The Sichuan-Tibet Highway; the artery into the heart of ancient Kham

Upon leaving Kangding in the early hours of the morning, the bus wove its way up and over the Guoda Mountain pass and headed into the valleys beyond. Looking back on that clear morning, I watched the sun rise behind the mountain and rays of light speared over the peak. Leaving the jagged, snow-capped peaks behind, the route emerged into a narrow, verdant valley, gauged out of the towering mountain slopes by a fierce melt-water river that surged through. For 150km the road snaked its way through the valley, where huge, mansion-like houses belied their more humble agricultural roots, fields of wheat, barley and sunflowers creating a patchwork of colour. Free-roaming livestock clattered up and down the road, unperturbed by the infrequent passing of traffic, and children came out to wave.

After several hours, the road suddenly emerged from the narrow valley into what was the start of the Tibetan plateau, where bright green mountain meadows rolled away into the seemingly never-ending distance. Sedentary farms gave way to sparse nomadic tent settlements and the stone stupas (prayer mounds) seen throughout the valleys became sporadic prayer flags, ragged and faded from the whipping winds and intense sunlight.

The bus slowly bounced along the road, gradually climbing the gargantuan peaks and passes, heading further and further into the wilderness of the high Tibetan plateau. At over 4000m above sea level, it was not only the intense beauty of the region that was leaving me breathless, but a thinning of the air combined with the thick cigarette smoke of my fellow Tibetan bus-mates. As the road lead towards the remote town of Litang, the topography suddenly changed. As we swept around the final pass, vast grasslands stretched out in front, the town snuggled away in the shelter of the mountains that border the sprawling plateau.

Litang has a population of 50,000, comprised almost wholly of Tibetans. Walking around the vibrant, busy little town provided the opportunity for some of the most fascinating people-watching opportunities in China. Nomadic Tibetan cowboys have long since exchanged their trusty steeds for shiny motorbikes and roared down the main street, coloured ribbons flapping from the handlebars, before heading off into the heart of the grasslands where their vast yak herds await them; red gowned monks wandered the streets; yak, pigs and packs of dogs idled down the roads oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them; old men sat on doorsteps playing cards, their concentration never flickering as small children shouted ‘hello’ to me before running away giggling.

Litang is the rough diamond in Sichuan Province’s crown, but for me the rugged - and somewhat painful - Sichuan-Tibet Highway proved to be the road to something much more profound. For as I stared out of the bus window, discomfort took a backseat as the feral, inhospitable beauty of the landscape swirled by, and I realised that this land is free from the political chains that define Chinese-Tibetan relations, and that this truly remains the heart of ancient Kham.

S Wilson

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