A Day Lost in Gang Tuo…Stranded by a Blocked Road en-route from China to Tibet
By Peter Schindler
“Alright, let’s go and find a place for lunch. But let’s make it a quick one. We don’t wanna end up way behind in the queue,” I conclude after having considered for thirty minutes or more Jo’s suggestion that a meal would be a good thing by now.
We had arrived in Gang Tuo at 9:15 in the morning. Now it is 12:30. And no one has as yet any idea as to when we will be able to get going again. We had set out from Dege in northwest Sichuan. at 7am on our way to Changdu, our first overnight stop in Tibet.. We had reached the border between Sichuan and Tibet at 8:15 after crossing the Yangtze, already wide and deep here in its upper reaches.
Leading to the border, the valley was wide and the road excellently paved. A few hundred meters after crossing into Tibet, the situation changed dramatically, however.
We took a sharp right turn west and entered one of the narrowest gorges I’ve ever driven through. And at the bottom of this gorge the road was being reconstructed with all this entails in China – enormous potholes, slushy mud, rocks strewn about, roadwork implements going, stopping, swerving, making a living, and workers milling about. It took us 30 minutes to drive 7km, including fording a small river.
All in all, it had taken us two hours and fifteen minutes to drive 35km, one 10th of the distance to Changdu. We became just a bit concerned and depressed.After fording the river, the road turned right at the start of a small village called Gangtuo. With that right turn, we left the mud and bumps behind and instead found ourselves on a wide and perfectly even concrete road. All smiles, we accelerated and rushed right by a short line of parked trucks. As we approached the front of the queue of trucks, we saw a police car parked perpendicular to the road, effectively blocking it.
We slowed down, then stopped, opened the window and asked, “Ok to pass?”
“No, the road’s closed,” the officer said with a smile, but without adding even so much as a hint of an explanation.
“For how long?” we asked.
“Don’t know. Just got a call from up ahead to close the road. That’s all I know,” he replied.
“But, but…any idea as to when we can go again?” we tried to pry a bit more information from him.
“No,” was all he said.
We backed our car up to behind the line of trucks and told ourselves that, surely, it wouldn’t be long before we would be on our way again. Besides, it was a glorious day: the sun shone brightly, the sky was deep blue, and splendid mountains surrounded tiny Gang Tuo. “I suppose I don’t mind waiting here in the sunshine for a little while” I said to Jo. She agreed.
We spent the last three hours partly sleeping, partly reading. On occasion one of us trudged up to the head of the queue to see if the police had any news for us. Of the various non-committal replies we received the firmest was “I’m reasonably sure that you should be able to move on today.” Jo, being British, made tea and served up biscuits half-way through the morning. By 12:30 the soothing effect of this snack had began to subside and our stomachs made it clear that more was needed.
We get out of the car and lock it up. “Where do you think we should go for lunch?” I ask.
“I’ve got no ideas,” Jo murmurs. “Let’s just start walking and see what we’ll find.”
I saw no reason to object. Jo starts walking and I follow her along the dusty road, half wondering whether to hurry up in order to get back to our car as soon as possible, lest we miss our slot in the queue, or to forget about the wretched queue and uncertain road ahead altogether and simply to embrace cheerfully what the rest of the day would bring. I want to lean toward the latter, but can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of loss at spending these pointless hours in Gang Tuo.
There seems very little on this side of the road. We cross the forlorn road and keep walking past a few shack-like houses until we see, slightly recessed from the road, a wooden, two-story building with a sign saying “Gang Tuo Inn”.
As we approach and peer from the bright sunshine into the dark interior of the inn that one table is occupied with people playing cards with plates and chop sticks set out before them. They are waiting for lunch to be served.
“Can we have lunch?” I holler through the open, door-less entrance.
“Sure, sure, come right in and sit here by the window,” a young lady offered. Her name is Zhang Xueling as we find out later.
We do as she suggests. As our eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, we slowly make out more details. In the soot-covered kitchen, two elderly people are hard at work making lunch. The man deftly handles the wok with flames licking up to near its rim every time he swoops and swirls it. The woman, with her bent gait, cuts fresh-looking vegetables. Off in one corner, a television plays a British cartoon – Jo tells me that it was one of her favourites when she was young. In front of it sits a young man and two boys, their eyes glued to the moving pictures on the tube as if to extract hidden meanings from British humour.
The young lady takes our lunch order. We chat and wait some more. After the table of card players is served, the old folks in the kitchen begin to work on our order. When our Sichuan cuisine dishes arrive, they prove to be a bit too oily (as they almost always are in Sichuan since in this cuisine a good soaking in oil is used to soften the spices’ intense flavours) but are otherwise excellent. Mild, piping hot Chinese tea is also a nice change from the sugar-less English tea that carried us through the morning.
By the time we finish our lunch, the road is as closed and the police as tight-lipped as they had been all morning. We conclude that we would have to remain in Gang Tuo for a while longer. This, combined with a sense that the Gang Tuo Inn would be an agreeable time to spend the next few hours, makes us decide to drive our car from its slot in the queue over to a space in front of the Gang Tuo Inn.
Once the car is in its new place, Jo reclines in the passenger seat, picks up her book, begins to read, only to fall asleep shortly afterwards. I park myself on a low bench and lean against the inn’s wooden wall right next to its entrance. Then I continue to read my chosen book for this journey, The Ghost by Robert Harris. My heads-down time following the story of Adam Lang is interspersed by other small tasks such as responding to an incoming SMS or to my irrational urge to check email every now and then. (Yes, Gang Tuo, this forsaken place, has a powerful China Mobile signal.) But most of the time away from my book is taken up by observing the town and starting up conversations with people idling about the Gang Tuo Inn’s friendly atmosphere.
Two young girls – are they around 10 years old? I don’t know – amble by along the monotone-beige coloured road hand in hand, on occasion stealing a glance toward me and giggling. When I smile back at them, they turn away and giggle louder.
A Mitsubishi Jeeps trundles through town from the direction where the road’s closed. “Is the road open?” I hear someone ask. “Nah,” another replies, “just the ‘living buddha’ from the monastery over the hills.” “He and his buddies with all their undeserved privileges,” another opines.
On occasion a truck creeps up beside the queue of cars toward the police barrier. The first time I see this I wonder what the truck’s driver knows that we don’t. But it isn’t long until the truck comes down the road again reversing back to the end of the queue. Since the pattern repeats itself a few times, I conclude that despite the annoyance caused by the brazen truck drivers’ impatience – each misadventure kicks up a large cloud of dust – it is in fact of use to us since we learn the latest information about the road without us having to hike up to the front of the queue. The information varies from time to time: we can go by 6pm; we can go by 5pm; we can go by 4pm, is what they tell us. The trend seemed promising, but then comes a distressing outlier: we will be able to go when the road workers clock off. “And when is that?” we ask. “By 7:30pm”. We don’t even want to begin to think about what that would mean for getting to Changdu today or tomorrow or perhaps never ever. What a waste of time!
Giggling girls holding hands. Hopeless truckers reversing back out. One truck feeling even more tired than us.
Uncertain news interrupted by two copulating dogs stuck together – the act completed, one tries to walk off one way, the other in the opposite direction, but to no avail. Gangtuo is not without its charms. I return to reading my book.
When I look up again, the blue sky is now dotted by white, good-weather clouds. Some of them gather around the mountain peaks that ring Gang Tuo. A sizeable eagle circles overhead. The sun is strong. The air is sultry. I take off my fleece. A hitherto never-experienced feeling of timelessness. And I read some more.
While Adam Lang’s story unfolds on the pages of The Ghost, people begin to le tadalafil cialis gather around me. To my right the young man who had previously watched the British cartoon with the two boys is now seated on the same bench. Diagonally across, a few feet away, a skinny, middle-aged man in a dark-brown shirt, grey pants and worn black shoes sits on a similar bench and observes me. Then a big shadow falls over my bench. It’s that of a big Tibetan guy approaching me from the left. He pulls up a stool, sits down, and, while addressing me, viagra sans ordonnance “Hey, boss,” bends forward, begins to stroke my forearm and then announces, “You’ve got a lot of hair, boss”.
Since this is not the first time this has happened to me in China, I look up and reply smiling, “I’m a Yak, you know”.
He thinks about this for a while, then begins to shake his head and declares with certainty, “No you’re not.” Somehow, this feels reassuring.
I begin to look the heavy man over. His round face is topped with a gruff bunch of dense hair. This rich growth extends via thick sideburns all the way down to his chin so as to ring his entire face with black-grey, hairy vegetation. In the middle of this ring sit two glowing, wide-open eyes, ruddy, pock-marked cheeks, and bloated swollen lips. From between these peek out strong, large, whitish-yellow teeth.
He leans forward and looks at me intensely. He rests the elbow of one arm on his knee. The monstrously large, muscular hands of the other arm clasp a small bottle of white liquid from which he takes the occasional swig. I look back at him. Both our stares dissolve into friendly smiles. While I am taken in by the man’s appearance, the other people around him, including Zhang Xueling who has meanwhile joined the crowed, seem to take no notice of him.
“Hey, boss, how old are you?” he suddenly asks me.
“I’m 49. How old are you?” I ask him in turn.
“I was born in 1963. I’m fifty,” he confidently replies. Since the year is 2009, something doesn’t seem to add up, but I want to get cialis pas cher en europe back to The Ghost, so I don’t pursue the matter. After a while, my Tibetan friend leaves.
“Fvck you” is the next thing I hear. Startled, I look up. The words came from the young man sitting next to me. He’s amused by my reaction. “You too must know a lot of Chinese swear words, right? Isn’t that the first thing you learn? We do,” he grins at me, entirely oblivious to how jarring a loudly pronounced “f’you” sounds to an English-speaking person. But never mind, he rattles off a few more pieces of evidence of his English language skills. When I acknowledge his linguistic talent with “That’s just great” he looks at me quizzically. “Zhen bu cuo” (真不错) I translate for him in Chinese. “Ah, I see” he replies.
I pick up The Ghost again and continue reading. I haven’t turned one page when I’m interrupted once more:
“Hey, boss, where are you from?” my Tibetan friend has returned.
“I’m from Switzerland,” I inform him.
He nods, thinks for a little while, then carries on: “You know, the world has 160 countries,” he declares, then pauses as if to wait for my acknowledgement. When I don’t say much, he continues, “And here in China we’ve got forty more.”
This jolts the crowd that has been half-listening in on our conversation. One man, the skinny, middle-aged man one with the dark-brown shirt, grey pants and worn black shoes, twirls his fingers near his temples and says “We all know he’s crazy.”
Ignoring the crowd’s consternation and references to his insanity, the Tibetan fellow adds, “But in the end, we’re all just people, aren’t we?”
“Hear! Hear!” I respond, thinking that he might not be so crazy after all.
“Do you have children?” my friend now asks.
“No, we don’t and won’t”, I reply.
“Ah, I see, you’re a Lama” he puts me into one of his pigeon holes. By this time he concludes that he’s finished with me and turns to Jo.
“How old are you?” he asks indelicately.
“Well, take a guess,” Jo challenges him.
He looks her up and down and finally announces, “Forty.”
Jo, being more than 10 years younger than that, objects and tells him how old she is.
“Of course, you’re face looks a lot younger, but you’re so enormously tall,” is how he explains his reasoning. Apparently in Tibet people keep growing taller well into adulthood.
Soon after, our friend walks off again without ceremony – no good-bye, no see you later, no waving of the hand. He just disappears.
After finishing washing her own car, Zhang Xueling, starts showering our car with a fat water hose while Jo and I sit in the car reading, the doors of our car wide open to let the stiffening breeze cool us down. As if on cue, our Tibetan friend appears again and closes both our car doors for us with a smile that says: yes, you want your car to be washed, but not its interior. That is pretty much the last we see of him.
Jo, having read enough for the day, then gets out of the car and helps Zhang Xueling wash our car. “I’ve never washed a car in my life, but today and right now, anything that will kill my boredom is worth doing.” I get off the car as well because without the doors open it is far too hot to bear inside. I rejoin the crowd of folks milling around the restaurant entrance.
The fellow who not long ago had made signs indicating that he thought our Tibetan friend is crazy seems eager to talk. “Where are you from?” I ask him. He says he’s from Chongqing. I mention that I’ve been there once before. “Well, I’m not exactly from Chongqing,” he corrects himself, “but from a small town nearby called Fuling.”
“That’s amazing,” I reply excitedly. “My friend here, she’s reading a book called River Town. It’s written by an American who spent two years in Fuling in the mid-nineties teaching English. It’s one of the most insightful books – written empathetically and sensitively – about life in rural China at that time. What a coincidence! ‘Hey, Jo, can you believe it?! Here’s a fellow from Fuling!’
Jo comes over and shoes him the book. He flicks through it, pausing at the chapter headings which refer to place names that come in two parts: an English translation along with the original Chinese. “I know exactly where this is. I’ve been there many times. And here, look” he points to a photo, “just around the corner is where I used to live,” he explains. He clasps the book and even though he doesn’t read a word of English studies it carefully, almost becoming misty-eyed at the few-and-far-between Chinese characters he picks up. He longs for his home. And we learn that he is a civil engineer whose been sent her to introduce better farming techniques to the local community.
“How long have you been here now?” we ask him.
“Several years” he replies curtly as if he doesn’t want to remember.
“And when will you get to go home?” I follow up.
“Next summer, on July 26th” he tells us, looking a lot brighter.
I recall Peter Hessler’s glum assessment of Fuling’s future in River Town. The Fuling that he had come to love during his two year sojourn was soon to be no more: the tide rising behind the newly finished Three Gorges dam would engulf it all. It was some years ago that I read River Town, but I do recall a strong undercurrent of regret in Peter Hessler’s otherwise even-handed writing. All this is coming back to me as I am speaking to the man from Fuling.
“So, how is Fuling now?” I venture to ask him.
“Oh, it’s just fantastic ever since we’ve moved to the new town in the late nineties.” And then he pauses for a while. “It wasn’t easy to move, but our lives in new Fuling are better than ever. The growth has been enormous,” he informs us cheerily and with more than a trace of pride.
Nothing is always quite the way it seems in China.
After a while, Zhang Xueling announces that she had made some vegetable and meat dumplings. Would we want to try some, she asks? It is 4pm already. We feel like eating again and welcome her offer. And what delicious dumplings they are!
Zhang Xueling is from Luding in Sichuan . She teaches young children there privately.
“And what does your husband do?”
“He drives for me,” she replies. By this she means that he shuttles her pupils from their homes to her school and back in the family’s minivan.
Once a year, they – she, her husband and their two sons – come to Gang Tuo to visit his parents who run the Gang Tuo Inn.
Zhang Xueling tries to collect foreign currencies. She has three by now: Hong Kong and Macau Dollars and a few Japanese Yen. She asks me whether I have some Euros or some Swiss Franks on me, but I don’t. Jo happens to have a Canadian Dollar in her wallet and gives it to her. Zhang Xueling beams as she inspects it. Her husband takes it to study it as well. When Zhang Xueling feels he’s fondled it for long enough, she takes it back with the words “She’s given it to me, you know.”
I tell her that next time we come to Luding we’ll bring her some more foreign currencies.
“No need, no need,” Zhang Xueling shakes her head and waves our offer away. A shy smile, however, betrays her excitement at the prospect of expanding her collection.
And then suddenly there is a commotion in the queue of vehicles that have been sleeping since 9:15in the morning. It is now 5:30pm. The word is that the road has re-opened at last. Hurried good-byes follow as we scramble to gather our belongings, rush to board our car, start it up and rejoin the queue. We depart as abruptly as we came to a halt in Gang Tuo eight-and-a-half hours earlier. Our arms stretch out of our car windows to wave good-bye to our good hosts. For a little while we see the man from Fuling and Zhang Xueling and her family waving as well. Then they disappear out of sight in the cloud of dust that is kicked up by all the cars rushing out of poor Gang Tuo. We roll up our windows and drive into the sunset and then the night. At 1am in the morning, we reach Changdu, our first destination in Tibet….
A few days later we arrived in Lhasa. While having dinner, I received an SMS. It was from Zhang Xueling. It simply read: “Hello”.
“Hello, have you arrived in Luding?” I replied.
“We’ve returned home. When you have an opportunity, please come to Luding and visit us,” she offered.
“We certainly will. I’m very happy to have made your acquaintance. We’ve just arrived in Lhasa,” I typed in response.
“You must be tired from all the driving,” Zhang Xueling replied, “I’m very happy to have met you, too. You’re great fun. You’re the first overseas friends I’ve made. I hope our friendship will continue forever.
A day lost in Gang Tuo? Now mattr how improbable, each day can have its rewards!
Peter Schindler is the founder of www.ontheroadinchina.com one of the only companies to offer Self drive tours of China and South East Asia.