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The Great Himalayan Routes & Eternal Roads

—There are no straight lines through the mountains—


Jeff Fuchs

 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

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