This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chapter 32: BOWA AND BEYOND: Riding Trucks. Getting Robbed.

In my own way, I received a send-off from Muli similar to Joseph Rock's: he was presented with mandarins and walnuts by the king's secretary, and was escorted by some Muli soldiers. I was given a bag of oranges by the English master, and escorted to the start of the track by the restaurant owner, Zhang. 'I really admire you,' he said, shaking my hand as we stood on the lip of the valley. 'You can really eat bitterness, and not many people can do that these days.'


I thought how ridiculous this was, to describe a city softy like me in this way, when these people led such hard, unrewarding lives. I thanked him, and left him with my walking stick, which he had much admired. It was a simple three hour descent into the valley, past Tibetans leading their tinkiing mules, until I saw my first logging truck on the road.

The route they took south to Bowa followed the light blue waters of the Litang River, sixty miles down to the county town of Bowa. The valley was a vast curving spread of wheat terraces, surrounded by the snow tipped Muli peaks. I flagged down the first truck that came along, and hopped aboard next to the surprised Chinese driver. What followed for the next two hours was a white-knuckle ride as the overloaded truck wallowed in low gear up the twisting, dusty road. There were often steep drops down to the river, and the truck drove precariously within a few inches of the edge. Therefore I was quite relieved when the truck broke an axle while climbing out of the valley.

muli valley from truck

It didn't take long to get another lift: logging trucks passed at intervals of five minutes, each loaded down with five or six timbers of up to a metre in diameter. At this rate, Tibet would have no forest left in ten years time. I got a lift with a supply truck, and sat on some boxes on the back, marvelling at the spectacular mountain scenery of the valley. I felt a mixture of exhilaration and terror as the truck hugged the corners, and I gazed back at the receding form of Mt Mitzuga. My fellow passengers, a trio of grumpy Chinese labourers, were immune to both scenery and danger.

Muli truck photoshop

High up on the mountain road, the driver blared hi.s horn at a group of brightly-dressed Tibetan lads trying to hitch a lift. Then the truck stopped and they clambered aboard. They were a boisterous, rosy-cheeked bunch, on their way to Bowa to sell their traditional medicines in the market. Most of them wore the dark red cloaks with stetsons, fur hats or trilbies. They beamed at me and one of them nipped me on the arm, asking questions in fudgy Mandarin: Had I been to Lhasa? No? What a pity. Would I like to buy some Tihetan medicine? He pointed to a gazelle horn sticking out of his bag. No, thanks.

The rest of the Tibetans gathered round, putting their arms around me and pulling at the hair on my arms, 'So ugly! Hey, we can give you some oil to get rid of it...' 'Are you married? Do you think Chinese girls are good looking? Would you like to sleep with one?' It was the Burmese taxi ail over again. I began to feel menaced by these guys: the younger ones looked friendly, hut the older ones looked like they could mean trouble. And they ail carried very long daggers at their waists.

They continued their barrage of questioning, wanting to look in my bag, and for me to show them my camera. I fobbed them off. and for a while they changed the subject. 'Has your wife got a nose like yours?' one of them asked. 'No.' That's just as well, because yours is big enough for two people!' Laughs all round. 'Which is better, Britain or China?' asked another. They've both got good points, I said. I noticed they referred to themselves as Chinese rather than Tibetan. 'What do the English think about giving Hong Kong back to us Chinese? They must he really unhappy!' "Most British people couldn't care less,' I said.

Then we got back onto the subject of money. They wanted to know how much English money I had, and what an English pound note looked like. I told them I didn't have any. Then they wanted to know what was in my moneybelt. Just my passport and some renminbi, I said. 'Give us 50rmb for food. We haven't got any money,' one of them said. I didn't reply. 'It's very dangerous around here, you know. Thieves, had people. You could get stabbed or shot. Aren't you afraid?' Another one said. 'No.' 'You should be,' they said. 'We can protect you, if you give us 50rmh,' 'Yes, this guy here is a kung fu expert, he could kill you with his hare hands,' said one of them. 'Have you ever been stabbed or shot? Do you know what it feels like? Someone round here could kill you very easily, ' said one of the man with his arm around me.

I mumbled something about not being able to spare any money. "What about your camera? How much is that worth?' said one. 'About 300rmb,' I said. It was really worth a thousand. 'How about you swap it for this knife?' said the Tibetan next to me. He pulled out the blade and held it an inch from my face. 'Look, it's really sharp...' and the blade almost touched my skin. They all laughed, and one of them said: 'He's scared.'

I noticed the Tibetan holding the knife had a locket of the Dalai Lama around his neck. By now, I was petrified. What would happen if I didn't hand over the money, or the camera? Were they serious about using the knife? The Chinese were looking the other way. at the front of the truck. We were in the middle of nowhere: no villages or friendly policemen to seek help from. I pulled in my stomach involuntarily, expecting a sudden thrust of a blade.

muli peasants

Fortunately, at that moment the truck juddered to a halt, and the driver climbed out to inspect a wheel. The tense atmosphere was suddenly broken, and I leapt up, pulling my bag with me, and jumped over the side of the truck. The driver fiddled with the wheel for a minute or two, and I padded round the side of the truck, wondering what to do. Would these Tibetans jump off here too, if I stayed? Could I escape into the forest?

The driver was back in the crowded cab, starting up. and he waved me back on board. When I insisted on walking, he asked what the problem was. I murmured that the 'bad eggs' on the back wanted to steal my money. 'Get in,' he said, and I squeezed in with his other two passengers in the cab. When I told him what had just happened, he laughed. 'Oh, they're just a bunch of kids, nothing 10 be at raid of.' Nevertheless, at the next turn-off he stopped the truck and kicked the Tibetans off the truck, and I sighed with relief.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.