Everyone must believe, as Thoreau did, that he or she was born just in time, because the world as we know it is always disappearing.

In the morning I strapped my pack to the motorbike and rode north out of Litang. The road ascended toward a pass and the town receded into a corner of the basin. Veils of rain sloped in across the far mountains, alternating with sun and snow in the veins of distant peaks. Halfway up the grade, it began to pour. It seemed improbable that it would rain within the first half-hour of my motopsycho journey after a week of clear skies, but what the hell, it was bound to happen eventually. I was already wearing all my clothes against the cold: my raincoat, several shirts, long johns. There was nothing to do but ride on, my hands red and swollen on the throttle and brake lever, my glasses spotted and blurred, my pants soaked through. I crested the pass in the rain and a leaden fog. A sign said 4,832 meters, 16,000 feet. The rain turned to hail, ice pellets collected on my crotch.

Coming down from the pass, the motorbike slipped and fishtailed in the frozen slush. I shivered and shook, my body numb, and held on like a petrified monkey. Hail melted through the folds of my fly. I wondered what I was doing here three miles in the sky and didn’t know anything except that there’s nothing colder than ice melting on your balls on a motorcycle in Tibet.

The road wound down to a plain between mountain ranges. There was no town or village in sight, nothing but the flat valley floor with forests and mountains beyond. But at the crossroad where the back road split off to Junba, there was a large round yurt. By some miracle, it was a restaurant here in the middle of absolute nowhere, the only human presence in sight. I parked next to two four-wheel drive vehicles and staggered inside to warm up and dry off and try to figure out a way to continue north without dying of hypothermia.

I was battered by the freezing rain, blinded and shivering. I probably looked wild and dangerous, but in spite or because of this the proprietor brought me a cup of tea and offered me a seat by a wood-burning stove. I took off my fogged-up glasses and looked around. A group of people sat around a large table piled high with soup bowls and bones. I sipped my tea and cleaned my glasses, and when I looked up I noticed a Western woman smiling at me

“Hello, where are you going?” she asked.

I was startled to hear English, and because she had dark hair and my vision was discombobulated I probably wouldn’t have distinguished her from her local companions if she hadn’t called out to me.

“Oh, hi…. I’m going north … up the back road through Junba to Ganzi.”

“We’ve just come that way,” she said.

“Do you have a car?”

“No, I’m … on a motorcycle.”

I felt like a lunatic to be flinging myself alone through the rain, without gloves or rainpants, on roads I didn’t know, rather than riding in well-informed comfort as she was doing, with experts to explain the history and soil of this place. She was a journalist writing a Discover article on native plants of the Tibetan Plateau, like rhododendrons, which have become common in Western gardens, later published as “The Mother of Gardens”. She had a team of drivers, interpreters, guides, and professors with her; they were travelling in the two SUVs parked out front. One of the professors was a botanist who had spent two years during the Cultural Revolution walking across the Tibetan Plateau surveying plants. He had nearly starved to death, but his eyes twinkled as he told me, “You will see a specimen of one of the world’s first apple trees as you leave Junba.”

The sound of rain on the tent roof subsided. The restaurant refused to accept any money for my tea, probably figuring I would need all my coins for funeral expenses before long. We all wished each other luck. I pulled open the curtain over the doorway and stepped out into a mash of green light, the sky breaking open into blue with the sun pouring in around the borders of clouds. The road extended north through the glowing golden valley.

Leaving Litang, there had been nothing but the dirt track curving through the hills. But now a strand of wire was looped pole to pole along the road. I drove north completely empty-hearted, nothing within my skull or ribs but a void for the world to pour into. I was filled with plain dumb happiness to be still moving, still living – my motopsycho locomotion was intact. The valley sloped between mounded hills speckled with herds of sheep, white puffs across the landscape. Two horsemen rode along the side of the road with a pair of yaks pulling a cart loaded with firewood and a butchered lamb. At the foot of a hill, a nomad camp of black tents was set up next to a cluster of abandoned earthen houses with caved-in roofs and broken walls.

The road wound through alpine meadows with streams bubbling through fields of blue wildflowers. Sunlight gushed down warm and bright. In a forest clearing where a stream flowed across the road, I parked, took my clothes off to dry, and danced a little jig. Steam rose from my pants where I draped them over the handlebars of the bike.

I began to pass clusters of fortress-like houses. Some were perched like battlements high on bluffs, others were built into almost vertical walls, reminding me of the ruins of Anasazi villages in the American Southwest. The villages grew larger, set in valleys that wound down from high peaks and opened outward into broad aprons of orchards and fields, with enormous old oaks lining the banks of a silver-blue river.

Along the road, villagers were out sweeping the street clean of leaves and gravel in preparation for some o0cial delegation that was supposed to pass through. Everyone smiled and waved as I drove past, some of the old men opening their palms outward to me in traditional greeting. A mile before Junba, two Tibetan girls about eighteen years old flagged me down. They each carried a bunch of branches tied together to serve as brooms

“Hey, mister, can we ride into Junba with you?”

“Sure, but there’s no room with my pack strapped on my back.”

They just laughed and climbed up and straddled the pack, the one in front put her arms around my neck from behind to hold on

“Are you going to stay in Junba?” she asked.

“I’ll show you where you can get a room, then you can come eat in my family’s restaurant.”

We coasted into Junba, a leaning collection of wooden buildings, a forgotten village in the cleft where two valleys converged. I pulled up to the girl’s family’s restaurant. She and her friend tumbled off the back of the bike. The girl’s mother held a baby out to her, the girl took it in her arms and kissed it as she held it to her chest.

Excerpted with permission from Journey to the End of the Empire: In China Along the Edge of Tibet, Scott Ezell, Speaking Tiger Books.