For the past five years, an ordinary 5,476 km Chinese national highway has emerged as a super popular route, thanks to the power of Little Red Book and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, prompting countless of people to traverse the entire length of the highway straddling around 30 degrees north, with their friends and families. What’s even more incredible is that all the 1.4 billion people of this country concur that G318 is one specific highway they must conquer at least once before they die!
Luckily, as I’m writing this now, I’m already at KM3528 (KM957 from Chengdu) of G318 with a bunch of travel buddies, in Zuogong County at an altitude of 3,877 meters above sea level in Tibet Autonomous Region, a very important rest stop for travelers along this highway.
Five days ago, 21 of us were traveling in seven Toyota Cruiser 4.0 4WDs manned by Tibetan driver-guides along the Chengdu section of G318 westward toward Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Nevertheless, as we reached Litang in Sichuan Province, we made a detour along G227 toward Shangri-la in Daocheng Yading, which added 450 kilometers to our original travel plan. Even though that’s a long drive, the scenery along the route has been extremely rewarding.
Right now, five days after driving up and down the hills and valleys, we arrive at Jinsha River loess valley at 3,700 meters above sea level. After crossing the bridge into Tibet, we officially arrive at the Mangkang Checkpoint in Tibet Autonomous Region at 11 a.m.
The Mangkang-Linzhi section is actually the most challenging of the entire G318 route. First and foremost, the road quality here is never as good as in Sichuan. Additionally, there are towering mountains and deep ravines all over Tibet. Accidents are very common here, while major roadworks and landslides may add to unbearable hold-ups that could last anything from 30 minutes to three hours. But reassuringly, the scenery along the route is totally rewarding and spirit-lifting.
For the next four days, we will still have another 1,119 km of mountainous road passing through Rakwa, Bome, Linzhi, Gongbo’gyamda and Shannan before arriving in Lhasa. If we were to reach the end of G318, we would then have another 736 km to travel. The actual terminus is the Sino -Nepal Friendship Bridge. The weather is normally sunny and bright from September through December, and you will most likely get to see the majestic Mount Everest!
Yuan from the Chinese inbound agency once told me: If you really want to complete the whole G318, you should do it as soon as possible while you are still physically fit and mentally strong.
As a matter of fact, one of my biggest wishes after the pandemic has been to traverse G318, especially the 2,094 km Chengdu-Lhasa section tipped as one of the ten most famous sections along G318, although I would say the altitude sickness really gets me! I guess this is probably why travelers from around the world have wanted to challenge this section of the national highway. Traveling from a cozy altitude of 512 meters in Chengdu, all the way to a demanding altitude of 5,130 meters (Dongda Mountain), besides enjoying the breathtaking scenery along the road, we must also watch out for any sign of altitude sickness. Anyway, this is really a thrilling and unusual cross-country experience!
Given that it’s the social media and self-media that has helped bring on the hype, G318 has veritably become the darling of Mainland China’s adventure seekers. That being said, the national highway has not won its immense popularity for nothing.
As a matter of fact, G318 boasts irresistible charms, especially in the crossing of provincial and county borders, with its varied topographical features that include towering mountains and flat plains, distinct seasonal shifts and uniquely colorful ethnic cultures. Most importantly, G318 was constructed in stages from the early 1950s soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During the early years, the highway was built exclusively with manual labor, and tunneling works were only possible later with the introduction of mechanization. In the end, the entire stretch of the national highway straddling provinces around 30th parallel north was all linked up, forming one of the longest horizontal highways on this planet.
Notably, Kilometer Zero of G318 lies on People’s Avenue in downtown Shanghai, passing along the way through many provinces and cities such as Suzhou, Huzhou, Xuancheng, Wuhu, Chizou, Anqing, Huanggang, Wuhan, Jingzhou, Yichang, Enshi, Chongqing, Dazhou, Nanchong, Suining, Ziyang and Chengdu, before the start of the legendary Chengdu-Lhasa section. After that, the highway makes its way through Garzê, Changdu, Linzhi and Lhasa, before ending at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge in Tibet’s Shigatse City. The entire length of the highway is 5,476 km.
The G318 national highway straddles across the entire width of Mainland China from east to west, passing fertile plains, undulating hills, basins and highland landscapes, encompassing the dreamy water town cultures of Lower Yangtze in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the Sichuan Basin and Tibetan cultures. From Chengdu Plain to Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, one can enjoy an exciting mix of mesmerizing views. Indeed, this is the grandest viewing gallery not just in China, but the whole world! Therefore, it comes as no surprise that “pilgrims” have flocked here from all across China, including no-frills walkers, bicyclists and travelers arriving in all modes of motorized transport.
Notably, the Chengdu-Lhasa section of G318 stretches for 2,094 km across at least two peaks over 5,000 meters high, and 10 over 4,000 meters! Mount Gongga, the 1,000-meter vertical Hailuogou Glacier, Mount Zheduo, Yala Snow Mountain and the three snow-capped peaks in Daocheng—Xiannairi, YangMaiyong and XianuoDuoji, Namjagbarwa, and Gyala Peri, etc., along with four majestic rivers, i.e. Jinsha, Lancang, Nujiang and Yarlung Tsangpo—a treasure trove of exhilarating natural beauty awaiting to be explored. If one were to proceed westward for another 736 km, one would chance upon four of the 14 peaks over 8,000 meters—Makalu, Cho Oyu, Everest and Shishapangma, showing up before your eyes one after another. You can even put up a night at the Mount Everest base camp at 5,200 meters above sea level!
Knowing that I was on a trip along G318, my friend May sent me a short message: Inside everyone’s heart there’s this “Tibetan Dream,” and I really envy you for being able to challenge this amazing Pilgrim’s Road! It is said that the westward Chengdu-Lhasa section of G318 is a “Heavenly Way” where one’s soul is closest to Heaven! It transports you to the crystal-clear azure blue lake and sky, where you can take a deep breath of the pristine snow mountain air, touch the vast expanse of golden grasslands, and feel the peaceful and heartwarming bell tolls echoing from Potala Palace afar. Lee San, please send my Tashi delek greetings to the Tibetan people you come across along your way.
Our 4WDs hit the road again, as we wind our way past the many hairpin curves and bends, reminding me of Han Hong’s hugely popular song, “The Heavenly Road.”
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)