We got on the frail old Chinese bus headed for the town of Litang — hailed as one of the highest towns in the world at 4,014 meters. The driver assured us that the bus was mechanically sound and that we should arrive in only eight hours. Steering around blind corners on the wrong side of the road, and around hairpin bends covered with thick ice was not the sort of adventure traveling my wife and I had in mind. At this rate we might be there in less than eight hours or maybe even not at all. Just as I was about to fall asleep, the bus driver slammed on the brakes and squealed with great delight. He hurried off the bus and eagerly picked up his newfound treasure from the road. He was one of the happiest drivers I’d seen in a long time and with a grin from ear to ear, he held up his prized possession – a dead wild pheasant. I was just glad something made us slow down, though not for long.
As we neared the top of the mountain pass, the air turned thin and colder. We continued scaling the cold side of the mountain and when we reached the peak at 4850 meters high (15900 feet), the Tibetan men on board yelled at the top of their lungs, ‘Victory to the gods!’ Everybody had their windows wide-open and cigarette smoke clouded the air while loud Tibetan music roared from the poor speakers. Inside was neither comfortable nor serene, but the scenery outside did more than compensate; snowy hilltops with grassy valleys at their feet made us feel chilled in a good way.
After 14 hours, we stepped off the uncomfortable and freezing cold bus. At an altitude of 4000 meters in late winter, the air is cold, dry and thin and only the howl of the wind across the high Tibetan plateau was there to greet us. We found a place to stay and the owner gave us a coil heater with just two cords sticking out of the end. Unsure of how to plug it into the wall, I asked her if she could help. She walked off and came back with a chopstick in her hand and began poking the wires into the wall socket. She was highly entertained when a spark or two flew out of the wall. As the town grew dark we gazed at the stars as if we had never seen them before and truly we had never seen them quite like that before. That evening’s temperature dropped well below zero and we buried our heads in to our sleeping bags to keep our faces warm. Sleeping was no easy feat; we woke up every two to three hours gasping for oxygen.
When we woke in the morning, we surveyed the dusty Tibetan town that lay before us, technically part of Sichuan province, but culturally Tibetan. In one sense, it was as if that bus ride was a time machine that took us 100 years back in time. The wild town seemed to be frozen in time and yet modernization was dragging Tibet fast into the 21st century—monks walking down the street talking on cell phones and driving SUV’s seemed incompatible.
Men, women and children walked by in their Tibetan wool gowns that keep them warm in the winter temperatures that can go as low as minus twenty degrees Celsius. The women wore their expensive and sacred coral jewelery and the men wrapped their long hair in red wool and carried long Tibetan knives for protection against bandits and wild animals.
Traditional Khamba costume at wedding
We began our hike up to the monastery that lay just out of town toward the north. We walked and walked as the cold and bitter wind of the high plateau struck our faces relentlessly. That was the first time I had ever experienced sleet being blown into my face while getting burnt from the high altitude intense sunlight at the same time. Carrying a heavy load on my back, the walk seemed endless and as we were breathless from hiking at that altitude we began coughing painfully. As we arrived at the Buddhist monastery we knew that it had all been worth the effort. Red robed monks milled around and flashed friendly smiles in our direction. The scenery from the top of the monastery was breathtaking. The dry and barren hills were sparsely covered with snow and ice and the sky was bright blue and clear.