Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.
By Fiona Reilly
Travelling to the far side of Xinjiang and back was rugged, but it turned out to be a trifle compared to what the following month of travel put us through. We hadn't counted on the extreme toll taken by a combination of high altitudes, seismic instability, mechanical failures and illness that befell all of us in an area of China that is so stunningly beautiful you must see it before you die – if it doesn't kill you first.
Tracing a route from Golmud in Qinghai Province south to Tongren, then westwards into southern Gansu Province and south again via Langmusi to northern Sichuan, we were surrounded everywhere by raw, beautiful country with low, brooding cloud, grass-covered hills and flocks of long-haired sheep. Now and again, we passed a Tibetan tent with a herder standing resolutely in the rain in a felt hat and long brown coat, tied at the waist with a brightly coloured sash.
Having never had the opportunity to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region, our first encounter with a Tibetan family came about in a noodle restaurant in Golmud, a place that perhaps doesn't see an awful lot of foreigners. There they were, splendid in coral, pearls and layers of fur-trimmed vests and floor length coats, staring at us in our shabby camping clothes as though we were the exotic ones.
The drive through Qinghai gave us a taste of the altitude problems we would experience on and off for weeks. Above 3000 m our youngest suffered dreadful headaches and vomited every second meal. I discovered that even 4000 m failed to render me headachy or breathless, but instead filled me with a gnawing anxiety that we would all die, a visceral fear that vanished completely below 3600 m and kicked back in again as soon as we went above that altitude. All of which made it easier to deal more rationally with the subsequent brake failure that occurred on the flat at 2600 m, rather than coming down a steeply winding mountain pass free of safety barriers.
Our brakes had given us no previous trouble, but repeatedly hauling a hulking, five-tonne campervan up and down endless winding mountain roads had tested their limits and we were now in dire straits: one heavy campervan containing the people most dear to us in the world, with one mountain pass behind us and another up ahead – along with the area's only mechanic. Whether we went forwards or backwards we had no choice but to go up and over.
I discovered that 4000 m failed to render me headachy or breathless, but filled me with a gnawing anxiety that we would all die.
We frantically workshopped the issue with a mechanic friend in Shanghai, who told us to top up our brake fluid and go very, very slowly. We continued with a great deal of anxiety, tackling the mountain road in second gear with frequent stops to cool the brakes and a plan to drive directly into the mountain side in the event of further problems – on the grounds that crashing into a wall of rock would be preferable to going over the barrier-free edge. The descent took four hours and about forty years off our lives, but the brakes held.
By the time we reached Xiahe and a mechanic we were physically and mentally exhausted, but Xiahe and its surrounding mountains are magnificently restorative. The cold, clean air is filled with the smell of pine, incense and burning yak butter candles from the monastery, which rises from the landscape like a small city in white and gold. The streets are equally splendid, filled with monks in heavy crimson robes wrapped tightly against the cold and everyone else in long coats flashing brightly coloured brocade linings of cobalt blue and gold with silver studded leather belts, felt boots lined with yak fur laced to the knee, and turquoise and coral jewellery. And that was just the men.
Restored and re-energized, brakes and a dozen other niggling mechanical problems fixed, we headed towards Chengdu, with snowfalls and a single landslide the only further problems to contend with on the journey. They caused us to miss Jiuzhaigou, apparently China's greatest natural treasure, but in the vast stunning landscapes of Gansu and Qinghai, we felt we had already seen it.
Our journey in print stops here, but will continue for the next month through the stunning Yuanyang rice terraces in Yunnan, the Miao New Year festival in Guizhou, and the Tulou earth houses of Fujian province, mechanical providence permitting.
You can continue to follow the last of our adventure around China at www.lifeonnanchanglu.com.
This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.