This long and winding highway in China is popular with tourists today


One of the writer’s travel buddies showing the nine bends and 72 turns on the G318 highway. Different areas of the route have different sceneries and landscapes, including cliffs and rivers. — Photos: LEESAN

For the past five years, an “ordinary” highway in China has emerged as a super popular route, thanks to the power of the Little Red Book and TikTok, prompting countless of people to traverse the entire length of the road as tourists.

What’s even more incredible is that most of China’s 1.4 billion people think that the route – G318 – is the one highway that they must conquer at least once before they die.

As I’m writing this, I’m at the “KM3528” (957km from Chengdu) mark of the G318 with a bunch of travel buddies. We are in Zuogong county, which lies at an altitude of 3,877m above sea level in Tibet Autonomous Region, a very important rest stop for travellers along this highway.

Five days prior, 22 of us were travelling in seven Toyota 4WDs driven by Tibetan driver-guides along the Chengdu section of the G318, going westward toward Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. When we reached Litang in Sichuan Province, we made a detour along route G227 towards Shangri-la in Daocheng Yading, which then added 450km to our original travel plan.

Even though that’s a long drive, the scenery along the route has been extremely rewarding.

After driving up and down the hills and valleys for five days, we arrived at Jinsha River loess valley at 3,700m above sea level. We crossed the bridge into Tibet, and we “officially” arrived at the Mangkang Checkpoint in Tibet Autonomous Region at 11am.

The popular G318 highway is 5,476km long. The popular G318 highway is 5,476km long.

The Mangkang-Bome section is actually the most challenging of the entire G318 route. First and foremost, the road quality here is not 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 the scenery along the route is totally rewarding and lifted our spirits.We still have another 1,119km to cover, driving through mountainous roads and passing Rakwa, Bome, Linzhi, Gongbo’gyamda and Shannan before arriving in Lhasa. If we want to reach the end of G318, we will then have another 736km to travel from Lhasa. 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 on this route.

Terry from the Chinese tour inbound agency said to 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.”

Well it just so happens that one of my biggest wishes after the pandemic is to travel on the G318 route, especially the 2,094km Chengdu-Lhasa section. This is said to be one of the 10 most famous sections along G318.

The writer (far right) with his travel buddies taking a break along one of the stops on the G318.The writer (far right) with his travel buddies taking a break along one of the stops on the G318.

Unfortunately, the altitude sickness got to me this time and I haven’t been able to truly enjoy it. I guess this is probably why travellers from around the world have wanted to challenge themselves to reach this section of the national highway. Travelling from a cosy altitude of 512m in Chengdu to a demanding altitude of 5,130m (Dongda Mountain), besides enjoying the breathtaking scenery along the road, we must always watch out for any signs of altitude sickness.

Nevertheless, this is still a really thrilling and unusual cross-country experience.

Given that it’s the social media that has helped popularise the G318, the highway has become the “darling” of Mainland China’s adventure seekers. The G318 boasts many 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 colourful 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 labour; tunnelling works were only possible later with the introduction of mechanisation.

By the time the project was completed, the entire stretch of the national highway straddling provinces around 30th parallel north were all linked up, forming one of the longest horizontal highways on this planet.

Arriving at the KM4000 mark of the G318, which is considered the most famous self-drive trunk road in China.Arriving at the KM4000 mark of the G318, which is considered the most famous self-drive trunk road in China.

Notably, the “Zero” mark of G318 lies in the People’s Avenue in downtown Shanghai, and then passing 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. Once you’ve passed all that, the legendary Chengdu-Lhasa section begins. It then continues to Garze, Changdu, Linzhi and Lhasa, before ending at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge in Tibet’s Shigatse City.

The entire length of the highway is 5,476km.

The G318 national highway runs across the entire width of Mainland China from east to west, passing fertile plains, undulating hills, basins and highland landscapes, encompassing the dreamy watertown cultures of lower Yangtze in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and Sichuan Basin, as well as Tibetan cultures.

And from the Chengdu plains to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, one can enjoy an exciting mix of mesmerising views.

This is a grand 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, cyclists and travellers arriving in all modes of motorised transport.

Notably, the Chengdu-Lhasa section of G318 stretches for 2,094km across at least two peaks that are over 5,000m high, and 10 peaks that are over 4,000m.

The seven 4WDs, all ready for a road trip full of challenges, yet with beautiful views and great experiences.The seven 4WDs, all ready for a road trip full of challenges, yet with beautiful views and great experiences.

Mount Gongga (the 1,000m vertical Hailuogou Glacier), Mount Zheduo, Yala Snow Mountain and the three snow-capped peaks in Daocheng (Xiannairi, YangMaiyong and XianuoDuoji), Namjagbarwa, and Gyala Peri, along with four majestic rivers (Jinsha, Lancang, Nujiang and Yarlung Tsangpo) are just some of the majestic natural wonders that are waiting to be explored.

If one were to proceed westward for another 736km past the friendship bridge, one would chance upon four of the 14 peaks that are over 8,000m high: Makalu, Cho Oyu, Everest and Shishapangma. You can even put up a night at the Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,200m above sea level.

Knowing that I was on a trip along G318, my friend Chiharu-san sent me this 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 are hitting 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.

(Some of the figures in this article were quoted and taken from various websites. Do correct me if any part of the information provided here has been misquoted.)

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

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