Driving in countries around the world is always an adventure. From the careening traffic on the autobahn and the peripherique, to the stop-and-go progress on a Scottish Highlands road full of sheep, to the heart-attack cliffs with no guardrails in mountains the world over, there is always a story about our international brothers’ driving habits. Penjo, our driver on the Friendship Highway – the route across the Tibetan Plateau (the “Roof of the World”) from Tibet to Nepal – was no exception.
We left Lhasa early one morning for a cross-country adventure in a 4WD Mitsubishi Pajero SUV. A few hours out of Lhasa, we experienced the first of many “pee breaks” which were really designed for our guide, Pasang, and our driver, Penjo, to take a smoking break. Timed passage on the road also meant that if we were going to arrive at a checkpoint too early, we had to either slow down or stop and wait until the time was OK. (This happened at every checkpoint since the law, meant to slow drivers down, really seemed to signify “drive as fast as humanly possible and then stop and wait until enough time has passed.”) Even using this finely-tuned strategy, Penjo managed to get a speeding ticket as we approached Shigatse, a hellhole we discovered we should have been in no hurry to reach anyway.
Getting to dinner in Shigatse was a barrel race as we were stymied by street after street under construction. We drove in clover-leafs through an apocalyptic landscape, a bombed-out scene of heavy construction equipment and vehicle-swallowing holes in the powdery streets. Penjo showed some serious moxie by driving on sidewalks, down one-way streets, in front of bulldozers, and through numerous barricades. Shigatse is a dusty town by nature, and all this earth-moving and car maneuvering left a deep coat of grime on the Pajero and a sneeze-inducing mass of dust in our nostrils.
The next day, after lunch in Tingri, we turned off onto a dirt road for the next three hours. This was a true washboard road, with constant ridges and bumps, along with switchbacks, steep climbs and descents, and barely two lanes across. Penjo did not disappoint us, spending large periods of time on the oncoming traffic side of the road and squealing to dustcloud-raising stops in the loose gravel, precipitously close to various drop-offs as he attempted to pass large trucks, SUVs and, really, any moving vehicle, beast, or human on the road. Penjo finally slowed down and the air finally cleared as we crossed our third and final high pass for the day at 17,500 feet, with a view of the entire Tibetan Himalaya range, including Makalo, Lhotse, Everest, and Cho Oyu.
On our way back to Lhasa, we took a different route through a gorge along the Brahmaputra River. Penjo was at his finest today, offroading anytime the main road was closed. In Tibet, barricades indicating road closures are apparently simply something to drive around. This road was clearly closed, but Penjo decided we would take it anyway, which meant that at certain points we had to totally drive off the highway and go through pastures, fields, and people’s property. Many others had the same idea, including giant 18-wheelers! Penjo passed semis in a blur of dirt, drove through sagebrush, which we dragged along behind us until it shook loose, and swerved even more than usual. Penjo’s driving was truly a thing to behold, with brake slamming, high speeds then incredibly slow ones, random veering, and aggressive crowding of other vehicles. Somehow we never worried too much; we decided people here drive like maniacs and have constant near accidents but never any actual accidents. At one point, Penjo almost nailed a dzo, but neither he nor the female owner of the dzo seemed the least bit perturbed as he screeched to a halt mere inches from the animal in the middle of the road.
Penjo was a soft-spoken (Tibetan language only) man who was quite mild-mannered out of the vehicle. He had a sweet, shy smile and since we are alive to tell the tale, we have only the fondest memories of him!