May 12, 1999
My bus from Xining left the station at 11AM, but we didn't actually leave the city limits until 1PM (we ended up going to another bus station and changing busses). Even though we were on our way to a heavily Tibetan area most of the people on the bus were Han Chinese. Everyone seemed surprised when I told them I was going to Maduo. "Be careful," I was told, "Danger."
The road was relatively featureless, with low slung hills and endless plains (looks like the road from Golmud to Lhasa). We lunched in a place I couldn't find on the map-it was a typical Qinhai bus station without much of a town attached. After this place the there was very little in the way of human habitation.
It was very cold on the bus. My water bottle froze solid.
At around midnight the bus stopped and I was told we were at Maduo. It was pitch black and I was the only person to step off the crowded bus. As the driver pulled away I could hear several people laughing at me. I could hear the sounds of dogs barking, but I couldn't see them. I could hear yaks but I couldn't see them either. In fact, I couldn't see anything - it was like being in a cave. It was one of those travel moments when you wonder what the hell you are doing and what has gone wrong in your life such that you are in your present situation. I find the best thing to do at these moments is to just to laugh and start walking... so I did.
Eventually some starlight broke through the clouds and I could just make out some sort of settlement a few hundred meters down the road - Maduo. All the lights were off. I just knocked at the first place I came to. It, like almost every place in this one horse town, was a restaurant/truck stop.
I was led to a very cold room that was already occupied by two snoring drunken truck drivers. There was no electricity and the window next to my bed was broken. I slept with all my clothes on underneath three straw filled comforters. When I woke up I discovered my toothpaste had frozen rock solid. The bed (and breakfast) cost me 9 yuan (Breakfast was a spicy noodle soup). I shared the outhouse with a hairy pig.
The city is not really a city, just two rows of truck stops on either side of the road. I doubt more than 50 people live there. The best restaurant is the Muslim one. The friendliest place to sleep is the Tibetan house. The best place to buy stuff is the Chinese shop. There is no regularly scheduled bus and nobody (except truck drivers) stops here on purpose. The only way out of town is to hitch, but the local PSB guy doesn't allow hitching. This is how to escape (if you are going to Yushu).
1. Eat breakfast and hang out until 9 or 10 (before that it is too cold and nothing is happening anyway).
2. Walk out of town (South) and take the left fork in the road.
3. Keep walking until you can't see the town (and they can't see you).
4. Flag down any moving vehicle. Be prepared to wait and carry rocks for the wild dogs. You shouldn't pay more than 40 quai to get to Yushu. Most drivers will take you for the company.
Note: Most drivers who stop in town, stop to eat. If you want to risk negotiating with them in town, do it after they are finished their meal right before they hop on their trucks, otherwise the PSB guy will nix your plans.
Once you leave Maduo you pass a glassy lake and the scenery finally starts to become Tibetan. The land is more contoured, large herds of yaks roam the land, and prayer flags dot the desolate landscape.
BAYAN HAR SHANKOU (name on Chinese maps - not the real name)
This town is greatthe first really Tibetan place you'll encounter. When I arrived I ran into a procession of monks who were carrying a young Lama to the monastery. It only got better from there… a beautiful little monastery. Lots of rug filled yurts... Tibetan dancing and music at night.
There are several Tibetan places to stay, but the PSB will force you to stay in the dumpy Chinese restaurant/truck stop. While this was annoying, the PSB was otherwise helpful. They found a mail truck for me and insisted I go to Yushu. Leaving this town, the scenery finally becomes mountainous.
ZHUBGXUGDIN (name on Chinese maps - not the real name)
Is another fairly wild Tibetan village on the plateau side of the mountains. Most of the people get around on yaks. I stayed in a tent a few kilometers outside of town. My memory of the place is clouded by the vast quantities of bai-ju I was forced to drink. Avoid the stuff (sorghum based fire water) if at all possible.
The March winds here are amazing-feels like knives. Bring WARM clothes.
Right out of town the road starts climbing (The path is not particularly steep or troublesome). Eventually you will cross a pass and see signs for Yushu (which is always pronounced Yishu). Soon after, you will rapidly descend into a river valley (about 100km long). The entire valley is wonderful and worth spending lots of time exploring. Along the valley to Yushu you will encounter several Tibetan mountain villages, each with it's own monastery. There are long lines of stupas, fantastic hanging bridges, and plenty of friendly Tibetans to guide you along the way. The most interesting town is called Xiewu. It's about halfway to Yushu. Note that if you were to travel direct from Maduo, the whole trip would take 6-9 hours depending on your vehicle.
Note: This is a great place to trek.
JIEGU (YUSHU on Chinese maps) (mainly pronounced YISHU)
Jiegu is a dusty rough and tumble Tibetan city. Compared to everything else on the road from Xining it's a metropolis, but compared to most cities in China it is tiny. If you arrive from the direction of Xiewu the first thing you'll see is the square with masses of Tibetans milling about (there are few cars, so everyone walks. There is not much to do, so people just hang out). The road branches into a 'V' shape. On the left branch you can find the Tibetan market, the bus station, and several guest houses. On the right branch you'll find a hotel, the post office and the PSB.
The main monastery is in the hills visible from just about everywhere in town. Some traditional homes sport small 2 or 3 monk monasteries Listen for the drums and the horns and poke your head in. Before you enter, check for dogs. I almost broke my neck as I fell down some stairs running from a dog when I entered one of these home monasteries unannounced.
The main Hotel is a run-down mess run by a couple of teenage girls. Avoid the bathrooms at all cost-better to just go in the hills. The Tibetan guest houses are a much better deal.
Throughout the town you will be accosted by beggars. Many of the young monk beggars are very aggressive. Legitimate monks suggested these kids just wear monks robes. Either way, you should be prepared - you will be touched and grabbed and they will try to steal anything you put down.
If you want to post letters here, you'll have to deal with some of the grumpiest postal workers anywhere. They are more likely to send your letter if you buy an airmail envelope from them. Also they will not send a letter without a local return address-just make one up. Be persistent and don't accept their hostility, eventually they will take your letter.
There is no real reason to go to the PSB, but they are a surprisingly friendly and helpful group of fellows (no English spoken) completely unlike most PSB officers I've encountered. They offered to give me permits that would get me down to Yunnan (for a small fee). I didn't ask about Lhasa, but the people at the bus station did offer me Lhasa tickets. Either of these options would have been great if I were going to those places, but I was headed to Serxu in Sichuan…
Getting to Sichuan looks easy enough on the map, but everyone in Yushu looked at me like I was going to Mars when I asked. There is no bus service from Yushu, but as always there is a way.
Here's how to do it:
First you have to get yourself back to Xiewu. To get there, you can:
a) Walk - it's a couple of hours
b) Take the bus. (not a bad option but it arrives too late in the day to be useful)
c) Wake up early (between 7-8am) and go to the square. On the road to Xiewu there will be a bunch of guys in vans and trucks waiting to take people to Xiewu. It should cost 7-10 yuan. Once you get to Xiewu go to the dirt road at the bridge (there's only one). Again guys will eventually show up there in vans and tractors (around 11-12am). It's an all-day journey to Serxu.
Remember to stock up on supplies. Yushu is the last major stop on the road in every direction.
This is a wonderful place. The hills are full of monasteries big and small. Everyone is friendly and they make good yak stews at both restaurants.
The tractor ride to Serxu is amazing - it's a dirt path that goes up some nice, steep, rolling hills. Along the way you pass lots of yak herders in brown tents. Eventually you'll get up past the snow line and cross a pass or two.
Note: This is the proper way to cross a pass when you are with a bunch of Tibetans.
1. Remove your hat.
2. Throw prayer slips out the window.
3. Shout for joy.
There are two major villages on the way to Serxu. Both are fantastically wild 100% Tibetan places. My mere presence caused near riots with people crowding and fighting to get a look at the hairy foreigner. Both places were over-run with feral dogs (literally hundreds of dogs) and seemed to be totally cut off from the outside world. There were no guest houses as far as I could tell, but everyone is happy to take you in. Just be prepared to be groped and prodded. Also be prepared to drink enormous quantities of yak butter tea.
Serxu is a quieter, gentler more urbane version of Yushu. It's high up on the plateau - cold and sort of empty looking. The hotel was decked out for Chinese big-wigs and was surprisingly comfortable. The bus station is about 200 yards east of the hotel on the other side of the street. This is the end of the line for the Sichuan buses so you can only go in one direction (towards Kanding). I bought a ticket to Maniganggo. The bus leaves early (5:30). Upon arriving I was shocked to find the rarest of all Chinese rarities - an almost empty bus. The complete passenger list was as follows:
his assistant (a.k.a. the bus troll)
two sleepy monks
an old man with bleeding gums
a baby yak (who threw up several times before we even got going)
Leaving Serxu you cross the plateau and quickly start climbing into some high mountains on a V E R Y bad road. I've traveled the Karakoram highway, the road from Manali to Leh, and the road from Chengdu to Lhasa, but this is the worst road (path) I've ever encountered. It was alternately covered with ice, rushing water, and large boulders. Steep deadly drop-offs were the norm. At times the road was just completely eaten away and the driver would make a new path… It was bad. The driver, always focused, did a fantastic job although he did not help calm my nerves. He tended to shut the engine off and coast (at high speed) whenever possible. Also he and his assistant drank beers the entire way.
This is not a place you want to stop. If you get off the bus, remember-I told you so.
Everyone in town basically works at the truck stop which is set in a pretty alpine valley. This is a nice place to go hiking. The truck stop/store/restaurant/hotel is a good place to stay although there is nothing in particular to do.
The next valley over is covered with pines. Then you descent into the Ganze valley. There you will see a very different type of architecture (large adobe structures painted with wide vertical stripes) and some impressive monasteries.
Note: The Ganze valley is much lower than Serxu. The temperature will probably rise dramatically. In my case there was a 50 degree (F) difference in temp from morning to night.
The most beautiful monastery is 40-60K north of Ganze (you pass it on the way in). It's near the smaller monastery you'll see on an island in the river.
Ganze is a big bustling prosperous Tibetan town. It's a good place to stock up on Tibetan goods (please don't buy any of the leopard skins for sale almost everywhere). If you arrive by bus, you'll be greeted by motorcycle rickshaws who will offer to take you to the hotel. The hotel is uphill and a fair distance from the bus station so this might be a good idea. The hotel is wildly overpriced, but it is the only place to stay (there were plenty of other hotels but they were all off-limits - the PSB has put the fear of god into the owners).
Ganze does lots of trade with India and some of the young people here have studied there and speak British accented English. Also you are closer to Mandalay than to Beijing - hence the curries.
I saw two knife fights, but I don't think that was normal.
Buses headed towards Kanding leave very early. A few miles out of town you'll hit a roadblock and there the bus will be stopped. The authorities at this roadblock are unpleasant and caused lots of problems for the Tibetan passengers on the bus. I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, but from my perspective it looked like good old fashioned harassment/bribery. Many people had to unload/unpack. Although I got some suspicious looks and my bag got poked, I was passed over.
From Ganze all the way to Luhou you will can see the devastating effects of large scale logging. Sometimes, when the bus is high on a hill you can see clear-cutting as far as the eye can see. Only a thin strip of trees along the roadway remains.