The Himalayas were built by horizontal lines and routes rather than any vertical ones and, it is these ‘highways through the sky’ that have held me for two decades. Vast striating pathways coming together for brief moments only to expand and widen, then split and wander off over snow passes, through valleys, and villages and beyond. I’ve spent as much time entirely ‘lost’ upon them as I have knowing where I am. Each and every strand had a destination and a tale of its own. Villages, nomadic communities, market towns, temples and monasteries, caves, and lands beyond the mountains and thin air all awaited whatever would come. Anything of value would be carted up into the heights on the backs of men, yak, mule, horse, and even sheep and the barter system was well and truly alive well into the 1950’s. Still now, I’ve found that traveling with a brick or cake of tea as an offering can be invaluable as a gift or to facilitate long chats. These routes which buzzed for centuries encouraged sharing as much as anything; sharing of culture and acting at times, as a kind of informal news pipeline.
Brigands, thieves, pilgrims, traders, technologies, guru’s, commodities, DNA, migrants, and the desperate, all made their way along these pathways, leaving bits of themselves along the great lengths of the routes. Ideas, philosophies, design, tapestries, and linguistics too, all found their way either to be incorporated or discarded and forgotten about. A grand tapestry spread as far west as Persia in ancient times from deep within old empires of the Middle Kingdom, China. Southeast Asia was touched by this articulated woven network of paths by extension as well. While borders would come to matter greatly, the trade routes and wandering pathways seemed - in many cases - to defy the concept that man-nations ruled rather than Mother Nature and fluid flow.
The route that began it all for me was the Ancient Tea Horse Road (‘Cha Ma Gu Dao’ in Mandarin, and ‘Gya-lam’ or ‘Dre-lam’ or ‘wide road’, ‘mule road’ respectively, in Tibetan) and it was from this 1300 year old set of routes, that a wider sphere of journeys became known to me. Inevitably, it would be the elders speaking of another time and another path that stimulated my interest in continuing the journeys to follow such paths). Oral narratives and story-telling were (and still are in many cases) the only flow and source of information that were available about the routes.
Many of the blueprints for modern asphalt roadways within the Himalayas were built upon ancient trade routes. Landmarks were referred to rather than any numbers to mark distances, and a journey of two weeks or 400km’s might be referred to as a “journey of seven villages, four mountain passes, two river crossings and a glacier”.
There is so very much symmetry with the magnificent Andean pathways, with the epic Qhapac Ñan ( embodying so much of the spirit and epic pragmatism of that of Himalayas. One cannot speak of the mountain trade routes, without speaking of mountain culture, and mountain culture the world over brims and hints at some kind of kindred harmony.
The mountains and hallucinatory spaces draw and bend the knee with reverence, but there are the human narratives too, which inevitably have continued to draw me into the folds, again and again. The bonds needed for such an uninterrupted flow of relations and and commodities, and the idea that one needed to ‘cooperate or perish’ within highest of highlands could well be something for the modern world to reflect upon. Honour codes and reputations were the rise and/or fall of traders, muleteers, middlemen, and hustlers alike.
The commodities and currencies of choice depended upon the time, but the stalwarts of Himalayan trade that seemed of eternal value were tea, salt, resin, Himalayan herbal medicines, pashmina, silks, Buddhist artifacts, wooden tea bowls made from rhododendron, and fabric. Of the many brilliant and relevant often-repeated concepts that years of journeying have impacted upon me, two stand out. One, mentioned above is the mantra of “cooperate or perish”, which given the daunting terrain, makes simple sense but in a wider interpretation seems a life lesson for all time and space – all is inextricably connected. The secular world of trade, the realm of spirits and deities, and the fragile human world of will, doubt, and joy are all intertwined and in the mountains those connections are made clear and simple. The second concept is the notion that for the many living within the Himalayan sphere of life, regardless of altitude or isolation, the mountains aren’t necessarily viewed as frightening or threatening geographies; rather they are viewed as guardians and providers that require reverence, attention, and care.
The teams I’ve traveled with repeatedly on expeditions, the clients I’ve ushered and shared with, and the locals that I’ve been fortunate enough to chat and listen to with tea in hand, have again and again reinforced a kind of base-line of ideals: reverence, resilience, and curiosity.
To add to the trade routes, and the luscious weave of culture there is another aspect to the Himalayas that cannot be ignored and that is its role as the source of fresh water that feeds billions.
The ‘Himalayan Water Towers’ or ‘The Third Pole’ (as the ‘land of snows’ are sometimes referred to as) remain both geopolitically and ecologically significant beyond words with the source of so much of the world’s fresh water locked up within bodies of ice and deep earthen caverns and springs. I cannot help but feel that those mighty traders, muleteers, and migrants must have been in constant awe of their surroundings, and with that awe and proximity, surely huge wells of respect for the elements and land must too have been present, though as always within the human realm, there were plenty of examples of excess and greed as well.
These “eternal roads” as the trade routes were often called by traders remain - for me at least - great living tales of effort, collaboration, and relentless movement…inevitably fuelled by a bit of tea and some willing wanderlust. I have used the old Tibetan word "lam" in the titles of the trade route expeditions below. 'Lam' refers to a road, pathway, or route and is attached as a suffix, as many of the Himalayan routes had such titles. There are countless more trade routes through the Himalayas that have already been wiped clean by winds and time.