The weather looks nicer today. The first houses in the Tibetan style appear along the road, built of stone and with artistic wooden fixtures and large windows, topped by strings of prayer flags flying in the wind. The trees are also dancing in the breeze.
Unexpectedly the bus slows down and halts in the middle of a long line of vehicles on a muddy road. We do not budge an inch for an interminable hour, that later becomes two and then three. I try to beguile the time by reading, listening to the radio and strolling around. But as impatience mounts, my attention turns to the wishy-washy karaoke tunes playing full blast in the bus and wish it were a little quieter.
The girl next to me is gnawing at chicken paws from a vacuum-sealed package. She’s kind enough to offer me some, but can’t help looking down on those pallid limbs as rather disgusting and unhealthy in their plastic wrapping.
Outside the road is an inferno of mud. At long last, there is some hope as the queue starts to move, by my optimism is short-lived. Only the small vehicles are let go past, while the heavy ones, buses and lorries, are kept waiting for another hour.
The southern branch of the Sichuan-Tibet highway is a strategic artery allowing the central government to reach out its long arm to the much-prized border region it annexed in 1950. The high passes and rugged terrain it has to get over make it a highly dangerous road, add in the fact that it is for the most part only roughly surfaced. Now it is being improved in countless spots: sites are open all along it, called upon to widen the carriageway, straighten dangerous curves, even build impressive tunnels in the bowels of giant mountains.
At 6 pm we stop for “lunch”. I haven’t had food since the morning, but I still not regret turning down the chicken paws. By the time I pull myself together and decide to get a dish, the kitchen is already congested with orders and the bus is ready to set off. I have just the time to gulp down a few hurried spoonfuls of cooked rice that was freely available without wait. At least I have a braid of cheese I bought earlier, attracted by its aspect of soft mozzarella, only to be let down by its stringy chalky texture that is perfect to choke oneself with.
Worked out at the hopelessly low average speed, there are still many hours ahead if I am to believe a road sign that said over 120 km. I have to put up with sitting in the last row, by all evidence the most uncomfortable position where the numerous potholes are most strongly felt, jerks are amplified and my neighbours sometimes sent up in the air to bang their head against the ceiling. Three girls are nevertheless elated at every jolt and when it ends in a bash it’s outright jubilation.
My neighbour is trying to eat instant soup, a staple of Chinese fast food, maybe as popular as vacuum-packed chicken parts. A sharp bend unbalances the liquid dangerously and I recoil against my other neighbour to dodge a hot spillover on my clothes. The girl gives out a shrill cry of excitement and instead of gripping the bowl in her hands, she lets it go. Down on the floor it is spilled, noodles and synthetic broth all over the place. I initially think I’m safe and dry, but then remember the sneakers I was not wearing precisely because I was drying them after yesterday’s rain. Now they’re seasoned with an abundant dose of glutamate and hot spices from the most unhealthy food ever.
I’m disgusted and protest vehemently, which makes everyone around laugh or giggle. In a fit of rage I shut everybody up, but when I recover my aplomb half an hour later, I think I may have overdone my part (which was in any case needed because making a scene was part of not losing face in the context) and strike up a conversation with my neighbour.
I get to Litang at 10, embattled by a splitting headache. It’s not hard to identify the causes: the 16 hour ride has been extenuating and the altitude we’ve reached is 4000 m, too big a jump without acclimatisation from Kangding’s 2600. I get a bed in a shared room where a Chinese guy is sleeping already. I don’t get much sleep, and not any better when my roommate’s phone rings at 5 am and he starts a loud conversation in the room. I feel nauseous. Now that I’m wide awake I need to be sick. As if by magic expelling the liquids chases the migraine and I can get back to bed for a couple of hours more.