Four days after chilling in Kangding, I was finally able to get on the bus to Shiqu (in Tibetan, Serxu). The route was about 800 km long, which in a car on the US highway system would take about six hours. This bus ride took three days. There were a number of reasons why it was so slow.
1) The bus sucked royally. It was an old, diesel behemoth designed to navigate the clogged streets of Beijing. Whenever we had to go up an incline, we had to do it in second gear, the engine screaming for mercy as we inched along these mountain passes.
2) The altitude was above 16,000 ft. The air was thin, which didn't help with the whole internal combustion process, or my throbbing head.
3) The road was only a road in the theoretical sense. That is to say, while the road could be thought of as a theoretical path from our origin to our destination, in no way could the alternately rocky and muddy surface be considered something actually suitable for a motor vehicle to drive on.
4) We had to pick up a lot of passengers. These long distance buses also serve as the local transportation system for the nomads. Basically, if some yak herder wants to go to town, he stands in the middle of the road until a bus or a logging truck arrives. Said herder negotiates a fare with the bus driver. I couldn't really follow their arguments as they were arguing in Tibetan. But as the prospective passenger doesn't have much leverage ("Yeah, I'll wait here for the next logging truck which should be passing several hours from now"), he usually did not get much of a discount from the driver. Sometimes, the passenger would try the classic "walk away" technique. This involves exclaiming, "That's way too expensive," turning around, and starting to walk away. This works with knocking off that last 10 or 20 kuai when you're bargaining with a vendor in a large city with 26 vendors right next to him selling the same exact stuff. But our bus driver was supplying rides at a rather inelastic rate. Thus, when the prospective passenger sees that his technique isn't working, he chases the bus back down and begs for forgiveness. The more daring would try to bargain further from this point, but most hop on, humbly defeated.
When I first got on at Kangding, the bus was about 1/3 full. By the time we hit the plateau on the first day, the bus was crammed with monks and yak herders, squishing three to every two-person seat, and filling the aisles. All of their worldly belongings, stuffed in large yak-leather bags, were precariously balanced on the bus's roof or under all the seats.
The ride itself was interesting. The first part involved lots of climbing as we headed to the Kangding Plateau pass. After about two hours of struggling up the road at 10 km/h, we finally cleared it.
We ended up in the village of Daofu for the night. Despite what the maps say, this was definitely Tibet. The people were almost all Tibetan, except for the group of Han soldiers I saw marching down the street with machine guns strapped to their back. I was laughing at these soldiers, because most of them were clearly not acclimated to the altitude and were wheezing and coughing. It probably didn't help that most of them were smoking while they were running.
The natives were very cool though. Tibetans are easily the friendliest people in the world (and I would know, considering I've been to two countries in my life.) Most of them were cheerfully shouting "Hello!" to me. Any non-Asian-looking person who has spent more than a day outside of a major city in China has probably developed a nervous tic whenever they hear the word "Hello." But for some reason, Tibetans actually seem friendly when they say hello. Maybe it was because they were smiling and waving, as opposed to Han peasants who tend to aggressively leer at you. Or maybe it was the altitude. I was getting some moderate form of altitude sickness. My head pounded and I was getting serious vertigo from just walking around with a daypack.
Day 2 and 3 of the epic Kangding-Shiqu bus ride were more of the same i.e. being crammed into a bus with nothing to do but watch the rolling meadows and nomadic herders roll by. We passed a number of really interesting temples which I wanted to explore. And I really could have yelled, "xia che!" and the driver would have let me off. But he would also continue on without me, and besides my timetable was bit tight and I had already paid for the entire ride. We would stop at these "villages" occasionally to get lunch or gas.
Naturewise, the only non-domesticated thing I saw was an incredible number and variety of hawks. The yaks were interesting to watch as well, especially when a group of them would be in the middle of the road as the bus approached. They would run berserkly to either side. At least when you're on a bus for that long, stuff like this is interesting.
The worst thing about Tibet though is the food. During this bus ride, it wasn't that bad since I still had access to my kebabs, but it was about to get much, much worse.
I remember boarding the bus on the third day. It was 5:45 AM and I was a bit cranky from a lack of sleep. Everyone was pushing and crowding in order to get on. My seat (not a seat officially designated to me, but the one I sat in the day before) was at the front of the bus, but I had to stow my backpack at the rear of the bus. When the driver opened the doors, everyone started pushing to get in, mostly to avoid being the schmuck stuck standing in the aisles all day. I managed to fight my way to the back and return to my seat. I remember sitting in my seat tired, hungry, shivering (I was wearing every layer that I thought of bringing when I was sweltering in my non-air conditioned room packing. It was hard for me to imagine below freezing temps when Beijing was well above 100 degrees, humid, and smoggy.) The driver was busy finishing his morning prayers (hopefully not relying on Buddha to prevent our bus from tumbling down a mountain pass) while the person sitting next to me was alternately blowing smoke in my face and hawking lugies on the floor. Indeed, the bus was alive with the sound of people clearing their nasal systems onto the floor. I thought that I had developed a reservior of patience dealing with rudeness and filth, but that morning I slowly concentrated my telepathic powers on killing these floor-spitters. I wanted to scream, "My God, you fucking savages! As least spit out the fucking window!" but I just sat there and suffered silently.