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Getting to Langmusi: Further Travels in Tibetan Qinghai and Gansu (and Why You Should Never Join Us On A Road Trip)

You know how some road-trippers know exactly where they’re going, on what highway, for how many miles, and have already planned what they’ll see along the way and where they’ll stop for the night?
I can’t stand them. Show-offs.
We like to travel freely! unplanned! vaguely! and unexpectedly!
Because this way, there are lots of travel stories for you to enjoy where things go wrong and afterwards – although definitely not at the time – it’s really quite funny.
This is one of those stories.  
Our road trip along Qinghai’s Route S101, with all its curvilinear grace and evenly laid bitumen, had led us to assume we might expect the same from other roads in this remote part of China. So when we got to the end of our stretch of the S101 and couldn’t go further south (for reasons of public security, according to the police) we sat in the sun by the side of the road looking at our maps and trying to remember, of all the dotted lines marked on it by our friend Jonas, which one marked the road he thought we definitely should take, and which one marked the road we definitely shouldn’t. They looked very similar. But he had been very adamant about one of them.
We were trying to get to Langmusi, the famously beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that spans the border between the south of Gansu Province and northern Sichuan. On our bigger, longer road trip last year I planned to write all about Langmusi and its spectacular beauty, but we arrived in darkness that night along a road pitted with construction, and left the next morning in dense fog without seeing anything at all except for the inside of our hotel, thanks to our youngest getting altitude sickness and having to consequently find lower ground. 
“It would be nice to see if it really is as beautiful as they say…” I said to Matt.
He looked unconvinced. He wanted to head in a different direction with guaranteed good roads.
“…and Lonely Planet says they have a cafe there with pancakes and Yunnan coffee.” 
“OK” said Matt. He’s really very amenable to a change in plans, especially after a week of yak butter tea and soupy noodles.
I checked Google maps just to make sure we were heading in the right direction.
Google gave me this:
The distance was no problem – we’d been known to knock that many kilometres over in a single morning, but the time Google thought it would take was longer than either of us anticipated. It worked out to be 36km/hr, just slightly faster than the average bicycle.
It seemed awfully slow, given we had recently been zipping around at a comfortable 90-100km/h on the S101. The road started well, and for the first two hours we were ahead of schedule, cruising along valleys under a clear blue sky beside rolling grasslands and wondering what on earth Google was talking about. But Google seemed to know something we didn’t, and before long we understood.
First, there was this. A fiesty Tibetan curly-horned-goat herder woman on horseback who knew full well her animals were taking up the whole road, but carried on as though we weren’t there. If a car tried to pass (and many did) the biggest billy goat head-butted the car. We just followed meekly behind, a herd of cars and trucks at goat walking pace, until they got to their farm.
Then later, a herd of really angry yaks. The car had to reverse out of the way.
And after a while, more goats with attitude blocking the road.
It was non-stop. 
I began to wonder, as morning turned to afternoon, whether we were going to make it to Langmusi at all after we were delayed yet again for another herd of livestock.
And then the real trouble began.
Fifty kilometres of pot-holes and heavy rain on a one-lane country road almost ended our marriage. 
I just want to make it clear at this point that of the two of us, my husband is the far better driver.  And yet for this stretch of road I insisted on driving, partly because it was my turn and partly because the road started out smooth, and quiet, and pretty, as we passed tiny Tibetan houses in lush green pastures. 
Then the road turned bad, along with the weather, and our moods, and I had an uncanny knack of catching the right hand edge of every single pothole I swerved to miss, causing all our teeth to chatter and the bottom of our rental car to scrape the ground with a sickening noise.
Matt, to his credit, kept quiet about my driving at first, but after I had hit the fiftieth pothole he couldn’t help himself and every time I hit another he asked if perhaps he should drive.
This infuriated me, particularly because there were now more potholes than road. I had stopped trying to miss them and instead was aiming to just hit the shallowest pothole with the fewest number of wheels. Our car lurched and scraped and bumped and shuddered. 
Then he started turning on the windscreen wipers (my windscreen wipers!) every time I hit a pothole and our windscreen was slaked with mud. Words were said. Tempers were lost. 
You know how an argument like this is going to end when someone says:
“STOP touching my windscreen wipers!!”
Badly. Very badly.
We thought the worst was over when we finally reached the town of Henan, but Henan’s burghers had decided the start of the rainy season would be an excellent time to rip up all the roads and replace them with rivers of mud, and to remove all road signs until further notice. The town was a black snarl of trucks and cars all deep to the gunnels in mud and frustration.
Things went downhill from there. Beyond Henan fifty kilometres of continuous roadworks saw alternating left and right sides of the road cordoned off and cut up without so much as a single witch’s hat or traffic controller. Sometimes the construction crew were living in tents erected in the middle of what should have been the road. Sometimes a big old load of gravel had been dumped on your side of the road just as you came round a blind bend. 
And then just as our patience was wearing very, very thin we saw it. At the village of Sai’er Long, right on the Qinghai-Gansu border, was a red sign, pointing to the highway holy grail – the G213, a four lane road taking us directly to Langmusi. We rolled through the village and onto the smooth, unbroken concrete connecting road, our spirits climbing. It was already dusk and there was still another 150km to go, but we were still naively calculating that distance at about two hours. The countryside was spectacular with deep green valleys, a sparkling deep blue river, and small birds singing. 
When I checked our maps it seemed plausible that a new road had been cut through the provincial border to link with the highway only a few miles away. Google just hadn’t yet caught up. For half an hour we sailed along happily, dreaming of coffee and pancakes and clean sheets. Kind words were said. Marriages were saved. Windscreen wipers weren’t mentioned, not even once.
The stark white tent of a nomad herder stood out against the far riverbank in the darkening indigo evening light and I decided there and then I wanted to move here permanently. With my lovely, lovely family.

And then halfway across the small river the road. Just. Stopped. 
We got out of the car. The end of the road dropped off into a deep ditch before rising on the far side to a gate and a field full of sheep. I noticed the small sign high on a pole at the end of the end-of-the-road.
“Gansu Border” was all it said. 
It seemed something might have gone terribly wrong with road construction funding on the Gansu side. 
And so back we went on the Qinghai side and took the only other road available for crossing the border. Ominously, it was marked with one of Jonas’ dotted lines.
I double checked Google, holding my phone high in the air to catch an extra bar of service. The blue line on Google Maps looked solid, if a little curvy. But it told us we were on the right road and as if to confirm, a minibus full of passengers and shopping roared past us.
What I forgot to do was to check the map without the blue line, because it proved revealing when I did it this morning from the comfort of my house. It would have helped to know, at the time, that Google was sending us along something that wasn’t actually a road at all. I’ve included red arrows to show the god-forsaken goat track that can be made to look like a road if you stick a big fat blue line over the top of it saying “Go this way! Google says go this way!” 
The road wound along the banks of the Tao river, but its initial bitumen rapidly turned to dirt at about the point where that yellow S203 above turns into a pale ghost of a line, and the dirt turned into a series of potholes that got larger and more dangerous. To make things worse it was now dark and there were no lights at all except the lights of our car, and the occasional far off glow of a farmhouse. 
When we reached the first really large pothole, full to brim with water from the afternoon rains, it became clear we couldn’t fit the car safely on either side and would have to drive through the middle of it. 
I looked at Matt. 
He looked at me. 
He got out, took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and waded into the pothole to check its depth.
I helpfully took a photo, mistakenly thinking this pothole would be our greatest challenge in a long and difficult day of driving. We had no food left, no water, and were thinking seriously about finding a small patch of intact road and sleeping in the car until daylight.
There weren’t any photos after that. 
The problem with the potholes was that – filled with water – you couldn’t judge their depth, and their bottoms hid sunken hazards like enormous rocks and unexpected holes within holes, just the size to suck your front wheel in and get you stuck for good. And get stuck we did, wedged on top of a giant rock, our wheels spinning mud helplessly. We were rescued by a Tibetan farmer who happened to be shooting basketball hoops in the dark grassy field next to our car. Seriously.

The potholes got bigger, and deeper, and scarier, and there was less and less road. We never saw the minibus ever again, and I suspect it still lies sunk at the bottom of a giant hole, its roof covered by water and its wheels held firm in the mud, pulling in unwary cars like a giant pothole Bermuda Triangle.

At the edge of one particularly treacherous hole there was a Buddhist offering strung with prayer flags, and passing another in the dark – overcome with exhaustion and stress – I mistook the white flags draped around a corner fence post to be a representation of the Virgin Mary.

In the end that shocking 30km stretch of road took us four hours to travel, at an hourly rate of 7.5km – just faster than walking.

Bella turned to Matt and said “Dad that was amazing. You were ah-MAZ-ing. I didn’t think we would get through and we would be stuck there forever!”

“Yeah Dad” said Lily. “That was a real adventure.”

At 11.30pm, sixteen hours after setting off, we finally rolled up exhausted and covered in mud to the counter of the Langmusi Business Travel Hotel (a less fancy establishment than its name would imply) I woke the manager, who was asleep at the desk. God bless him, he recognised all of us from our last brief visit.
“You know what?” I said to Matt, as we tucked ourselves into the hard Chinese bed.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re a very good driver.”
He smiled in the dark.
“A very good driver. But,” I said, “if you turn on my windscreen wipers again you’re a dead man.”
He laughed. 
Your turn: Tell me about your worst road trip ever – was it the road? Your family? Or the crummy places you visited? I want to hear the worst of the worst!