Our journey to the Tibetan Plateau began in Sichuan Province and the city of Chengdu.
Chengdu has grown rapidly to become the fourth largest city in China, with a population of around 15 million, but it was hardly an auspicious start though as smog, which is increasingly ever present in the industrial areas of China, was blanketing the city and restricting visibility to about 1 km…
But hope springs eternal and the weather forecast for the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau was good – so we set off down the modern freeway that takes you to the north-west of Chengdu and the start of the mountains!
I was traveling with my good friend Jun Quan from Xi’an, who I have known for nearly 14 years and the journey has been something we had been talking about for a long time.
Jun makes the perfect traveling companion as he speaks excellent English, has a great sense of humor, is very knowledgeable about China and its history plus he has a new 4WD that he wants to use and explore the country!
As we left the freeway, and started the climb up through the mountains and headed for the city of Wenchuan, the smog started to lift and we caught the first signs of the dramatic blue skies and high altitude clouds that help make the Tibetan Plateau so photogenic!
Wenchuan is right in one of the main Tibetan Plateau earthquake zones and was the epicenter of the devastating Sichuan Earthquake in May 2008, which measured 8 on the Richter Scale and completely devastated the area – killing over 80,000 people in the process.
The earthquake cut all access in to the area – completely isolating it until two days later when Chinese paratroopers were dropped into the area and the full scale of the disaster become apparent.
There is great residual anger within China about the Sichuan earthquake as many buildings that should have been able to withstand the tremors (according to the building codes they were constructed to), simply collapsed causing great loss of life.
Over 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed in the earthquake, and officially just over 5,000 students died – although many suspect the number was much higher.
The collapses pointed to poor quality materials and dodgy work that are the result of the rampant corruption that plagues China – prompting the Sichuan schools corruption scandal and the prominent Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei used his high profile to force greater transparency from the Chinese government.
Somewhat ironically as we passed through Lixian, the next major town after Wenchuan, a tremor of 4.8 on the Richter Scale made its presence felt – scaring the hell out of me.
I can only begin to imagine what a real earthquake must feel like!