FEATURE: Joining road warriors’ journey to the west

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - A 4,000-kilometre, 11-day road trip from Beijing to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau connects China’s forests, mountains, deserts, grasslands and tundra.

The yak kicked me. It was my fault. I’d disembarked from the wrong side. Turns out, at least in Qinghai province’s Qumarleb county, you mount and dismount yaks from their left.

The animal’s hoof repeatedly punched into my leg like a jackhammer.

Lesson learned.

Fortunately, the bull’s volleys only scraped and bruised my knees and shins, and painted my jeans with impressionist hoof prints.

I didn’t even have to limp, I realised, gratefully, upon taking my first steps after getting off the creature.

Moments later, a beaming monk with a single tooth, whose nomadic family had just poured us yak-milk tea in their earthen dwelling, bent down and popped back up clenching a wild mushroom he’d just plucked from the prairie.

He offered it to us. A few folks who’d joined our cross-country road trip from Beijing nibbled the local delicacy.

These were our last shared moments before I parted with my travel companions, who’d packed two SUVs to undertake the 4,000-kilometre road trip from Beijing to Qumarleb’s outskirts in Qinghai province’s Yushu.

The others went farther and further.

I’d ridden with, depending on the leg, five to seven other foreigners, to discover the open road across the country’s north. That is, the forests, deserts, grasslands, mountains, plains and tundra of Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Qinghai.

One of the drivers, a British road warrior and longtime friend, has driven over 180,000 km throughout China over the past 13 years.

Most people avoid bad roads. Richard seeks them out. He’s that kind of guy.

We call him, “Captain”. He deserves the title.

On our first day setting out from the capital, we stopped at a yurt in a small town in Hebei province for lunch.

That evening, we indulged in copious pours of horse-milk liquor with locals at the night market in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region’s Ordos city to celebrate Captain’s birthday.

Desert deluge

The next day’s scenery dissolved from forests into scrublands that eventually evaporated into the sands of the Gobi.

In some places, the earth blistered into bizarre mounds like toad skin. Other areas appeared as if dollops of rock had been squeezed from nozzles in the sky over dusty expanses.

Mountainous stretches of the wasteland churned with dull purple, red, brown and green hues. It’s as if a cloudburst had washed a rainbow down to stain the land, leaving a muted residue on the rocks.

Speaking of rain-it was the last thing we expected to encounter in the Gobi. That is, except for the flood.

One of our cars had to whoosh through a river that’d abruptly materialised across the road. The driver deliberated for some time. If he didn’t attempt to plow through the water that was nearly as high as his hood, he’d be stranded in the desert, indefinitely.

He made it. But the resistance created by the water flayed the license plate from his vehicle’s front.

You don’t anticipate such situations in the desert, but they happen.

Camels plodded along the isolated dunes that melted into slop in the downpours. Their hooves punched heart-shaped divots into the terrain.

Solitary trees that seemed misplaced on the otherwise-barren landscapes were sheathed with flamboyant prayer flags. They testified to the tenacity of life and vibrancy of culture.

The next day, we saw the bald skeletons of trees bleached by sun glare in the Ghost Forest that borders the ruins of Khara-Khoto, or the Black Castle, in Inner Mongolia’s Alxa League.

Branches twisted from contorted trunks like arms thrust toward the heavens in the throes of a mass demise.

They’d shrivelled when an oasis dried up long ago, and the parched climate had preserved their remains like mummies’.

Tidal waves of sand crashed in slow motion against the ramparts of Khara-Khoto, a Silk Road outpost believed to have been forsaken in the late 1300s.

A mammal’s skull glowered from atop the nub of a building. Other bones were scattered throughout the dead city’s grounds. I wondered who’d placed them there-and why.

Rainbow climbing

We then headed to the Rainbow Mountains in Gansu province’s Zhangye.

The peaks, indeed, live up to their colourful name. Posting photos of them online with the hashtag#nofilter is an enduring trend-for good reason.

The banded-sandstone range’s expansiveness only came into full-make that a bird’s-eye-view when I gazed over them from aboard a helicopter.

That evening, we hiked through the stony spires of Zhangye’s lesser-known Ice Valley. Groves of rocky pillars seemed to prop up the sunset.

We spent the following night on the grasslands near Qinghai Lake.

In the morning, a patchwork of yellow, red and blue blooms flooded the massive water body’s shores.

Yaks, sheep, cows, horses and-oddly-a few alpaca trotted along the banks.

Indeed, the cause of most traffic jams during our trip had hooves rather than wheels.

Road signs warned of livestock crossings. So, too, did the roadkill.

The occasional carcasses of smashed yaks reminded me of a local joke.

A driver from the city hits a yak, destroying the animal and his vehicle. The motorist furiously howls at the nomad: “Why’d you lead your yak on the road! There’s no grass on the road!”

The herder thinks for a moment. He calmly responds: “Why’d you drive over my yak? There’s no pavement on my yak.”

I’ve known this quip for years, but actually seeing livestock that seemed to have been crushed by cars reminded me that this humorous tale takes inspiration from deadly reality.

In other places, crumpled vehicles that’d ripped through railings served as reminders to drive safely.

In Qinghai, we saw dozens of stone mounds assembled at the sites of traffic fatalities. The deceased’s loved ones built them as markers of their beloveds’ exit from this world and as portals to the next, locals say.

Signs in Tibetan, Chinese and English also sometimes warned of “hazardous permafrost roads”.

The tundra’s thaws corrugate their pavement, so driving over them is like sailing over waves. They make some people seasick on land.

Finding fungus

As we approached Qumarleb, Captain and I were fretting that we didn’t have a gift for our friend, Tseringben, who’d host us there.

A couple of hours later, a Tibetan guy on a motorcycle pulled up next to us during a pit stop on a remote prairie. He pointed to a plastic bag and asked: “Want to buy something?”

“What do you have?” I replied.

He opened the bag and answered: “Caterpillar fungus.”

Jackpot! Our friend loves the stuff. The parasite endemic to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Himalayas grows from ghost-moth larvae and is a highly prized and often high-priced traditional cure-all.

The organism, which looks like a woody caterpillar with a unicorn horn, can’t move but appears ready to tiptoe away at any moment. It seems as otherworldly as the terrain that hosts it.

I bought six.

The plateau is called “the roof of the world” and “the planet’s third pole”-and rightly so.

It sometimes reminds me more of Middle Earth or the last stand of a long-forgotten ice age.

Glaciers crown the scalps of the tallest peaks that thrust above where even grass can climb. They loom like stern sovereigns-the highest prominences of the highlands, reminding those lower in the sky of who reigns here.

The subordinate mountains are fleeced with every conceivable shade of green, speckled with yellow wildflowers and studded with black yaks. Silvery streams rinse the foothills’ toes.

Qinghai’s skies are similarly dynamic. I saw my first sun pillars-disembodied blotches of rainbow created by light refracting through ice particles in the sky-and a double rainbow arched over Qumbarleb on our first day full there.

Arriving and departing

We arrived in the county seat to a traditional Tibetan feast.

Tseringben’s family had prepared boiled sheep ribs; yak butter, milk tea and yoghurt; and ingredients for tsampa, a hand-kneaded mash of highland-barley flour, crunchy yak cheese, sugar and yak milk.

The next day, we barbecued in capricious weather on the banks of an oxbow that slaloms through the grassland, after visiting the local monastery amid an umbrella-inverting rainstorm. We used yak dung to ignite the charcoal to roast our lamb and potato kebabs after the elements had extinguished the kerosene.

It was delicious.

The next day, our caravan of road warriors rode yaks and then continued our respective journeys in different directions.

I stayed in Qumarleb for a day to do volunteer work, catch up with old friends and investigate how poverty-alleviation initiatives are transforming the nomadic communities.

Before flying back to Beijing, I travelled to Yushu to revisit its monasteries and the world’s largest mani (prayer-stone) wall.

The cross-country journey showed me how northern China’s vast and often-desolate geography is conjured by its varied and sometimes-vindictive geology.

And it also revealed how these-and the scenery, wildlife and cultures they sire-are all connected.

That is, kilometre by kilometre, on the open road-for roughly 4,000 km, as the yak trots or the SUV drives.


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