A bird's-eye view over a vast expanse of China would reveal minute blue dots moving in line along the country's national road network. Up close these blue dots are 8x30ft. 'Dong Feng' cargo trucksuniformly painted Fischer Price bluehauling just about anything imaginable across long distances, no matter how bad the roads. Previously I'd regarded these Dong Fengs as road hazards or annoyances, especially when they barrel past leaving you standing in a dirt cloud. But as we journeyed north of Chengdu in Sichuan province into neighboring Gansu province, I came to look upon these four-wheeled soldiers differently. They became our vehicle of transport and adventure, our warm shelter from the harsh elements of the highland plateau to the east of Tibet.
For some days we'd been out of sync with our usual groovemaking bad decisions (with the help of our useless guidebook), having run-ins with locals who hated their job, and just getting plain unlucky. Nonetheless we were impressed by the natural beauty of Jiuzhaigou (China's #1 national park) and ready to continue north on a less-travelled route to Xiahe, where the largest Gelukpa (Dalai Lama's sect) monastery outside Tibet is situated. The entire traverse would take 4-5 days if all went well. First we had to backtrack to catch a connecting bus in Songpan, a town we'd already spent too much time in, to Zoige where we planned to overnight.
We got up in Jiuzhaigou at 5am to find out three hours later when we reached Songpan that the once-a-day bus to Zoige had long gone. Our options were to while away another day or hitch. Hitching in China is not that straightforward, particularly as a foreigner and on longer hauls. Drivers in many areas are unwilling to take non-Chinese passengers because they can be fined excessively; they would be siphoning off money from government-run buses often charging double fares for foreigners. Still, anxious to cover some ground, we located ourselves at the side of the road in Songpan and began scanning license plates with the characters "Qing" (for Qinghai), "Gan" (for Gansu), and "Zhang" (for Xizhang, or Tibet).
Apparently we'd also missed the rush of trucks going north. We ended up in a share-taxi to the neighboring junction town where we were told (misleadingly) we could find bus transport. "No more buses today," a local told us gently, "why don't you go tomorrow?" "How about trucks," I asked, seeming desperate. We were then directed down the road where it actually forked, one road to Zoige.
At the road fork, a Muslim man welcomed us into his restaurant to sit by the stove and wait for passing trucks stopping in for lunch. It was not even 10am, we figured we had a good change of finding a ride and were grateful for a place out of the cold. The Muslim man and his wife were from Linxia, north of Xiahe in Gansu. They had come here for opportunity, managing a restaurant in hopes of tapping into the stream of tourists flowing to Jiuzhaigou during peak season. Off season, the restaurant floor badly needed sweeping and the couple busied themselves baking "momos", Tibetan bread rolls, for locals and truckers passing through.
Locals wandered in and out over the next the next four hours, some truckers but none willing to give us a lift. The restaurant doubled as a small hotel, owned by a Tibetan man who showed up wearing a furry winter jacket, stylish felt hat and cowboy boots. His handsome aged features made him look like the lead role in a western. Friends of his came in shortly after; one a Tibetan who had spent significant time in India. He made a point to say that despite the widespread poverty there, it was "better" than in China. "People may be poorer but they have their spirituality unlike here where we are not free." As I suspected, he regarded the 'Automous Region of Tibet' as a sham, a euphemism for 'region controlled by the central government'. He struck me as being not bitter, but resolute about his views and at least with us, unafraid to express them.