The news was shocking!
The ticket agent at the Shangri-la bus terminal in Zhongdian, Yunnan province was happy to tell me over and over, in both Chinese and English, that yes, foreigners can now travel east through the Tibet Autonomous Region to Lhasa overland and without a permit! I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but rather than falling down in rapture, I agonized over taking advantage of this new policy or continuing as planned on my already-paid-for, government-authorized, one-week tour across Kham to Lhasa. Ultimately, it would have been silly for me not to choose the latter.
The decade-old Land Cruiser was in surprisingly good condition, having driven through Tibet 99 times. We set out through northern Yunnan to the crags of Feilaisi, finding ourselves at a dizzying 4,000 meters above sea level and nauseously breathless, to stay overnight at a roadside pilgrimage site of sun-bleached chortens, wind-tattered prayer flags and a stunning view of Mingyong Glacier.
Bright (a light so bright it was hard to believe) and early the next morning, we continued into undulating hills. Vistas of incomparable beauty revealed themselves with each bend. The forest was a tapestry of earthy shades, in orange, purple, browns and greens, both light and dark. With the iridescent blue sky and cottony white clouds above us, we traced perilous dirt switchbacks whose collapsing shoulders threatened to toss us hundreds of meters below into the Mekong River; it looked peaceful enough from above, its banks and farmland dotted with eye-catching, whitewashed adobe homes that seemed to beckon us into Tibet.
“Xizang!” our driver called out. In fact we had been in Tibet for half a day, but how could we know without having crossed any sort of border or being stopped by officials asking to see our papers? We had to remind ourselves that entering Eastern Tibet was now a permit-less process and all the checkpoints on our maps and guidebooks were recently abandoned. We celebrated our unbeknownst entry into the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) by spending the day in the small, dusty city of Markham. Winding down from its weekend market, the city was brimming with the splendor of the traditional Khampas population: golden-skinned women with their long striped dresses and colorful plaits, and large-sized men with lengthy braided hair woven with red Chamdo tassels and a solid jade hoop. We were greeted by dozens of red-cheeked, runny-nosed children dancing around us. My European traveling companions were constantly surrounded by a crowd of curious adults, who took turns running their finge!
rs along the thick blonde leg hairs, then letting out a collective fascinated murmur.
Traveling through Eastern Tibet can be compared with experiencing the four seasons in just a matter of days. While we started with clear skies and venerable forests, the next morning took us into icy tundra. Ascending 99 bends into the Hengduan Range, the mountains seemed to freeze over before our eyes. At 5,008 meters we reached the highest altitude of our trip.
At the bleak Dongdola pass we encountered a settlement of nomadic shepherds (drokpas) living in black tents while herds of emaciated yak-cows grazed the surrounding frozen pastures. These gentle people of an inhospitable land were dressed in simple hand-woven attire, but they were extravagantly accessorized in coral, turquoise and silver jewelry. These shepherds had seen few white faces in their lifetime. One drokpa family had yet to see a digital camera and they were mesmerized by the sight of their own images on the LCD screen.
At Pomda, a noise-polluted junction of logging trucks and tractors, we met a bunch of international backpackers and hardcore cyclists sitting at the literal crossroads that connects the northern route of the busy Sichuan-Tibet highway with the less-traveled southern roads. From there, our journey took us through and down into verdant terraced hamlets and patchwork plots of land fed by snow springs, over the Salween River to the unbelievably mint-blue twin lakes of Rawoktso. Dodging Kham’s morning traffic of goats, lamb and yak-cows (yes, cross-bred), we pressed on along the boulder-strewn road of the Sundzom Valley, past the Parlung Tsangpo white water rapids and old avalanches of frozen snow to Tongmei, where we encountered our first real obstacle.
Rumors had been circulating amongst the backpackers we’d been meeting on the road about a downed bridge at the Brahmaputra and Parlung Tsangpo convergence, which would prevent anyone from continuing on to Lhasa. It turned out the bridge was fine but a landslide on the other side had literally wiped the road off the sheer mountain face. Anyone wanting to continue on had to either nimbly navigate a narrow footpath or wait a week or longer.
So it was here that we said goodbye to our Land Cruiser and crossed the bridge to meet another driver. The organizer of our trip told us via cellphone from his cozy office in Kunming that the new driver would be waiting “just a short walk” from the landslide. It turned out to be an arduous four-hour hike up a treacherous mountain path above the Rongchu gorge, in the dark of night, under the pouring rain of Tibet’s monsoon season. We braved the muddy slopes, deftly crossing washouts and literally dodging falling rocks from above, before finally arriving at a construction workers’ tent made from a giant nylon bag. The Israeli and British backpackers decided to stay while my companions and I trekked onward, in search of our new driver.
With our new vehicle and driver, we headed onwards toward Lhasa. Passing vivid fields of yellow youcai flowers, we arrived at the famous Draksumtso, an azure lake and lush Alpine forest which would have been breathtaking had it not been for the sea of baseball cap-wearing tour groups the isolated beauty of Eastern Tibet was behind us.