Tanggula Pass

Horses on North side of Tanggula Pass - J.H. Wittke


The journey over snowbound Tanggula Pass is an epic in itself, more so coming at the end of a long drive. The pavement ends at the bottom of the pass and the road becomes a muddy, slippery, rutted nightmare. A recent snowfall carpets the ground. Some horses nuzzle the earth, seaking forage through the thin layer of snow (right). Higher up the snow is thicker, a white blanket that covers the 20,000'+ peaks of the Tanggula Shan (left).

Tanggula Shan - J.H. Wittke


A traffic jam blocks the top. The road crews have been working on the road, putting down concrete. Consequently the road is only one lane wide at the summit. Northbound and southbound truckers sit in their vehicles out of the frigid wind, facing one another about 3 m apart with their engines off. One has placed a triangular warning sign with a red exclamation point in the passenger side of the windshield (below right). They show no signs of being interested in breaking the deadlock; neither one wants to back up to where the road is wider to allow the other to pass. The leading northbound truck is towing a trailer and doubtless the operator doesn't want to attempt to back down the narrow road, which like so many in Tibet is raised above the surrounding countryside.

A driver sits reading a book in one of the stopped southbound vehicles. A woman dressed in a drab olive greatcoat and fur-lined hat, holding a small red flag, is evidently in charge of traffic control. She stands beside the road, evincing little interest in breaking the deadlock.

Tanggula Traffic Jam - Photograph by Anne Barton Wittke


We get out and walk up to the pass. A sharp cold wind blows from the empty slopes and the film of water on the concrete is starting to freeze. Tanggula Pass is 5231 m (17,160') high. While we take pictures at the summit monument, a chunky granite statue of an heroic PLA soldier, our Tibetan guide is busy talking with the traffic control woman and the drivers of the other vehicles. After a while, to our surprise, the buses start to move. He has told the drivers that we are an important American delegation and that it is vital that we get to Amdo. Apparently he also has informed them that they'd all freeze to death if they spent the night at the top of the pass. Whatever he has said, it has worked! The trailer has been detached and rolled back down the road. The other northbound trucks have started their engines and reversed just enough to let us pass.

Free Tibet!