Songjè the horseman is late. It isn’t unusual for this part of the world, but still the same, it is something that burrows its way into me. For moments it seems as though his absence will delay the entire expedition. For all of the years I’ve lived and travelled and wandered in this eastern extension of the Himalayas, I’ve never fully gotten used to lateness and yet time is something very elastic here. Songjè though is our ‘elder statesman’ on this journey and he has been carefully picked because I trust (through experience) in his abilities both as a horseman, and as a calming force of energy for our team. Without a horseman – and a good one – expeditions of any length can change from being an ‘exploration’ to simple grunt work. We need enough kit and gear to keep us relatively autonomous. Food, essentials, extra-warmth, mountain kit, tents and even a few little essential treats like honey and chocolate will be packed making our unit in need only of fire and water. For this we need a horseman. And so our team waits under a brilliant morning sun, irked and slightly stressed for this star of intrepid travel to arrive.
When he does arrive, he is (as always) immaculate, smiling, and ready
Early November mornings in Shangri-La have the habit of holding the kind of cold that requires continuous movement to keep the blood circulating, and our team stretches, and shakes itself as it keeps its eyes peeled for the very crucial figure of Songjè and his vital horse. Around us, huge red 140 liter packs lie on the cold frozen earth waiting for a to be loaded. Every once in a while one of the team glances at me as if to question whether I’ve really picked the right guy for the job. I carefully avoid acknowledging their glances and hope.
We are tucked into a wedge of a village between Napa Lake and the Shika Mountain Range and the morning sounds of village life stir around us. The ‘we’ is the very vital team for the upcoming journey. Four of us (not including the charismatic and competent Songjè who is missing) will walk for the next 10 days northwards to the sacred Sho’la Pass near the Tibetan borderlands. At present each member has his own little morning habit that they are performing with no risk of shame. The sky hangs in layers of early morning blue and not even a hint of breath moves around us. Amidst the little ensemble of east-facing Tibetan homes around us that catch the sun, we are perhaps the first foolish enough to exit the warmth of walls on this morning.
An elderly local watches with great interest as our team prepares near his village. He said to us that “it’s been many many years since anyone used this trail”.
The team itself is a mix of power, ingenuity, and knowledge. Assembling teams is often one of the most difficult aspects of an expedition as one needs a kind of breadth of skill sets, and the personalities need to blend. Tenzin, a lean sharp man who misses nothing is sipping a hideously sweet coffee out of a thermos and doing a little shuffle to get the legs warmed up. Tenzin is someone whose energy flow is entirely on, or completely shut off and his specialty is finding camps and burrowing through unchartered terrain. Fortunately at the present, his energy seems to be entirely ‘on’.
Right now his dark eyes spark with life (both from the impatience of wanting to go and from the onslaught of caffeine in his system). Beside him is the implacable and handsome Yanpi, whose wide features and sense of calm sanity act as a kind of natural balance to Tenzin’s restless nature. Yanpi is another ‘absolute’ as he is the cook and a calm decision maker who isn’t swayed by moods; in fact his mood in all of the years I’ve known him has seemingly remained completely steady. Steady and calm are always good counterbalances to the other forces that are necessary upon journeys. Yanpi’s hair is swept back off of his forehead and he dons a very fashionable pair of sunglasses while he stares off at the little path that we will take shortly.
The elegant one of our troupe
There is something of an elegance to him that keeps our team civilized, and I’ve often noted that women of every age and nationality seem to swoon ever so slightly around him.
Off to the side, hidden under a puffy down jacket and his trademark black wool cap perched on his head, is the livewire machine Ngawa. Unlimited amounts of energy and a natural ability in the outdoors, his skill set is more suited to a kind of caretaker-honor guard of our team.
Yanpi (left) and Ngawa enjoy a moment
Able to create camps, find fuel (and I can well imagine fight off any threat we might have), Ngawa is what I like to refer to as the ‘muscle’ of the group. He is from a town that we will pass through and is well versed in the trails that we intend to follow. Ngawa is also – as a point of interest – one of twelve children from a very poor family, so his toughness comes entirely naturally.
Doing what he does best…preparing the kit upon the horse using age-old knot systems which have never (in my experiences at least) come loose during an expedition.
As for myself, I squat in the early morning sun, trying to thaw out with my own morning ‘need’, a thermos of potently strong Bang Ma Puerh tea, which is slowly coursing through every fiber of my being. I have a half cake of it tucked away in my pack, and it is one item that I never leave home without. As I look over the team, I have that pleasant feeling that the members have the right chord of balance. There is too, that wonderful little feeling of excitement that always comes, that I’m about to depart into the mountains and their great histories and shapes with everything that is needed. Mountains are one of those elixirs of life that is a constant in my life, just as the tea is.
What lies in wait: the understated but stunning lines of Shika
Off to the distant left there is the sound of “clop, clop, clop” and there, like some sort of screen-idol mirage, with a Stetson hat topping off the image, is Songjè astride his horse. Irrepressible in his earnestness, as he approaches his smile disarms us, pushing his lateness into obscurity. He has arrived and that is all that matters.
Songjè himself is another hand-picked choice. Marvelously competent with securing loads of gear upon his horse, he is at 60, still strong and vibrant and his words, “Being on the road is much preferable to sitting at home watching time go by” had long etched him into my pysche. Handsome, with massive hands, he treats his horse with a kind of gentle reverence and speaks to it almost continuously in a soft voice.
There is a very perceptible easing of tensions when he arrives wrapped in a rather flamboyant yellow scarf. He wastes no time is introducing himself to the team and then immediately he sets off tying up our loads onto his horse.
Winter has coloured the grasslands in soft browns and yellows
Our route, our planned route that is, is as hidden and special as the ultimate destination. Our journey will be a bit of time travel as we will follow an obscure and long overgrown portion of the Tea Horse Road northwest, through remote villages and along decayed lengths of stone that once ushered the great tea caravans out of Yunnan and onto the Tibetan Plateau. We will chart a route way west and north from here in Gyal’thang (now simply Shangri-La) along the ridgelines that course high above the Yangtze River.
Tenzin and Yanpi look over the proposed route…on a handmade map of sorts
With us, we have the local version of “must haves”: butter for the inevitable amounts of butter tea, hard-boiled eggs, tsampa (ground barley), ‘guun’ (the resin heavy pine that aids in starting up fires), loads of tea, and some treats for our horse. Songjè has brought along dried corn kernels, a special kind of grass in a bag, and even extra dried barley stalks all to ensure that his horse does in fact have a five course meal for his travels.
The journey begins with Songjè leading
Our journey will (bones and fates willing) culminate in one of the grand and sacred passes of the legendary Tea Horse Road, the beautiful 4,815 meter bulk of the Sho’la Pass. Our ultimate goal is to summit the remarkable and deadly Pass, which marked the unofficial gateway into Tibet. Sho’La also can claim to be the first – and some say most vital – of the great passes on the way to Lhasa and other market towns further west. On each journey I’ve taken along portions of the Tea Horse Road there are always the inevitable gems of information and insight that come to light about the history or some facet of the route.
Tenzin (right), and Ngawa take their first steps of the journey
One has to get out there to access it though, as so often the tidbits come from an elder whose town is tucked into a dark valley, or simply that old ‘someone who knows someone’ reference.
And so it begins
All of our team, except Songjè, has been over the pass multiple times, but the time of year that we are proposing to access it has caused some concerns. The grand pass hosts some of the most formidable winds in all of the eastern Himalayas and the temperatures now in late November will be daunting and vicious. Still, we have decided and planned for this departure and all are willing and anxious to actually begin. As my Hungarian grandmother once noted, “It is only once the blood starts to flow, that something really does begin to happen”. It is this moment of departure, of embarkation, that really marks a journey as real.
Our solitary horse member takes a well-deserved sip of water through the ice
We will move along a portion of long forgotten paths and strands that are but lines along mountains, waterways and through small villages that hopefully still hold some recall of one of the globe’s great unsung trade ways.
Our first steps as a team, take in and begin to ascend up a tiny dirt path, taking us out of Napa Lake valley. Our departure – as is so oftent he case – seems to act as a panacea for our collective conscience and the only thing that really interrupts the clear and quiet morning air is our horse’s incredibly intense case of flatulence.