The Road West from Kangding

March 25, 2008

If someone had asked me just a few days ago what the worst road I could imagine in the world would be like, I would have told them probably a mountain road with lots and lots of rocks and pot-holes. Well, little did I imagine that these elements would combine with two mountain passes of around 4000 metres, vertical drops off the sides of around 500 metres, snow, ice and to top it all off, local police telling you that you cannot get to where you want to go.
The area is Sichuan Province in south-western China. The town is Kangding, located around 400 kilometres west of the capital Chengdu. The road leads west, towards Tibet. I am trying to cover the story about the violence that has spread into the province following the rioting in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on March 14. In order to find out what is going on, myself and text journalist John Ruwitch needed to get to another town called Litang, some 400 kilometres west of Kangding, where there were reports of trouble last week.

On the bus

John Ruwitch and I in front of the local bus we got taken off by police.

So we got on a local bus at 6.30am, ready for an 8 hour trip. Well, before we even leave the terminal, we were asked to get off by two local policemen. ‘Where are you going?’. Well, since the bus had the name of the town written on the windscreen directly behind where John and I were standing, we pointed to it. ‘Why are you going?’. John explained very simply in his excellent Chinese ‘Because we hear it is very beautiful’. That seemed to be a good answer, and we were allowed to get back on.
The bus started off some three minutes after the scheduled departure time of 7a.m. due to our little chat with the local constabulary, and no more than one kilometre down the road, the bus was stopped again. Another two policeman got on the bus, and again we were asked to get off. ‘Where are u going?’ was the question once more. Same answer. ‘Why are you going?’ Same answer again. And to our surprise after a 20 minute delay this time, which the locals on the bus were not at all pleased about, we got back on the bus and once more started our journey.
The road started off just fine. Winding up the first mountain pass (this one was only 3800 metres-high) the snow from the previous night gave everything the look of being wrapped in a beautiful white blanket. And when the sun rose, the gorgeous morning light added a warm glow to an already pristine scene.
We got 100 kilometres from Kangding. All good.
150 kilometres, all good.
At 200 kilometres, a local official was at a toilet stop. He looked at the bus, but did not get onboard. On we went.
250 kilometres, we continued west.

Water closet

The water closet along the road, and trust me, you don’t want to go inside…

Then, at 300 kilometres, we got unstuck. A police roadblock. Two police get on the bus. Two foreigners get off the bus. Two foreigners stay permanently off the bus. ‘Litang is forbidden for foreigners’ the abrupt, yet nice young female policewoman tells us. We come to the conclusion that there is no chance we will get any further west.
We are put into a small, and I do mean small, mini-van and driven back to Kangding. And how bad I thought the road was on the way in was multiplied by 20 times going back. How this van managed to stay together is a miracle. I must have hit my head on the roof at least a dozen times. And this was going at an average speed of just 20 kilometres per hour. Never again I said, never again.
Three days later, I am in a taxi travelling along the same road, at the same speed, at the same time, but now with the added obstacle of ice covering the entire road. How this taxi managed to stay on the road, going up and down the mountain passes, with no chains on the wheels, is yet another miracle. I didn’t realise just how slippery the road was until I had to get out and push the cab, when we lost momentum and stopped after getting stuck behind a large truck up a hill, and then run and jump back into it.

Yak road

A yak sits in the middle of the icy road after a heavy snowfall the night before.

This time, we did at least make it to our destination – a monastery in a small village some 200 kilometres away – but due to the large increase in the number of official vehicles along the road, I also now had to duck every time one of these cars approached. Try doing that over 50 times.
Anyway, now that I am back in Kangding, trying to cover this story, which is getting more and more difficult everyday, I try to sleep at night not dreaming about those bumps on the ‘world’s worst road’.

Yak town

You’ve heard of the two-horse-town, well…

Snow covered house

A local Tibetan walks towards his home situated at the base of a beautiful snow-covered mountain near Kangding.


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Well done David, that’s an excellent read.

Posted by Pauline Askin | Report as abusive

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Posted by » Blog Archive » The Road West from Kangding | Report as abusive

You really put one into the picture about conditions out there! Quite an adventurous expedition!

Posted by Marguerite | Report as abusive

Great story. Sichuan province looks like an amazing place. Looking forward to your next blog. Stay safe.

Posted by S Gray | Report as abusive

I think you must have one of the most amazing jobs in the entire world. Keep up the good work!

Posted by C4 | Report as abusive

Good show! The real thing, which most Americans will never see.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

be careful out there. i’ve done the long bus trek out to kangding and litang myself, beautiful scenery, great people! enjoy yourself.

Posted by dezza | Report as abusive

Please report on the real day to day struggles of majority of the Tibetan people who might as well live on the far side of the moon when it comes to involvement with political issues.

For the last two months severe snow storms in Shiqu County County have led to severe frosbite & many deaths (incl children & old people) is still snowing….thousands of yak on whom the nomads rely have been wiped out…food, warm clothing and fuel is deperately needed….the Govt has done little to help… attempts to get get supplies through to remote villages have been hampered by ‘red-tape’ in the current tensions….as I write, a small convoy, is desperately stuck in a remote mountain valley in sub-zero conditions….what are you guys doing to find out about the snow disaster?……at some time in the future aid is going to be needed big-time (as in 1995) to help nomads/farmers get new yak stock to survive

Posted by Roy | Report as abusive