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 Photo: Cat London

Tibet: Plateaus and Mountains
By Allison L. Davis

Blue lightening streaked down from the boiling gray-green clouds, crashing into the hills. At 15,000ft above sea level, it did not have far to go to touch the Earth. Every silent impact rocked our crowded, arthritic mini-bus as it shuddered and groaned over every inch of the Friendship Highway.

I leaned my forehead against the freezing window, watching the hail slap against the glass and quickly cover the landscape in a dense dusting of ice. Inside the mini-bus a tense silence covered us like an iron blanket. The purple streams of electricity from the sky illuminated a nearly impassable dirt road, which clung to the bare edges of the mountains that fed the Himalayas. The Friendship Highway is the almost comical misnomer for the barely passable, one-lane, dual direction, mud road that runs 920 miles from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal. The Highway clings precariously to the side of the mountains and shares its road space with small rivers and debris from recent mudslides. Forever in states of erosion, and attended to by Tibetan road workers; it twines through mountain ranges and across the lonely Tibetan plateau that rises some 4,000 meters above sea level at its highest point.

With hundreds of miles of the Friendship Highway between us and any other human assistance, anxieties mounted in the pregnant silence that had covered our group for the last 2 hours. The black night quickly swallowed the road both in front and behind the bus. Abandoned bulldozers, hulking in the dark along the roadside, resembled sleeping elephants in the flashes of light from the sky. The wheels jammed into the mud, spinning furiously; and painful jolts from traversing recent rockslides threw us from our seats and battered the undercarriage.

In a single, sudden, and rebellious movement, the mini-bus wheels slipped from our driver’s, careful control. Unable to find traction in the rivers of mud that oozed down the road, we slid out of control, coming to rest on the ruins of an earlier mudslide; the ancient bus bisected the road diagonally. Sixteen pairs of lungs froze as the gears groaned, and the wheels spun helplessly. The engine whined, rattled, and stalled before falling into silent submission. Tashi, our driver, told us it was time to get out and push.

As we were shrugging into our Gore-Tex jackets, I became aware of a low rumbling sound, like quiet thunder that rose in crescendo into a roar. I squinted out my foggy window. A river of mud and rock was sliding impossibly fast down the mountainside. The slick dark bodies of boulders seemed like silvery fish leaping in and out of the chocolate river that rushed toward us. We madly scrambled for the door as the rockslide slammed into the Friendship Highway just two feet from the grill of the bus.

“I think we will stay for tonight,” Tashi declared after a moment of stunned silence. He added helpfully: “The road workers will maybe come tomorrow. Maybe.” We took stock of our inventory: half a chocolate bar, 20 wheat crackers, and a small bag of honey roasted peanuts to last the night.

“At least we won’t have to pay for a room,” said the group’s quintessential smart ass. A ripple of chuckles dissolved some of the desperation as we wrapped ourselves in every available piece of clothing in preparation for a long and frigid night.

Outside the storm pounded victoriously; we were buffeted by the wind and threatened by the roar of the swollen river. Fierce, wet cold slipped through our clothes and hair. Frozen and jammed into my tight seat, I dreamt of suffocating mudslides and hunger pains. The dank night stretched onward, punctuated by soft moans and whimpers.

Sometime in the early morning, twelve hours later, headlights flooded the interior of the bus. An entire road crew, complete with a bulldozer, had found us on their way to work. After two attempts, they hauled the bus off the rock debris. They plowed the rockslide ahead of us, and sent us on our way (following many exuberant thanks).

The sky cleared up at dawn as we ascended to the Tibetan plateau.

We passed whitewashed one-room schoolhouses whose smudged-face children chased the bus delightedly, shouting greetings in Tibetan. If we happened to stop, they descended upon us; all sweetness and curiosity. Road crews waved with wide smiles as our poor bus waddled past their encampment of pup-tents perched on the roadside.


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