It must be the highest traffic jam in the world. It’s gridlock on Highway 318 at over 4000 metres above sea level (pictured above), just outside the Tibetan border town of Litang. In a two-kilometre tailback, trucks, buses and Landcruisers sit idling for hours on the main Sichuan-to-Tibet road as work crews upgrade the steep switchback dirt trail into a two-lane tarmac highway. The work is long overdue to cope with the huge increase in traffic to Tibet as “Shangri-La” experiences a boom in tourism and construction.
The road starts in Kangding, the traditional border town between the Han Chinese lowlands of Sichuan and the Tibetan plateau. This used to be known as the “Tea Horse Trail”, along which heavy loads of tea were carried up by porters to be traded for Tibetan furs and wool. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see Tibetan traders browsing in Jeans West or sizing up the latest iPhones in Kangding’s Apple store. Tea is still traded here, but mochas and fruit smoothies are now the preferred beverage for many young Tibetans.