The sky dimmed around 7:30pm. It was also around then that we began to have our first troubles. My Dong Feng had been in the lead of a pack of a dozen trucks when suddenly it lulled to a leaden halt. The driver tried repeatedly to refire the ignition, managing an awkward roar until the engine eventually sputtered to silence. The next time he tried, it wheezed. I hopped out of the cab so they could flip it up and check what the problem was. 20 minutes in the dark running around shining torches at the Dong Feng, fiddling with its parts; it was something about the fuel line. Eventually the Dong Feng was brought back to life and we were on our way. Meanwhile, all the trucks behind us sat patiently behind, unable to pass.
8pm. I was still optimistic about arriving in Zoige in time to get a decent night's rest to catch an early bus to Langmusi, our next day's destination. Our truck came to a halt again, less than 15 minutes later. I wasn't able to understand most of the scuttling exchange between the drivers but decided it was a good time to meditate the virtues of patience. No luck firing the engine this time; the truck Gregg was riding in had to squeeze past us so they tow us forward for a jumpstart. I began to see why it was absolutely necessary to travel at least in pairs. I taught them another English word: 'jumpstart'. They were in surprisingly good spirits despite the troubles, heavier snow and long night ahead.
8:40pm, 9:10pm, 9:50pm, 10:15pm, 10:30pm. Like clockwork, our Dong Feng would protest traveling on. I learned to anticipate its temper and deaden my nerves anytime it choked. Mostly I was able to wait in the cab or join Gregg in his to stay warm. I felt bad for the drivers, exposed to the wind, snow and cold, handling icy metal tools without knowing exactly what the problem was. The fall back each time was a jumpstart.
By midnight I'd lost track of how many times we'd stopped. Time became irrelevant, our destination elusive. Other trucks were getting anxious and passed whenever possible. On another jumpstart, as our Dong Feng was being towed to life, my driver flashed his lights to signal to the driver ahead to stop. The other driver didn't see the signal or my driver breaked too soon, causing a nasty jerk which stalled both trucks. A third truck gave us another jumpstart, but this time Gregg's truck was dead; "The battery," someone muttered. For the next half hour, the drivers scurried about in the dark with their tools and Gregg joined me in my cab. Hungry, I fetched the yak meat we'd bought as emergency provisions. In silence, we gnawed on thin slices of tastefully seasoned meat, trying hard not to pay attention to the slowly changing green LED numbers on the dash.
When Gregg's Dong Feng was finally fixed, our drivers climbed back into their respective cabs. The rest of the way couldn't be much worse, they muttered; apparently this was not customary. Each hurdle was celebrated by the drivers with a victory cigarette, in addition to the usual chain they smoked anyway. I concluded that part of the on-deck driver's job was to ensure that the acting driver never had a breath of pure oxygen. By this point, Gregg and I, in our separate cabs had each inhaled a half-carton of second-hand smoke, and I could no longer pretend I was not feeling ill from it. And yet, I elected to be here.
I vaguely remember passing through darkness, now and then seeing a dim light illuminate a prayer flag fastened to a stupa in an isolated Tibetan village. Inevitably my eyes fell shut for the last hour or so until we arrived in Zoige at 2am. The challenging night was evidenced by the packed lot of the Dong Fengs in the rest stop, truckers who would normally drive continuously until they reached their delivery destination. There were endless rows of rooms made of basic concrete, each opening out onto the huge lot of frozen mud where the Dong Fengs slept. Word had been passed along by other truckers (only two had been still stuck behind us) that we were coming. The rest stop manager let us past the gate into the lot, directed us to the few remaining rooms, and even readied them with electric blankets and water heaters. We were told that without a license, he was not allowed to receive foreigners but was making an exception. We thanked him as profusely as possible for two in the morning.