The Beer Truck Driver
So I’m walking along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway thinking about how weird it is that a country can have a border within its borders that foreigners can’t cross. Imagine if we had a place like that in the states. “Sorry world, Americans only. You’re gonna have to stay out of Hawaii from now on. It’s absolutely not because there’s some ill shit going down here, that’s not why. Get on our guided Alohatropa tourbus if you don’t believe us. Everything is cool. Go away.”
Another thing about borders inside of borders though, is they often arbitrary. As far as Tibet is concerned, I’m already in Kham Tibet, the northeastern region of the country. I flag down a motorcycle after I get sick of walking. The driver takes me as far as Yulong Lake, about 20 minutes away. Now I’m sitting by the shore of this beautiful milky green glacial lake, surrounded by green grass and bright blue, purple, and yellow flowers.
I’m kept company by the flutter of prayer flags, their bright rainbows strung across the forest all around me. It’s like having a good friend in the next room reading the newspaper. No distraction, no noise except the occasional quiet rustle, just the warm feeling of companionship.
Late afternoon I walk back to the main road and flag down a truck going towards Dege, the last town before the Tibetan border.
I throw my pack up into the truck and climb in after it, one two three steps into a comfy mechanical throne. The rig is clean, save for dozens of crushed plastic water bottles lining the window. The driver is young, 30s maybe, the first person I’ve ridden with who doesn’t throw his trash out the window. He’s speaking thick Sichuan dialect at me until I admit I don’t understand a thing he’s saying, and he switches to Putonghua for me.
He says he’s running empty Snow beer bottles from Chengdu to the Snow factory in Chamdo, Tibet, where he swaps them for full bottles that and runs those back down to Chengdu. The trip takes 12 days. 12 days, over some of the worst roads and highest mountains in the world, for some of the world’s worst beer.
This road, he tells me, honking at a herd of yaks parked in front of us, will take you all the way to Shanghai if you follow it. It’s the 2nd longest in China. The road is unpaved, hard packed dirt running along a rushing glacial melt river lined with boulders carved with huge Tibetan characters: Om mani padmi hom.
The yaks slowly, grudgingly get up as the truck honks at them. Like it would never occur to them that a truck the size of a small airplane might be dangerous to them, but if I try to get close enough to pet one, they always hurry out of the way. I don’t know what this says about yaks, that they perceive me as more dangerous than a truck.
The road starts to snake up onto a tall bare rock face, Jiaoer Mountain. The pass here is at 5,050 meters. We stop at the bottom of the mountain for water, and I stare up at the road scarring the mountain with its dirty brown zigzag. Going up that in a truck this size is starting to look like a very bad idea. When we set off again, the narrow dirt road is sandwiched between dynamite blasted rock and a sheer cliff with no railing that drops 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 meters into the valley below as we snake our way up through the hairpin switchbacks.
The truck is about as well suited to this as a tyrannosaur is to synchronized swimming. The rig is anchored to the bed of the truck, it doesn’t swivel independently – so the driver must take each turn as wide as possible, inching the wheels so close to the edge of the cliff that I find myself praying to any god that will have me, alternating between Hail Marys and chanting om main Padma home and just saying holyshitholyshitholyshit over and over under my breath. I roll my window down and keep my seatbelt off – if we’re start going over, I’m planting my right foot on the windowsill, grabbing the giant rearview with my left hand, and catapulting myself out of there like a monkey shot into space.
“Do trucks go over a lot?” I ask the driver. I’d seen a rig just like ours lying below a bridge outside YuShu, its cab crushed like a soda can, and that road had been much, much easier going than this one. He pauses, waiting until he’s inched his way around the corner we’re on, before saying, “Actually, you know, it doesn’t happen as often as you might think. How reassuring.
The sun is setting, leaving us covered in deepening shadows. The mountains we’re crossing are leaving a crisp jagged outline against the opposite yellow gold wall of the nearby hills. It’s breathtaking. Breathtaking terror. It’s a nice transition from the peaceful lake.
We reached the pass, and the view is breathtaking. You can see for bigger than I knew the world was. The sky and the mountains, everything looks enormous and tiny at the same time.
Grey rock faces melt into rolling green hills that melt into the floor of the valley. The light from the setting sun castes a warm glow to the rocks around us, filtering down to dark shadows as it drops below the mountains. It looks so much like a watercolor painting I can’t believe I am actually standing in it.
A shining gold river twists its way across the valley floor, marking the route ahead of us in a landscape quickly turning from green to black. And the road gets worse. It’s like climbing up any other thing in the world: going down is much worse. Several times, the driver just stops, opens his door and just stares at the few centimeters of loose dirt between his wheel base and the thousands of meters to the valley below. The altitude and the fear are making me sleepy, and I keep closing my eyes. Each time I open them, my heart jumps. I can’t decide what is worse: keeping them open, and remaining struck with terror, or closing them and then opening them to be staring off the edge of a cliff every time.
It takes another 2 hours to make it down the mountain, and we clear it just before it gets dark. We stop for water, and a small girl in a grubby pink sweatshirt peers into the truck. She’s with a young couple. The driver jumps back in, lighting a cigarette as he waits for the water tank to fill up. “They want a ride too,” he says, pointing to the young family. “We normally don’t give rides to Tibetans though.” The little girl, who must be about three, catches my eye before the driver shuts the door, and she’s got this expression like she already understands why I get to ride in the truck and she doesn’t.
Our lights shine on the pocked dirt ahead, dark shadows of tall evergreens lining the slope down to the river below. It reminds me a little of Highway 101 in Northern California: the tall trees, the thin, snaking road, and I suddenly feel very at home. I ask the driver what he runs besides beer. “A lot of fruit,” he tells me. “Pomegranates. Mangos. I just ran a load of pomegranates to Beijing,” he says. “I’ll run anything, except for illegal stuff, like cigarettes, or unlicensed wood.”
Late at night we get in to the truck depot outside Dege. “It’s less than a kilometer into Dege from here,” he tells me as he parks in the lot.
I offer him some money; almost none of the people who pick me up ask for any, but they always accept it. Until this man. He refuses like a nonsmoker being offered a lit cigar, so I thank him and start walking into the darkness in front of me, a million stars glittering above.