Tibet 2000: escape from Gyantse

(Part Five – to find out how we got into this predicament, check out Parts One, Two, Three and Four.)

The road from Gyantse to Lhasa consisted of little more than a dirt track over three mountain passes – one small one and two very high ones (over 15,000 ft). In many places, the track was churned up mud or a river ran over it. C said she felt lucky, and we knew we needed luck. We set off at 10, and 50 minutes later were sitting at our first landslide. The Chinese minibus and a convoy of other 4WDs were also waiting, including the Germans who had been there for two hours already. Two diggers were working on the landslide and I asked W how long he thought it would take to clear – about 3 or 4 hours. So what should we do? Wait. At first, progress was discouraging as every time some rocks were cleared, more fell down. We didn’t envy the drivers of the diggers their jobs.

Eventually, after 3.5 hours (more respect to W) it was clear and we all set off again. Passing the site of the rock fall was scary as we felt more could come down at any time. Neither were we too happy that one of the diggers had already gone off ahead of us, indicating another slide in front. Sure enough, after less than half an hour we stopped again, but this time it was just mud that had slipped and it was easier to clear. After only 20 minutes, we were away again.

Things then set into a predictable pattern. The convoy would move along fairly quickly until it hit bad mud or running water. The 4WDs would get through, but the Chinese minibus would always get stuck. It didn’t have sufficient clearance or power and shouldn’t really have been on that road. The other drivers treated it with a mixture of exasperation, jockeying for position to try to ensure it was behind them, and solidarity – there was always someone prepared to help pull it out. Often, the passengers would have to disembark to make it lighter and I felt very sorry for them as they seemed to have had far less idea of what they were letting themselves in for than we did. The ladies had nice shoes and handbags and were very reluctant to jump out into running water.

In this way, we made it over the first high pass, which had snow at the top. It was now late in the afternoon so W was beginning to think we would not make Lhasa before dark, and none of us wanted to be driving mountain tracks at night. There was a village in between the two passes which we would reach about 6pm and he thought we should spend the night in a guesthouse there. We looked it up in the guidebook and shuddered. This reluctance was not expressed in words, but must have communicated itself because by the time we got there the plan had changed to dinner only. We really wanted to press on, but as W very fairly pointed out, the drivers needed a break. He guaranteed we could still reach Lhasa that night so we trooped into the restaurant. It wasn’t very nice, but we saw worse later, and anyway we trusted W not to take us anywhere that would make us ill. It was not in his interests to have two car-loads of sick people!

Things were going well, we felt optimistic – and then W came back with some very bad news. He had just phoned his manager and the flight on Saturday was full! Not only that, the next flight on Tuesday was not certain either. Incredibly, the manager was still suggesting we should carry on to Shigatse the long way round that night and continue our overland journey. We were aghast. We didn’t believe we’d get through in time by land, and if we didn’t get flights to Kathmandu on Saturday, C and ourselves would miss our flights home. The Fs were not returning to Austria till Thursday, but were no keener than the rest of us to spend two extra days in Tibet. We’d had enough. W indicated subtly that there were sometimes plane tickets available “by corruption” and we all told him to ask his manager to acquire these if at all possible at whatever cost. This is how low we would now stoop.

Sometimes the scenery was beautiful!
Sometimes the scenery was beautiful!
A subdued party got back into the Landcruisers, but we made it to the top of the last pass easily and cheered up a bit. The road from here was reckoned to be quite good and W had never known it to cause problems. However, the weather on the other side of the pass was poor. It had been snowing, was now raining, the roads were icy and it was getting dark. There were so many tight bends we felt we could have slipped over at any time had our drivers not been so skilful. When we got below the snow-line the relief was almost palpable – until we turned another corner and came upon the whole convoy again, stuck at another landslide. This was a bad one – right on a bend, deep mud all over the road and about a foot of water running across it. Worse, the minibus was ahead of us.

The drivers went off to investigate, followed by John. C and I had long since abandoned getting out to look, and fortunately John seemed to enjoy his role as roving reporter (or so he said). He took his torch but came back without it, astonished that not one of the drivers carried one. This didn’t inspire confidence. However, the news was reasonable – the water level was dropping and the drivers seemed to think it would soon be “safe” to attempt a crossing. I tried not to think of the mud slipping further down the mountain taking our vehicle with it. Before this, there was still the problem of the minibus, which was bound to get stuck – our drivers thought so too and decided to overtake it. I could only close my eyes. The road was just wide enough and half an inch to the left and we’d have been off it. This was the moment when I most thought I might die. Still, we made it past the bus and over the landslide – and predictably, the minibus stuck. Our driver just carried on. There were now two more 4WDs behind the bus and I suppose he thought it was up to them to come to the rescue. I felt bad, but didn’t object.

A problem now arose with the other Landcruiser in our party. It had damaged its rear axle and could only limp down the pass. Eventually, we reached a flat, metalled road and the drivers stopped to make a temporary repair. Spirits rose again. It was only half past ten and we could still reach Lhasa by midnight. The road from here was easy – we thought, but as had happened so often that day, every time we thought the worst was over, an even bigger disaster happened. The metalled road we were on had been swept away by a flood just before the junction with the main Lhasa/Shigatse road. A couple of vehicles were trying to get across but it was too difficult in the dark. We would not get to Lhasa till morning.

Where did we rest our weary heads? Find out on Monday!


  1. The Guardian (or was it the Oserver?) used to run an item called something like “my worst ever holiday”. I think this definitely qualifies for the top ten !


    • Thank you. I wrote this at the time, almost as a stream of consciousness. I’ve hardly edited it so what you get is exactly what I was feeling. Apart from a few hairy moments, surprisingly little fear but a lot of frustration!

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