A travel day. Tola pass at 4200 meters, Gatso pass at 5200 meters, and later another at 5100 meters. Passes are marked with spiderwebs of prayer flags strung over the street, from poles, or even power masts. The sun is hot but the wind is very cold. None of the blue-black skies again. The mountains are all bare of vegetation, but shine in red, brown, black, and yellow hues. People plough fields with horses, but I don’t see any plants. My guide and I have lunch in a Tibetan restaurant as usual, but my driver is Chinese and eats only Chinese food, and only at Chinese restaurants, even though he has been living in Tibet for five years. So he eats alone every time. In the Tibetan restaurant, a sheep’s dried leg sits on the counter with tufts of hair at the hoof still on it, but most of the meat is gone. Beef jerkey Tibet style. They also rent rooms but the bathroom smells like the sheep died there, so we continue.
We were supposed to overnight in Tingri, but at 17:00 my guide’s agency in Lhasa notices a mistake in my travel permits – the departure date is wrong, I have to leave the country tomorrow! And they are *very* strict about that. So we pack up and leave for the border town of Zhangmu. Tingri is no loss, there is nothing to see there, and I couldn’t get the Mt. Everest permit anyway, but we’ll spend a lot of time in the car.
At Old Tingri, the smooth blacktop road ends and we must use a dirt road for the next 132 km. Occasionally the road is closed and we must go off-road; I have no idea how the driver finds his way. One day, the road will be open and paved all the way, they are working on that, I have seen several people with shovels! The driver loves to go over bumps at speed, and once we hit a big rock. He decided that we can continue after an inspection. The views of the ice-capped Himalaya range in the evening sun is fantastic, I keep asking to stop the car. There are several police checkpoints.
Soon it’s totally dark and the ride gets interesting. Once we were faced with three huge yaks in the middle of the road after turning a corner, but stopped in time. There are also unlit dogs, horses, and sheep from time to time. Asphalt returns for a short time, but there are rocks that have fallen from the mountain everywhere, so we must go slowly. One boulder more than a meter across had smashed through the retaining wall, scattering debris all over the road and coming to rest in the middle of our lane. Just before Zhangmu, we reach a narrow, dangerous, unpaved, and very rutted section of the road. There is lots of traffic going the other way because the road is open only from 20:00 to 1:00, mostly trucks. People with torches run around, we need to inch our way backwards and forwards into tiny turnouts without falling off the mountain to let the trucks pass. My guide says this usually takes 2-3 hours at this point but we managed to pass after less than an hour. My driver really knows his job and doesn’t mind a smoking clutch. We arrive in Zhangmu at 23:30.
They call this the Friendship Highway. Can’t be much of a friendship.