On the Rugged Road Across Tibet

`SHALL we stop here for the night, or keep on driving?'' It was 10 p.m., and we had just arrived in Tuotuohe, a tiny outpost some 4,500 meters (14,760 ft.) above sea level in the middle of the Qinghai-Tibet highway. We had been on the road since 6:30 that morning, and my driver, Mr. Lee, a small, tough, imperturbable man of the Hui (Muslim) nationality, was still going strong. He was ready to keep on all night.

Men like my truck driver, with indomitable spirits, keep the Tibetan city of Lhasa in the 20th century, bringing everything from soap to marmalade to color televisions to this remote capital of ``the roof of the world.'' For a monthly wage of merely 200 yuan (about $35), these men endure high altitudes, intense cold, monotonous terrain, long lonely hours, and trouble-prone vehicles. Thanks to them Lhasa is a livable city. For 48 hours and 1,100 kilometers (683 miles), I shared their way of life.

Having traveled this road once before as part of a China Exploration and Research Society expedition, I thought I was prepared for the two-day plateau crossing. But I hadn't reckoned on the difference between CERS's modern, specially outfitted Land Rovers and a heavily overloaded 11-year-old Dongfeng truck so primitive in design that it carries a big iron crank to turn the engine over in case, as often happens, the electric starter fails. On uphill sections, I thought I could probably go faster by walking.

Of course, there were no bucket seats and no radio. The windows didn't seal, so a subzero breeze constantly cooled the cab, and there was no heat, either. Despite layers of down and fleece, I still shivered; but the stalwart Lee didn't bother putting on his coat until we had arrived, well after dark, in Tuotuohe. And for the last three hours he had driven with a severe burn covering one-fourth of the back of his hand. He had gotten it just after siphoning gas, when his fuel-soaked gloves were ignited as he lit up a cigarette. In Tuotuohe, I wanted to find a doctor to properly bandage his burn, but Lee just shrugged it off. Reaching Lhasa on time was more important.

At least I did persuade him to take a few hours rest. I told him I was too tired to go on, and he was loathe to give me up to some other truck, for on these lonesome dangerous roads a passenger is a valuable asset. So we checked into a Spartan hostel for the night.

Two hours before dawn the next morning, he was up and outside working on his truck. Starting a vehicle in the bone-cracking cold of Tibetan night is no simple matter. First, to warm up the engine, he used a blowtorch - essential equipment on the Golmud-to-Lhasa run. When that didn't work, Lee, who like all his brethren is a fully qualified mechanic, began tinkering with the distributor. I helped by cranking over the engine and by holding the flashlight while he worked. Two hours later the truck still wouldn't start, so he petitioned another driver for a tow. At last we were off and running. Not bothering with luxuries like breakfast, we started on the remaining 700 kilometers (434 miles) to Lhasa.

The Qinghai-Tibet highway crosses some of the bleakest terrain on earth. Since leaving the city of Golmud, we had seen little more than rock, gravel, and snow. But the worst was still ahead: the formidable Tangula Mountains, which gird the plateau and separate Qinghai from Tibet. Grinding up to the 5,180-meter (16,990-ft.) pass took four hours. Then we descended into a comparatively hospitable region, where grass grows (albeit thinly) and an occasional nomad tent is seen. Still, we had more hills ahead and were less than halfway to Lhasa.

The hours dragged by. We passed the town of Amdo, stopping just long enough for a bowl of noodles. I insisted on changing the dressing on his hand. When darkness fell, Lee asked if I wanted to stop. By now I knew that his 15 years on this run had hardened him to driving all night. Let's go on, I said.

So we did. Dozing in my seat, I was little aware of the hours that slipped past, until about 3 a.m. when I was awakened by a sudden silence. Lee had pulled off the road for a nap, for even he was beginning to tire after 17 continuous hours at the wheel. I asked if he would like me to take over, and he said yes.

Driving that lumbering truck certainly woke me up, for it handled as well as an ancient iron battleship. No power steering or brakes, of course, and in fact hardly any brakes at all; it took all my strength to affect a gradual, wheezing stop. After about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), I noticed some sparks down by my left foot where by day I had seen wires crudely taped together. I woke up Lee, but he wasn't worried, so I kept on driving.

Twenty minutes later, in the middle of a steep downhill run, there was a flash and the headlights suddenly extinguished. I was now utterly blind and piloting a multi-ton cannonball down a perilous mountain road. Steer straight, brake hard, and pray was what I did, and somehow we avoided hitting the rock wall or going over the edge.

It was dawn when, at long last, we pulled into Lhasa. Lee dropped me off in front of the Potala Palace just as sunlight was moving down its blazing white walls. Feeling like a pilgrim who has trekked a thousand miles to the Holy City, tears of gladness came to my eyes as I walked the final blocks of my journey.

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