. Driving at night in China is more dangerous than it ought to be, with no streetlights, no reflective paint on the road and other drivers using their headlights on full beam. I hate night driving in China myself, and had no wish to inflict the experience on my guests. However, as we turned onto the thin, green road – the S217 – it became apparent that we could only go as fast as the road surface allowed, and no faster.
The road was a rocky, stony mess, but the scenery provided a welcome distraction as we wound up to our first mountain pass of the day, saw-toothed mountains lining the south side of the road. After we had lurched and jolted far enough from Manigango to allay a little of my concern over our arrival time the convoy stopped in a meadow for lunch, lured in by a row of vultures perched up above the road. While Dorjee and I assembled our picnic lunch, the guests wandered off to see what had attracted the vultures – a recently expired yak. The vultures enjoyed their own lunch al fresco as we did the same, filling up on noodles and glucose biscuits, and making occasional attempts to photograph the enormous vultures as they soared, humpbacked above us.
Fortified, on we drove, passing the monastery town of Dzogchen. Despite a history beset by disaster – the monastery was flattened by an earthquake in the 1840s, burnt down in the year of the ‘Fire Mouse’ (1936), and most recently pillaged by the Red Army in 1959 – Dzogchen Monastery flourishes still. We trundled straight past, however, Dorjee clearly sad not to have the opportunity to stop and explore. Throughout the trip, he took photos at every monastery we visited, sharing them with his friends across Tibet on the micro-blogging site, Weibo – pilgrimage meets Web 2.0.
As Dzogchen receded into the dust clouds kicked up by our wheels, the houses became simpler, often being replaced altogether by the black, spider-like tents of nomads. From here on, the country was wild. Lone Tibetan wolves roamed the hillsides in search of white-lipped deer and plump marmots. Nomad girls cracked wurdo – rope slings used to hurl rocks at yaks and sheep – at their herds.
We stopped alongside one group of girls, where Dorjee demonstrated his wurdo-wielding skills, his rocks plopping harmlessly into the freezing river. A guest tried his hand as well, the onlookers scattering lest his missile go astray. My own worries about our arrival time had faded, forgotten in the excitement of seeing a beautiful place for the first time, absorbed by taking blurry photographs out of the lead car’s sunroof.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the start of a newly paved road, whoops of relief crackling over the walkie-talkies. Only for a minute though, as the flat road revealed an equally flat tyre on the lead car and it gently started to snow. In an admirable instance of teamwork, everyone – guests included – left their heated seats and helped to change the tyre. Four burly Tibetan men packed into a tiny yellow car stopped and spilled out to offer their assistance, while Mr Wu and a combination of guests loosened bolts and did useful things, and I tried to work out how to get the spare tyre off.
Twenty-five minutes later we were moving again. The snow stayed gentle and the road surface stayed good – the travel gods smiled upon us, at last. Under dramatic skies and in the dying rays of the day’s sunlight, we arrived in Shiqu. As we staggered into the hotel lobby, the guests spontaneously started applauding. Whether this was in amazement at having arrived at all, or in thanks for a wonderful journey, I’m unsure, but it completed a strange and beautiful day.
My Chinese road atlas is open beside me as I write, reminding me that we passed through this region quickly, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. One day I want to go back and visit the grave of King Gesar, ruler of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. One day I’d like to walk a sunset kora around Bagemani, an ancient, sprawling temple made of prayer stones.
Sometimes I feel that writing about my travels in a single country is too limiting. Then there are other times – like this – when one journey inspires the next, and I realise how many fascinating, beautiful things are out there, within China’s borders, waiting.