The journey began in Yecheung, in the Xinjiang region of China, where we were faced with the problem of finding a truck driver who was willing to take foreigners illegally across some of the most dangerous and isolated roads in the world. Crossing high mountain passes and traversing desolate lands, the journey required full preparation for high altitudes and harsh weather conditions, foreigners had even died on the road.
After a week of waiting we finally secured a ride to Ali, the first leg of our journey to central Tibet. The road had been blocked for 18 days by an enormous landslide and was at last clear. Unfortunately the authorities spotted us leaving Yecheung and confiscated the keys to the truck. Our nervous but quick thinking driver, Lee, insisted we were travelling north not south and unbelievably they handed back the keys.
On the road
Everything we needed was carried onboard the truck, including fuel, oil, spare parts and food enough for the 1360km journey to Ali, which would take 4 days without obstacles. After 3 days with Lee we had covered 320km, the journey plagued by an overheating engine, a blocked fuel line, a faulty compressor and numerous flat tyres. We learnt how versatile truck drivers who traverse the Tibetan plateau can be, watching pieces of wire and cardboard finish off on road repairs, though not always successfully.
Although it was summer, the nights were bitterly cold and most mornings we woke on our beds of slate stone (the cargo Lee was carrying), with a layer of ice trimming our sleeping bags. At altitudes over 5000m, when the sun disappeared so did any warmth, it was freezing.
Although Lee was a nice guy, on the 4th morning we'd had enough and decided to change trucks. Traffic wasn’t heavy on the highway, but we managed to get a lift with some Uigar truckies from Yecheung. The boys had taken one day to travel the distance we had come in four. With four of us squashed in the cab we continued on only to find that flat tyres and troublesome compressors were a common problem. It seemed that all the truckies preferred to fix problems as they occurred rather than to maintain their trucks.
People were few and far between. There were no trees and vegetation was sparse. Occasionally we'd pass a group of Tibetan nomads tending their yaks and sheep and warming their tents with yak dung fires. A few lonely tents had also been set up on route as make-shift restaurants and rest stops for our truckie mates. The only settlements we passed were Chinese military base camps around the area of Aksai Chin, whose ownership is still disputed by India, Pakistan and China. While we hid silently in the truck, our hosts would haggle over road and cargo taxes at these Chinese military check points. Travelling almost 18 hours per day, we averaged a speed of 20 km/hr, a journey not for the impatient, finally arriving in Ali at midnight on the 6th night. There was only one hotel in town that would take foreigners.