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!

Tibet 2000: in Gyantse

Gyantse from hotel roof

(This is Part Four of a series. If you’ve just joined me, and want to know how we got to Gyantse, check out Parts One, Two and Three before reading on).

I should have mentioned we were having torrential rain every night. The next morning, W told us the road to Shigatse had been swept away, the bridge was gone and the river in town was flooding. We had two choices. We could go almost all the way back to Lhasa and take an alternative route to Shigatse, but there was no guarantee the roads further on were any better and we might get stuck again. Alternatively, we could cut our losses, go straight back to Lhasa and get a flight out. There were three a week to Kathmandu – Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday. This was Wednesday, so it seemed sensible to try for Thursday so that we could get out before the rush. No doubt every tour group was going to attempt the same thing. W called his manager, who called back to say that he had booked our flights but we would have to pay for them ourselves. There was a lot of argument about this, but eventually at 11:30 we set off along the road we had just come the day before. The difference this time was that we knew exactly how bad it would be.

Gyantse Dong
Gyantse Dong

Within an hour, we were back at the Gyantse Hotel booking in for another night. We had met a convoy coming the other way, which had already turned back from a point where the road was blocked. Part of the problem was vehicles stuck in the mud from the night before which had travelled later than we had and whose occupants had had to spend the night there. We realised how lucky we had been. W phoned his manager again and he agreed to change our flights to the Saturday.

The rest of the day became surreal. Everything we tried to do went wrong. We went to the monastery. It was closed. We went to Gyantse Dong (the castle). It was closed. Everyone in town was away helping to dam the river. We went to check on their progress and to see what the water level indicated for our chances of escape the next day. The military police stopped us. Our guide was taken away for questioning for almost two hours while we sat in the hotel, drank beer (not good for the headache) and sweated. W got a huge cheer when he returned, which he accepted with his usual modesty. We all respected him a lot by now, and this respect increased later that evening when two other groups, whose guides had not looked after them so well, returned dirty and tired having tried to find a way through to Shigatse – these were the already-mentioned Germans and a minibus full of Chinese. When W told us Shigatse was impossible, we believed him.

That night was my lowest point. I lay awake listening to the rain and worrying. When would we get out? Landslides and bridges could take days or even weeks to fix. What if the river flooded and we were trapped in the hotel? What if one of us got sick? What if we tried to get back and had an accident en route? – a distinct possibility given what I knew about the road. Should I be ringing home to remind people where our wills were and to get someone to adopt the cat? Things got really bleak – but next day dawned bright and sunny and W was optimistic. We met him after breakfast and he reported that the Germans had left at 8am to go back to Lhasa and, as they had not yet returned, he thought we should follow them. We rushed off to pack.

Find out how the journey went in Monday’s instalment.

Tibet 2000: the road to Gyantse

Lhasa - Gyantse road
Lhasa – Gyantse road

(This is Part Three of a seven-part tale. If you want to catch up, Part One is the Introduction and Part Two is about Lhasa.)

Soon, the day for our overland trip arrived. The day before, we had each been asked to pay an extra $87 to hire two Toyota Landcruisers because, according to W our guide, the roads were “very bad, very bad” and the bus wouldn’t make it. Well, we weren’t surprised about the bus and we’d seen some pretty smart-looking Landcruisers about town, so this seemed ok. And if the roads were bad – well, we hadn’t expected a holiday camp either. However, the Landcruisers were old, beaten-up and rattled more than the bus. Still, things weren’t too bad for the first 90 minutes, until we left the main road and swung off up a mountain pass on a winding, un-metalled track. We all began to wonder what we had let ourselves in for. This was supposed to be a 10-12 hour drive and already we felt we’d never survive. The scenery was spectacular, but we felt too awful to appreciate it.

After four hours, we reached a “restaurant” (hut in the middle of nowhere) where we had lunch. This was our big chance to try yak butter tea, the local speciality. John, who is notorious for trying anything revolting, quite liked it – it reminded him of Stilton soup. I smelled it and heaved, asking for jasmine instead. I’m sure this came in the same bowl, which hadn’t been rinsed out, but at least it was drinkable. After lunch, the ladies tentatively asked about the facilities. W advised us that there was a toilet, but that we’d be better going behind a wall outside. Hmm….

A word about Tibetan toilets. The hotels we stayed in had normal Western sanitation, but outside a toilet (usually announced by its smell) consisted of a communal room with two planks over a noxious pit. No running water, no privacy. When sightseeing, we had all managed to avoid this because we always went back to the hotel at lunchtime. (Except for John of course, who with his usual disgusting curiosity went into each one just to look, even if he didn’t need to go.) On the road, it was different. The men, as usual, had no bother. The women developed a system of standing guard for each other (no bushes or big rocks available), and certainly our modesty decreased as the week wore on. The first time was a bit of a disaster – C got through alright, but what we hadn’t reckoned with was that, although we were well hidden from our own Landcruisers, we were on a hair-pin bend and there was a convoy of Germans on the way up. I heard their vehicles in mid-flow but had been holding on so long I couldn’t get done in time. We kept meeting those Germans all week. I hope they didn’t recognise me.

Enough about toilets, and back on the road. The first day turned out to be only nine hours. Perhaps, we thought, W was the type to exaggerate how bad things would be so that we felt good when they were better. We arrived at the Gyantse Hotel for one night – it looked like a toilet block from the outside, but was quite smart and comfortable inside. Our brochure described the next day as a pleasant two-hour drive to Shigatse with a visit to a monastery in the afternoon – and if W was saying the roads were now “very, very bad”, well, we knew he exaggerated didn’t we?

Come back on Monday to find out what happened next….