08-10-2006 15:36

We woke up at 5 am for our long journey. Our four by four trucks waited outside anxiously for the drive ahead. Our driver looked like a real local man with dark bronze tanned skin, small eyes and deep wrinkles in his face. Just from looking at him you knew he was tough, but was he a good driver? That was what I wanted to know. The sun was just coming up as we soared through the toll booth into the distant mountains. The morning quickly passed by as we witnessed the plains turn into rocky mountains, the rocky mountains turn into sandy rocky mountains, then turning into snowy mountains. We were climbing higher and higher as each minute passed up above 4500 meters above sea level and I could feel my lungs heaving for oxygen. With constant checks to see if we were feeling sick or have a headache the oxygen tanks were brought out. Our cameraman soon found out that he was not suitable for the altitude yet carried on with our work as planned. What a dedicated employee.

The most dangerous part of the drive is not the actual road itself. Surprisingly the road is very modern with proper lines and a few signs and signals. It is the quickly changing climate and the large supply and army and supply trucks that are the danger. So far we had seen 3 accidents, one of them with 2 people dead and others with an array of supplies such as wood, small cars, and junk removal scattered everywhere as the truck went into the ditch. These we took as reminders of how dangerous the road is.

After much driving we ended up at the Fang Hua Shan tunnel. This is the longest tunnel built on the railway at an altitude of 4905 meters above sea level and average temperatures here are between 7 and minus 40 degrees Celsius. The wind blew harsh as we drove up to where the workers were. These construction men come from all over china but are rather small in size with dark skin and deep wrinkles due to the harsh climate they live in. They have been up here living in a tent for 6 years working on the railway through snow, sleet, sunshine and harsh wind. They are tough as nails and curious to know what the hell I'm doing there exactly. I tried to take their picture but they were much too shy in front of the camera. They humbled me.

Upon completing our work we drove out along the mountain tops to come across our first herd of Yaks. They look a lot like buffalo with long horns and are quite people friendly. A good sign I think to myself. The man herding the yaks just sat in the middle of them while they grazed the frozen land. Time was of no importance and I took another breath to release the old city stress. The two car loads of Chinese men I am out working with of course all gather together to take pictures of each other in front of the yaks. I took part in my mandatory 2 photos then snuck off to take some shots of the Tibetan prayer flags stretched across two poles left blowing in the wind.

We were to continue climbing as our next destination was the Kunlun Mountain Pass. The drive up was amazing as the sky was the clearest blue I have ever seen in china. Puffy white clouds framed the tops of the mountains while green grassed rolling hills built their foundation. Going off the road onto the construction road that would take us to the highest altitude railway station in the world, the Kunlun Mountain station, the world seemed so tranquil and we were all happy. Up just above 5000 meters the air is about 50% of what it is on the plains. Our eyes were taking in as much of the sites while our heads felt light and woozy. Being up so high I could see some storm clouds raining over distant hills almost as if in a world away. Our next stand up was to be at the railway station explaining how incredible it was. At such a high altitude I found it difficult to think and found myself laughing as I fumbled over my words. The construction workers around me had no idea what I was laughing about but joined in anyway. As I continued to do my "work" the storm clouds that I thought were so far away quickly sprung up on us and we were all of a sudden in the middle of a rain storm that soon turned into a blizzard. Of course I ran to the safety of the truck and the warmth of my blanket inside. I took a look out the window as we drove away to the workers left there to labor and contemplated their life. Other than a few putting on a hat they continued to work as if nothing had happened. I wondered how many times they had been in such drastic climate changes. I wondered how often they dreamed of being at home with the warmth of their families. I wondered how long it would be until they could go home. The drive back down the road was of a completely different setting than the drive there 30 minutes earlier. No green grass was left, no bright blue sky, only snow flakes flying horizontally was seen through the windshield wipers. In the car we listened to jazz music and huddled under bright orange jackets to keep warm and feel safe from the hazardous mountain terrain. A cup of hot chocolate would have been perfect at such a moment like this.

Making our way back to the road we found the storm still around us. The thoughts of the praying pilgrims on the road earlier crossed my mind. Their dedication to their religion is fascinating as they place themselves in such danger during the long walk to Lhasa. How did they survive such storms along the road? Where did they find shelter?? We drove for a long time along the highway, long enough for the weather to clear up again, to the Huohuohe River, the main headstream for the Yangtze River. Monuments showing the ecological protection importance of the railway stood tall above a backdrop of a bridge crossing the river. Protection of the wildlife, wetlands, lakes, grasslands, and rivers are of great priority for the railway. All along we found monuments showing the dedication of individuals out to keep Tibet the way it is today. Driving along I do have to say that I believe they have done a good job. I have seen much wildlife around even close to the railway and the road proving that they do not yet feel threatened. The land that they graze looks somewhat undisturbed as the railway is fully complete now. I am a little surprised by their accomplishment yet do wonder what is to come once the railway begins their tours starting July 1st, 2006. At this time many tourists will begin to flood into Tibet for a view of what I have just witnessed before it is somewhat untouched. What will happen to this raw land? How will modernization change what is so natural?

We had driven for at least 10 hours so far but were no where close to our destination of hopefully a clean hotel to stay in. Our cameraman we were losing by the minute as his sickness continued to elevate with the altitude. Driving in and around the mountains as the sun began to set, I saw some of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen in my life. The hills glowed red from the rich soil within them, and the sun in the sky cast enormous cloud shadows along the side of the hidden hills. The greens and reds and browns and oranges that burst in front of my eyes as I snapped my camera and turned around to catch the silver lining of the clouds. I felt closer to heaven.

Thank god for these feelings of serenity from the landscape as we were heading into the closest Tibetan village we could find to find some relief from the altitude sickness. We drove into the dirt streets centering run down shacks as Tibetan families wearing traditional clothes come in and out of the doors. With a casual point by one of the villagers we were sent off in the direction of the hospital. After a little searching we drive up to a building with only one light on and a broken window out front. The only sign that it is a hospital is the red cross with the white background up above the door. We hurry in our friend for some much needed oxygen.

The table in the room looked as if it hadn't changed for a hundred years. The bottles of medicine lay spread out everywhere along the top of the old wooden desk in no particular order. I guess this young doctor of 30 years old wearing a dirty white lab coat knows what they are used for. He pulls the big oxygen tank over and feeds our friend the air of life. The next few minutes, as scary as they were, quickly became quite humorous. Our whole car load, minus the strong like bull driver, was sitting around the room sucking oxygen from big blue filled pillows. Thankfully when I asked for a new mouth piece to cover the dirty tube they gave me, I was blessed with a new one. There we were all sitting around getting our oxygen fix inventing different postures and positions to ensure that all the oxygen was released. The most professional was Mr Fu who seemed to have done this task a million times and finished his in almost half the time we did. With effects from the pure oxygen entering our fragile lungs we all giggled at the sight of ourselves. Sometimes the strangest situations are the ones you remember. I was just thankful oxygen was all we needed from the dirty clinic.

We were all back feeling better and ready to take on the last 3 hours of our drive. The sun had gone down by this time and another 3 hours after a 15 hour trip seemed especially dangerous in the dark. Even though we were so tired we made sure at least one of us was up for the driver. The road was pitch black and the sides unmarked as we passed large trucks on the way. Common courtesy of switching off your high beams when passing another vehicle seemed to be of little importance as the tired drivers of the large trucks passed our little 4 by 4. I leaned towards the window to take a good look out into the black sky filled with endless stars. Ah yes, I say to myself, that is what the sky actually looks like without the street lights drowning it out. Another beautiful memory of Tibet….

We arrived into the town called Nuqu at about midnight. This town looked rather shabby I have to say with all the buildings seeming old and run down. The streets were dark with only a few street lights lined along the way. "This is an improvement to the last time I was here", Wang Er Quan our director states. "Oh gosh", I think to myself, "I hope my bed is clean." In the middle of an eerie street we drive up to the best hotel in the town which barely made a 2 star status. Thank god the 14 year old bellboy could carry my suitcase up the 4 flights of stairs. The rooms were spacious and somewhat clean but the ceilings held mold from all the moisture at this altitude. A large oxygen tank was placed beside my bed that loomed over me while I slept. If it wasn't for the 18 hour journey we had just completed, I don't think I would have slept a wink.


Editor:Ge Ting