The Great Himalayan Routes & Eternal Roads
-There are no straight lines through the mountains-
ASAG Journal Guest Writer
April 15, 2020
“If a cup of tea isn’t offered, a relationship isn’t offered”. A Himalayan mantra defining not only the vital nature of an eternal leafy commodity from leagues away, but a hint too of what defined the Himalayan world for a millennia."
Along the striating pathways, and informal highways through the sky, trade routes fused with migration and pilgrimage threads building and contributing to the Himalayan world. It is by horizontal lines rather than vertical ones that the Himalayas were built, connecting empires with some of the most remote communities on the planet.
The ancient world’s currencies: salt, resin, copper, silk, scriptures, Buddhist Thangkas, and that eternal stimulant fuel, tea, (or ‘ja’ in Tibetan) were strapped atop the backs of mule, yak, man, and even sheep, for journeys that could take months. Onto the Tibetan Plateau hauling anything of value, caravans pushed - and perished - over snow passes, along metre wide ledges that yawned over chasms, and on to the great trade centres of the Himalayas. Lhasa, Xigaze, Kathamandu, Leh, Pokhara, Gilgit…were all bustling hubs of markets and intermediaries. The story of the great Himalayan routes is one of the great underrated tales of how the ‘Land of Snows’ was built.
From the Middle Kingdom of China over 1300 years ago, the The Tea Horse Road, (‘Cha Ma Gu Dao’ or ‘Gya’lam’ in Tibetan ‘Wide Road’) spurred north and west to Tibet and beyond with a stimulant fuel who’s appeal has never died; the ‘Tsa’lam’ (Salt Roads in Tibetan) took white gold harvested from high salt lakes of the Plateau and brine wells outwards towards waiting markets; resin, the old world’s adhesive (and base material of incense) was carted up into the mountains from more temperate climates; and along the ‘Hor’lam’, the ‘velvet of the heights’ (pashmina) was carefully combed out of goats of the remote Changtang of Tibet and taken for processing in northern India, Pakistan, and beyond. Hundreds of striating pathways connected communities across the span of the Himalayas and beyond, linking dozens of cultures through an unending flow of news, commodities, and culture.
Relationships were paramount and honour codes and reputations dictated all on these routes, where the concept of official borders often bore no relation to the cultural and historical truths of the land. For those who traded and ushered the caravans for up to a half year through blizzards, landslides, and thief-ridden plains to access the market towns, risks and rewards were huge. The tales of the great Himalayan routes are largely underrated, and remain in the realm of oral narratives amongst local families and those few participants who remain.
These ‘highways through the sky’ and the participants were part of a confluence of huge living coils that funnelled news, DNA, commodities, and migrants into – and out of - some of the most isolated points on the globe. Dozens of cultures linked by commodities, shared landscapes, and a vague knowledge of eachother, remained, for centuries, in perpetual flow. Necessity and respect fueled a spirit of collaboration along such routes, atop the world, where mountains were Nature’s editors.
The Great Himalayan Routes and Eternal Roads
Our caravan moves through a blizzard and a monastery near the sacred Amye Machin mountain in southern Qinghai (Amdo) province following a portion of the Tsa’lam (Salt Road). Many of the salt traders would circumambulate the sacred mountain to pay homage to the mountain deities. Upon the trade routes the world of commerce and the that of the spiritual realm were inextricably linked and this was understood by all. Traders and pilgrims along such journeys held to the views that hardship and risk came with a cleansing of the spiritual palate…and often profit.
An ancient salt lake sits at over four thousand metres upon the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It was from such lakes that salt-laden water would be strewn across fingers of land (middle right of photo), and have the sun and wind evaporate the water, leaving only the coarse salt. Nomads would come with yak caravans, bringing articles to barter. When the salt lakes and brine wells began to evaporate the small communities which resided around the source moved on leaving these isolated pockets of blue and white.
Tenzin the guardian. Known throughout the Himalayas, Tenzin was in charge of a monastery’s caravans, in charge of protecting the precious commodities being transported. Monasteries stocked up on salt, tea, resin, copper, and scriptures. The longer the journeys to bring such luxuries into the mountains, the more value they accumulated. Many monasteries employed such ‘protectors’. What we thought would be a brief few minute interview with Tenzin ended up being a half day of tea drinking and reminiscing.
A portion of the Tea Horse Road in northwestern Yunnan province. The wisdom of the route was that each village, and nomadic community would inevitably have an small feeder route so that access to the goods or the greater route was available. The Tea Horse Road in Tibetan was known informally as the ‘Gya’lam’ or ‘Dre’lam’ (‘Wide Road’ or ‘Mule Road’ respectively). The Yunnan-Tibet route was the oldest and longest, while the Sichuan-Tibet route was shorter and newer, gaining prominence during the Song Dynasty (10th-11th Century).
A Tibetan matriarch within her tent near Nup Gong La (Western Gate Pass) along the Tea Horse Road. Such hostesses were referred to as ‘Nemo’ along the routes, offering grazing to traders’ yak and mule and meals. Favourite Nemo’s or ‘Netsang’ (host families) could gain great status by traders and muleteers because of their hospitality, and be treated to exotic gifts in exchange. Tea, turquoise, and silk, were prized gifts and could be in turn traded. When our own team arrived to her family’s tent, amongst her first words to us were “What have you brought to trade”.
Our team slowly ascends a portion of a trade route in Upper Mustang, Nepal. The dangers of the route are clear with only a small width of pathway, giving way to in many cases, hundreds of metre drops. It was in part because of the risks taken by traders to transport goods through such landscapes, that the transporters were so respected. This route, like so many, lies long abandoned with roadways and paths further down the valley having become the new transport corridors.
Feared, notorious, wizened and utterly tough, the muleteers who ushered caravans on their months’ long journeys, were known as ‘Lados’. A composite of two words in Tibetan, ‘La’ (hand), and ‘Do’(stone), these individuals were referred to with awe as those with “Hands of Stone”. Another of the famed muleteers (and yet another ‘Tenzin’), who was known along the route for his endurance and honesty, he allowed our team to sit with him provided “we sit and listen”. His tales were like so many others of the great adventures within the Himalayan corridors. Such traders used entirely different sets of reference points or distance markers. A journey of 40 km’s might be referred to as a journey of “two peaks, a lake, and a valley of green”. Tenzin also mentioned the respect one must have for the elements and Nature when one was walking all day for months on end.
Atop moraine, our caravan slows to look down into the valley along a portion of the Hor’lam in Ladakh, a route known in the past for the trade of Pashmina. Though anything of value that could be carted by animal was coveted, certain items were considered sacred. Tea, salt, resin, high mountain medicines, and wool were all at the top of the commodity and currency list. Even up until the late 20th Century, such items were used as an actual currency.
A nomad of Karnak sits amidst her clan’s pashmina goat herd as they return from grazing in the highlands of Ladakh.
Forests of ancient tea trees in southern Yunnan from which tea was traded to all points of the compass. Older trees, treated like family by many of the minority groups provide coveted teas, and even in the present tense such teas can be worth thousands of dollars per kg, in the Puerh market. The tea regions were called ‘ja’yul’ or ‘tea country’ by the Tibetans, though most never traveled to the sub-tropic areas of southern Yunnan. Tea would travel, often for months, packed into bamboo cylinders or banana leaves, and arrive months later to markets having undergone a kind of fermentation due to the temperature variations and duration of some of the journeys.
Nomads take a last tea break in wester Sichuan before moving their entire life to another more seasonal camp. For nomads, tea (any tea), is one of the base elements of their diet and is taken at multiple intervals each and every day. Stewed leaves will have a chunk of yak butter thrown in, along with salt, and barley powder to create their famed (and feared) butter tea. Electrolytes, calories, and stimulant fuel all in one, the ‘tea’ is often referred to as one of the “musts” in the Tibetan culture. During the days of trade, nomads too partook in the bartering of commodities. Needing salt for their livestock, tea for themselves, they would trade high altitude medicines, wool, and even butter for the goods.
A Bulang elder prepares tea using an ancient recipe. Fresh tea leaves will be boiled and immediately (without drying) be stuffed into a bamboo tree husk, sealed off using clay, and buried in the earth. The leaves will be retrieved for celebrations. The Bulang minority in southern Yunnan have long used tea in such a way, and as a medicine to cure inflammation, fever, or infection. Southern Yunnan province is thought to be one of the ‘origin of origins’ of all tea, and all of the ethnic groups have long histories with the leaf (called ‘la’ locally), and it is from the south of Yunnan that tea was ushered onto the Tibetan Plateau.
A kettle sits atop a clay stove within a nomad’s tent. An offering to all guests, water would be kept at the ready to prepare ‘ja’ (tea) at all times. Thus the saying “If a cup of tea isn’t offered, a relationship isn’t offered” carries relevance. Though served everywhere at anytime, tea’s value was (and remains) huge to those living so isolated for so much of the year.
Snow in July near Shar Gong La (Eastern Gate Pass), Tibet, along a particularly daunting section of the Tea Horse Road. Many strands of the route broke off to access communities, only to reconnect with the main trunk. Three main portions of the Tea Horse Road existed, with each eventually arriving in Lhasa. The middle portion, above, was the most desolate and direct, coursing through the Nyainqentanghla Mountains. Many caravans perished along this route being swept up by avalanches and landslides