The road to Kangding is paved with angst and trepidation. No more than thirty miles outside of town, Chengdu’s boisterous urban sprawl recedes into a violent rigmarole of malaise. Indeed, it seemed only fitting that the lone route from regional capital to ethnic badlands be fraught with fear and loathing. In the eight hours it took to reach our destination, the most southwestern Chinese province’s largest Tibetan town, one could pierce the atmospheric entropy with a mid summer’s soliloquy. Along the way, motorists – ours included – lose all sense of proportion, careening through the mountainous landscape at breakneck speed – inviting danger, it not death, at every turn.
Smashed-in cars, SUVs and buses (one of which was the same make and operator as our own) littered the highway the better part of our journey. Some had delved into ditches, others trees – though, occasionally, death-laden vehicles from head-on collusions were simply stranded in the middle of the road. It was far worse than the aftermath of a Midwestern blizzard when motorists, otherwise unaccustomed to such conditions, careen into frozen cornfields whilst changing the radio station. No, there was something dark at play here, a creeping sense of geo-nihilism that penetrated the countryside with every mile-marker. Of course, sinister roads there are a many: Death Road in Bolivia, any Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in the continental United States. That said, this effortlessly took the cake. The destruction was all-encompassing and splendidly apathetic, as though a spanking new Jeep smashed to bits and abandoned to a highway underpass were no stranger than the ubiquitous “I love Jesus” that dot Interstate 55 en route to Chicago.
Having digested the vehicular carnage, one must evaluate the various life forms that take to the road. At one particularly hairy bend, a shirtless 15-year old flies by in an 18-wheel oil tanker, tempting State and gods alike to heed his cunning cocktail of unrelenting indifference. Cigarette in lip, he snickered in my direction: “I may not make it to Scottsdale, but I sure as hell won’t die today”. Multiple that by ten and you’ve a frightful trail to blaze. A few miles later, an emaciated horde of octogenarian peasants was hauling 80-foot iron rods down a rocky knoll into the middle of the road. Again, motorists paid them fabulously little mind; a hurried honk was enough to acknowledge the brazen encumbrance that was their life. Of course, we missed them by several meters, freeing them to finish their haul with unyielding stoicism – an ode to harder times, or better ones loath to come.
Which brings me to my final point: the ubiquitous police presence. People often mischaracterize China as an omnipotent police state; apart from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, one can go weeks without seeing a single (plainclothes) officer or the least fragment of the Law. Not so in Tibetan-populated areas. Leaving Chengdu for the wild, disgruntled-minority-infested-west, the State makes itself very evidently known. One in five cars seemed to be national police – not to mention the unmarked SUVs whizzing by at every turn. The per capita police presence in Tibetan Sichuan is five times that of Harlem. And though Bloomberg’s replaced Mic-&-Iti laden uptown shakedowns with a curiously bespectacled crew of post-racial Enforcers, the same cannot be said of China. The law is Han – and it’s coming to get you.