The World’s Worst Road……UPDATE 1!!!!!
Well……..I don’t believe it!!! It’s happened. If you’ve read my last blog, ‘The Road West of Kangding’ you know that I called that particular road ‘the worst road in the world’. Well….guess what….there is much worse.
Travelling with Chris Buckley, Reuters Beijing-base correspondent, we flew to Chengdu in Sichuan Province in China’s south-west to try and get into areas where we had heard that violent demonstrations regarding Tibet had occurred. The reports stated that buildings had been damaged, thousands of riot police and soliders had been deployed, hundreds of local Tibetans had been arrested and Buddhist temples were surrounded. So with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao telling the world that such troubles were over less than a week after these reports, and there were no independent witnesses to verify this, we wanted to find out.
We decided to travel on a local bus north-east from Chengdu to the city of Mianyang, from where we would decide what to do next. Looking back, we should have realised that the number of police roadblocks we saw, just going that far, was an indication of what we would encounter over the next few days.
We found a local driver, and after staying just a few hours at a hotel (in case the local police became aware of our presence), we headed north. The roads out of town were wonderful. Slowly winding their way through the valley floors and then up into the mountains.
We needed to speak to some local farmers and chose to stop for the night at a small rural township known as Baima, located around 250 kilometres north of Mianyang. Life was continuing pretty much normally for these lovely, very hospitable people. They showed us proudly around their homes, and told us we were expected for dinner at 7pm. I very quickly got our driver to take me 30 kilometres down the road to get a CDMA signal to file some pictures to the Singapore desk, but thankfully managed to make it back on time.
The array of local dishes was spectacular. But it did come at a cost – the cost of consuming of 3 cups of local wine in less than one minute, and the singing of a song that both Chris and I knew after we were honoured with a local Tibetan welcoming song. The only song we both really knew was the Australian national anthem, (just a note, Chris has spent 10 years in China and sadly, I had to help him a little, tut tut Chris) but hopefully no recordings were made and that rendition will never be heard again.
The next morning we got up, and it had been snowing. Around one foot of pristine, white snow blanketed the trees. Beautiful perhaps, buy not a good start when you have to travel on mountain roads that day. We had gone barely five kilometre when we had to get out and remove rocks from our path. The steep banks above the road could barely hold together at the best of times, and with the slowly melting snow adding weight to the soil, this was not exactly safe. The further we went, the more the road seemed to take on a menacing look, with places that just 24 hours earlier had seemed quite safe, now looking like they would give way and result in us tumbling into the valley some 400 metres below. But again, in hindsight, this was nothing.
To get where we needed to go, we had to start going up into the mountains. And with a foot of snow in the valleys, what could we expect up there. Well, our questions were soon answered – two foot of snow and lots and lots of ice. Our inexperienced driver had to go back and get chains after we started sliding backwards – not enjoyable when u look over the edge of the road which now had a drop of some 600 metres.
Slowly but surely we continued, through a harsh but extremely beautiful landscape of snow-covered trees and mountains. The treacherous conditions had taken their toll on numerous cars and buses, their engines and I suspect their brakes overheating, and a truck which had fallen on it’s side and lost it’s load over the edge (see picture).
After 5 tedious hours, we had made it to the next town.
We met up with our new driver, a man who proved himself irreplaceable time and time again, and started heading further north into Gansu Province. And this is where my new ‘world’s worst road’ (I will call it the WWR from now on for comparisons) comes into the story. In order for us to get through the countless police and military roadblocks, we would have to travel on back-roads. This provided us with views of the most amazing rural landscapes, but these views came at a cost – our heads, our kidneys, the muscles in our arms and legs from holding on so tightly, but most of all, our sanity. The pot-holes this time were triple the size and a much much more often than the previous WWR. The police presence was at least ten times that of the previous WWR, meaning our ‘ducking down’ skills had to be repeated more and more often the further we got into the troubled areas. But to top it all off, the whole experience lasted four times longer than the previous WWR trip. Total time in the car was nearly 36 hours, and when your driver snores for 4 of those hours barely 3 feet from your head, its not very enjoyable.
Eventually, after much agonising and wondering if we would ever get to where we needed to be, we made it to the township of Zhuoni. Here we managed to talk to monks in a temple and I managed to take a few frames without disrupting their prayer session. The feeling was tense, as the military had only in the last day stopped surrounding the temple grounds. We hurridly left after we suspected that we were being watched, and made it into the car. I quickly sent 6 pictures so that in the event that we were caught, we would have something to show for our efforts.
We drove further on down the road, and the roadblocks became more and more numerous. I counted at least 20, and on six occasions, the police stopped the car and asked the driver to step out. At one, a riot policeman even tapped on the window and put his face to the glass to see in. All Chris and I could do was lie down on the back seat and wait. As I said earlier, our driver proved to be amazing.
We managed to go further into the troubled spots and I managed to photograph a burned-down school, riot police and soldiers on township streets, and another Buddhist monastery located near the township of Xiahe, where the most violent protests had occurred just a week earlier. We even very quickly stopped at a very small Tibetan village where the whole trip for me became worthwhile. Chris finally managed to find a villager that spoke Chinese, everyone spoke Tibetan, and after a few broad questions about the riots in Lhasa and surrounding areas and what he thought about them, Chris asked him what he thought of the Dalai Lama. This ordinary, hard-working farmer who toiled in the fields 12 hours-a-day, every day, said ‘The Dalai Lama is like a member of the family that can’t come home’.
So our trip down my new WWR was finally completed, after we went through yet another 5 or 6 roadblocks of course, we checked into our hotel in Lanzhou and I laid out flat for what seemed like the first time in ages.
Hopefully, this dusty, pot-hold riddled ‘track’ in south-western China will be the final winner of my little WWR award otherwise I will have to broaden the parameters a little to perhaps the ‘Worst Road in the Universe’…….?? To do that, I would definitely have to check with Douglas Adams first I think………
Pic1 -An elderly Tibetan woman dressed in traditional Qiang minority dress sits in her home in Baima Township
Pic2 - The township of Baima in the early morning after snowfall
Pic3 – A truck that lost it’s load on the treacherous icy road over the mountains
Pic4 – Farming land near the Tibetan village on the outskirts of the township of Hezuo
Pic5 – A young boy sits in a cart in a Tibetan village on the outskirts of the township of Hezuo
Pic6 – Standing with friendly Monks in the Deer Long Temple on the outskirts of the township of Xiahe