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The Stunning Adventures "Not all those who wander are lost." Tolkien

The Gateway to Hell

CHINA | Wednesday, 14 November 2007 | Views [3313]

In our little van on

In our little van on "The Gateway to Hell"

While we were in the process of chartering a mini-van to take us from Lhasa to the border, the woman that we were dealing with kept warning us that the driver would not be able to take us all the way to the Nepali border town of Zhangmu, but only to Nyalam; 35 km from the border. She kept telling us that the road was under construction and was closed during the day. She said it was a," very bad road, and very dusty." We would have much rather been taken all the way to the border, but we were left with no other choice but to find our own way from Nyalam to Zhangmu. First of all, we thought it would be easy to get a ride, and secondly, we thought, "how bad could this road possibly be? All the roads are pretty terrible." The actual translation of Nyalam is "Gateway to Hell". This gave us a small clue to how bad the drive might be. The road hugs the mountainside all thrity five kilometers (about 22 miles) and falls from the elevation of 3700m to 2250m (a difference of nearly a mile). We had a hell of a time finding someone crazy enough to drive us and soon found out why it was the called the "Gateway to Hell".

The road is supposedly closed during the day to allow uninterrupted construction. We had loitered around town all day, soliciting every person that was driving a car, trying to find a driver, to no avail. A local man eventually clued us into a local bus that MIGHT be making the journey around 6pm. After having been turned down by every sane person with a vehicle, we decided to just go with this nice man's suggestion of the local bus. As the time drew nigh, we saddled ourselves with our rucksacks and went over to the youth center (the supposed point to get on the bus). At this point, it is snowing lightly, and the same nice Tibetan man was sad to tell us that the bus would not be mateializing, BUT he had found a person who could take us to Zhangmu. This sounds like a perfect scam setup, but after introducing us and settling the price for us (less than half of what we had been told it would cost), the nice man would not accept any money; just the happiness of having been able to help. He finally did relent when Piotr offered a few pieces of candy for his adorable son and a Polish bracelet he had brought from home (gifts that you just can't turn down). We said good bye to the nice man and, literally, crammed into his small mini-van. There was already Tibetan man in the front seat, and the two back rows made us jealous of smoked oysters in cottonseed oil.

The drive started out well. The view was incredible! The sky had cleared a little to reveal blue sky and snow topped mountains. We slowly snaked our way over brand new pavement, down quite close to a river. We laughed, joked, took pictures, and tried to figure out why this is supposed to be so terrible. Slowly, as if a warning message from above, the clouds closed back in over us and the sky darkened. The road, that was at one moment paved and smooth, gave way to a road that could be likened to moonscape. Huge potholes and piles of rocks dotted the road, which nearly made it too narrow to navigate. Any person in their right mind might slow down and take this dangerous road with sense of caution. Not our driver. As if being timed by some stunt-driver academy, our little guy just sped up; daring the road to get worse. At the same time the river fell faster than the road, and the gorge immediately next to us deepened. It deepened so much in fact that we could no longer see the river. Mr. Crazy-ass driver got so close to the edge of the road that if we peered out the window, looking straight down, we could not see the road anymore; just the endless abyss below. We swear that there must have been moments when the tires were half on the road, and half hanging over the precipice. The laughing stopped. The joking stopped. The cameras were also put away, in the hopes that if we just keep still, the little van might not lose balance and topple over into nothingness. This sounds pretty bad, but we finally had a reprieve when a huge backhoe stopped our suicidal march to death, by having dug a huge hole in the middle of the road. The Tibetan man in the passenger seat used this opportunity to jump out and run up to the workers tents to buy a beer off them. He must have done this to settle his nerves, as there is no way he was not as freaked out as us.

Once the backhoe had kindly filled in the gaping hole, allowing us to proceed, we continued barrelling down the ridiculously dangerous road. As if fear had not gripped us enough, the situation worsened. We had been driving for about an hour and still had about half way to go. The fog lowered, making visibility even more terrible, and it started to rain. Rain is bad enough on paved roads, but it is horrible on a dirt road; especially when said road is perched on nothing more than a ledge above a gaping chasm in the earth. We slid around a bit, and our driver would turn around and smile and laugh when we had a close call. At this point, even with the language barrier, we started to plead with him to slow down and keep to the far side of the road, away from the cliff. He was either really, literally crazy, had a death wish, or was incredibly confident in his driving skills, because he elected to ignore our pleas and continued his wreckless dance with death.

As if sensing us about to reach our breaking point, the town appeared in the distance. We all looked at each other and literally let out sighs of relief. The tension had grown so thick, a simple sigh did nothing to make us feel better. The town of Zhangmou is nothing more than one road that snakes its way down a very steep hillside, so we followed the road until we finally arrived at the Sherpa hotel. After settling in, Piotrek and Greg headed to the store to get beers for the group, hoping that some good laughs and a bit of alcohol good ease our frayed nerves and bring us back to some level of normalcy. The first beer, second beer, and even the third beer did little; forcing us to have another. We looked back and seriously had a good laugh at how dangerous the ride had been. We ran into other travelers who had made the same trip that same day. They had been in 4 x 4s and had passed us along the road. They joined us in laughing about our harrowing experience and they could not believe that we had made it in the little van, as they had had some close calls, even in a vehicle suited for such a feat of endurance. At the end of the day, it was truly a tale for the books, and the night at the Sherpa nightclub (co-inciding with Nepali New Year), that followed, was yet another; but that is a whole other story.

Tags: adrenaline, tibet


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