A famous poet wrote that crossing Sichuan is as difficult as climbing up to the heavens. Mountains so steep that monkeys cannot climb over them and eagles cannot fly over them.
Sichuan is divided into two clear regions. In just 50km the land rises from the 600m high fertile Sichuan basin in the east, to the beginnings of the Tibetan plateau in the west, reaching up over 6500m.
Between these is the Longmen Shan fault line, the cause of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that measured 8.0 on the Richter Scale. The series of quakes and aftershocks killed nearly 70,000 people and left 11 million homeless.
This rapid change in altitude leads to prolonged periods of monsoon rain, which combine with minor earthquakes to cause huge landslides every summer. These slips destroy the transport infrastructure nearly every year.
The combination of Sichuan’s wealth of natural resources and its inaccessibility has historically meant that whoever controls the region can use it like an independent kingdom, away from the watchful eye of Beijing.
Our new driver has guided people through this area for the last 30 years and it showed. Had we been driving on our own I think we would have lasted about 100 metres.
The road was appalling. Huge sections were missing, crumbled away into the fast-flowing river below.
Other sections are buried under massive rock falls. The huge boulders are too large to move out of the way so a new section of road has to be built round them.
Any sections undamaged by natural causes seem to be getting dug up anyway, for no discernible reason. Because of this continuous reconstruction, the roads are busy with lorries ferrying gravel and rock to the various concrete factories built alongside the road.
The scariest part was the tunnels. Those that hadn’t collapsed had power cuts, so even with headlights on full beam, visibility was just a couple of metres:
In amongst all this work and chaos we were one of the few non-essential vehicles taking the route, or so I thought until we passed a couple of cyclists. This young Canadian couple were only a couple of miles into the stretch under construction, and I didn’t envy them the journey ahead.
Of course, in amongst this some parts are still beautiful, if perfect for another rockfall: