[This is a longer, un-edited version of the article that appeared in Crikey on the changes in the Tibetan highway since my first visit in 1992]:
Tashi Delay. This must be the highest traffic jam in the world. I’m sitting on a bus on Highway 318 at Kezi La, some 4400m in altitude, just outside the Tibetan border town of Litang. We’re stuck here for a couple of hours as the road is temporarily closed while a tarmac crew is at work resurfacing a section of this part of this rollercoaster Sichuan to Lhasa highway. Behind us the traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see – a mix of trucks, buses and a huge number of SUVs carrying the new breed of Chinese adventure tourist. This is the new reality for the road to Tibet as ‘Shangri La’ experiences a tourism and construction boom.
I started my journey in Kangding, the traditional border town between the Han Chinese lowlands of Sichuan and the Tibetan plateau. Statues outside the spanking new Kangding bus station portray the Chinese coolies who used to carry heavy loads of tea on their backs up the trails from Sichuan. This was the old ‘Tea Horse Trail’ on which tea was brought to Kangding to be traded for Tibetan goods such as furs and jade. Nowadays Kangding is still an important trading centre where Chinese and wild-looking Khampa Tibetans still mingle on the streets. These days, however, you’re more likely to see the Khampa cowboys browsing in Jeans West, or you might have a Tibetan girl asking if you want an extra large fries with your fried chicken at the KFC-clone Dico’s restaurant. Saffron-clad Buddhist monks can be seen sizing up the latest iPhones in Kangding’s Apple store, or sipping fruit smoothies from the many new food outlets lining the main street.
On the surface, relations between Chinese and Tibetans appear good. In the evening, hundreds of people of both races take part in a mass Tibetan circle dance around the Kangding town square to the accompaniment of traditional folk music played on a huge public video screen. The Chinese take it seriously and have the dance moves down to a tee, whereas the Tibetans just shuffle around, enjoying themselves and chatting to each other. The atmosphere is one of innocence, tolerance and fun as young and old, men and women, sweep around doing all the accompanying moves to tunes such as Kangding Love Song. At the nearby Anjue Buddhist Monastery, authorities allow a large portrait of the Dalai Lama to be displayed, below which the local Tibetans have placed prayer candles and wads of renminbi offerings.
Below the surface, however, tensions remain. Outside the bus station I saw a dispute erupt between Tibetan van drivers and municipal cheng-guan inspectors over the issue of unofficial taxis plying for trade. It quickly escalated into a shouting and shoving match and drew a large crowd like a school playground fight, with onlookers jeering and goading for their respective sides. For a few minutes it seemed likely to turn into a riot, but the row then dissipated almost as quickly as it started when police hauled away the offending driver in a car.
During my stay in the area I overheard Chinese making negative comments about the character of Tibetans. According to my bus driver they were “unreliable … lazy … hotheaded … prone to fighting … too much liking for drink.” In my own experience the Kham Tibetans were still essentially a wild and anarchic bunch, many still yak herders in spirit, and with their own strong sense of identity firmly linked to Buddhism and Lamaism.
The differences between the races are highlighted on the steep rocky crags that tower over Kangding. On these cliffs the Tibetans have painted many colourful Buddhist frescoes and chortens. Around them, the Chinese have erected electricity pylons and mobile phone towers. A similar pattern can be seen on the windswept hillsides in the highland areas surrounding Kangding. Beyond the 4500m Zheduo Pass above the town, the Tibetans have planted a sea of prayer flags that flutter in bands of yellow, blue and white in the strong breeze. Above this are carved the words “Om Mane Padme Hum” in huge white Tibetan characters into the hillside. Nearby stands a huge and incongruous Chinese advertising hoarding for the Kangding Airport, while below there is a cluster of prefabricated blue worker’s huts for a gravel processing plant, where rocks from the riverbed are crushed in a massive hopper and spewed out on a conveyor belt onto the fleet of trucks.
In Kham the resurgence in Tibetan Buddhism is more than matched by a resurgence in major infrastructure projects run by Chinese state-owned companies. There is construction going on everywhere – new tunnels, bridges, roads, apartments and hotels. On the road to Kangding the town of Luding used to be famous for its chain link iron bridge over the churning Dadu river that was the scene for a famous battle between Mao’s Long Marchers and the Kuomintang soldiers. These days the once sleepy riverside town has been greatly expanded and is now overshadowed by a huge hydro dam that has created a large lake, the surface of which is sadly already cluttered with a raft of plastic and polystyrene rubbish from upriver.
Perhaps connected with this, on the other side of Kangding amid the clusters of picturesque Tibetan villages there is a huge new National Electricity Grid relay station comprising a massive field of pylons and transformers. Construction has also transformed the town of Kangding itself. The ramshackle ‘old town’ that sits in a valley astride a raging mountain river is being supplanted by a completely new Hong Kong-style town of high rises that has been constructed on a ‘green field’ site up a nearby side valley above the original town. This literally-named Kangding New Town is located on the route to the Gongga Shan mountain range, whose snowy peaks now overlook a whole new community of apartments, colleges and grandiose buildings for the various local government departments. This once secluded valley that once contained only a scattering of traditional Tibetan houses and a woolen mill now has landscaped gardens, roundabouts and sports fields.
All this construction requires a workforce and supplies, and these are much in evidence on the Sichuan-Tibet highway. Route 318 is now a nose-to tail stream of trucks and vans bringing materials up from Sichuan. Gone are the simple old Jiefang (Liberation) trucks, replaced by hulking eight-wheeler Foton heavy transporters, overloaded with everything from huge pipes and pylons to boulders, logs and scrap metal. Many are driven by the new breed of Tibetan truckies, who decorate their windscreens with pictures of their preferred lama, and with floral paintings and prayer flags festooned around the cabin. In contrast, the Chinese truckers have Transformer decals on their doors and “For Hire” signs in their windows.
But trucks only account for about half the traffic on Route 318 these days. The traffic jam I found myself in on the Kazi Pass was mostly made up of the new breed of Chinese tourist – the SUV adventurer. Clad in shiny new North Face gear and driving anything from a late model Land Rover Freelander to a Landcruiser, there are now huge numbers of newly-wealthy Chinese heading out into the hills wielding their DSLRs and walking poles. Kham is now prime vacation territory for many Chinese who are seeking an escape from the crowded and polluted lowland provinces. These are not the coach-bound tour groups with matching baseball caps following a leader with a flag and a megaphone. The new Chinese tourists have their own cars, and travel in small groups of family or friends. And more young Chinese now travel independently as backpackers, and can be seen on the outskirts of settlements along the Tibet highway trying to hitch lifts with their destination written on Chinese characters on a piece of cardboard. Cycling is also hugely popular, judging by the large numbers of Chinese cyclists to be seen sweating on mountain bikes with bulging panniers over the high passes on their way to Lhasa.
To cater for this new wave of tourism, the Kham Tibetans have responded by converting their sturdy stone farmhouses into guesthouses and ‘backpacker’ hostels. The town of Xinduqiao above Kangding has become something of an adventure tourism hub, with almost every house bearing a sign offering accommodation, pony trekking and Tibetan food. The signage is all in Chinese of course – this is a huge domestic market, and foreign tourists must account for less than 1% of those travelling the Tibetan highway.
The change has been rapid and profound. Ten years ago I made an arduous and uncomfortable trip to the three sacred mountain peaks at Yading, near Daocheng. The only way to get there at that time was by an uncomfortable and unpredictable three day bus ride over unsealed mountain roads from Kangding. Accommodation was in wooden shacks and marquee tents that had been hastily thrown up at the entrance to the newly established National Park to cater for the initial trickle of visitors.
This year I returned to find that an airport had just been opened at Yading-Daocheng – one of the higest in the world - and the influx of visitors from the several flights a day was now catered for by a series of flashy new hotels that had been built in Daocheng. At the once remote Yading, village the shacks had been replaced with a series of upmarket Tibetan-style guesthouses where you can access wifi while sipping on a 48 yuan cup of Yunnan coffee. Entrance fees to the National Park are now set at a whopping 270 yuan, which includes an obligatory shuttle bus, as SUVs are banned from the National Park (I saw around a hundred 4WDs parked up in a special new car park set up at the gateway town of Riwa). And yet despite the high fees, there are literally hundreds of Chinese tourists swarming into Yading every day. The crowds waiting to board the fleet of golf buggy-style electric carts that now run through the park are so dense that it’s is almost impossible to swing a telephoto lens without hitting someone.
In despair, I fled the hustle of Yading and tried to find some tranquility in the more off-the-beaten-track region of Gongga Shan, near Kangding. But even in the remote Yulongxi valley adjacent to this 7600m peak we found the Tibetan houses had been converted into guesthouses and ‘adventure centres’. The local Minya Tibetans are turning from yak herding to tourism. Almost every house now offers accommodation, food and horse hire. Our young Tibetan guide for the hike over the pass to the remote Konka Gompa monastery was more interested in playing with his iPhone than talking about the local features and culture.
On the bus back to Kangding we inevitably hit another traffic jam. For four hours we were stranded in a ten mile tailback of trucks, cars and other coaches on a remote section of road. Drivers and passenger spilled out on to the road to smoke, crack melon seeds and sip from their flasks of their tea. The cause wasn’t clear and there were no traffic cops to be seen. Some said it was a landslip, others said it was more roadworks. We never found out. A young guy next to me from Chongqing tutted and cursed as we sat immobile for hours. He fiddled with his phone and made the same call that everyone else made:
“I’m on the bus. Stuck in traffic … I’ll call you when we get in.”
Then he muttered to nobody in particular: “Aiya! Even in Shangri-La there are too many people.”