CHA MA GU DAO
THE ANCIENT TEA HORSE ROAD
“If a cup of tea isn’t offered, a relationship isn’t offered”
In the autumn of 2003, I journeyed to the town with many names in northwestern Yunnan. To the Tibetans it had been known as Gyal’thang (Royal Grassland), and later it became Jiantong, then Zhongdian, and finally Shangri’la. It was the first journey to the place that would eventually be my base and home for a decade. A place of 3200 metres that saw tourists, nosebleeds and shrieking winds all share the space…and a place that joyously shut down in the winter into a cold dry grassland in the mountains. It was also a point along a strand of an ancient pilgrimage and trade route that had been humming for over a thousand years.
The charismatic force that was Dakpa Kelden was then introduced to me and it would be his words (intentional or not, I’ve never gotten the answer) which changed the course of the rest of my days. It was the mention of this route and its numerous strands, expansive length, and its touching of so many cultures that began what would be the focus of my attentions for years - and it remains so.
On a small ridgeline in fading mountain light, Dakpa pointed out a strand of a pathway that zig-zagged up a rockslide and was swallowed up by the horizon. The sun would disappear but the strand and its story burrowed into my mind. That little strand was the aperitif and introduction to the Tea Horse Road, and to the route that continues to occupy me almost two decades later. It was the first of many trade routes that would hold onto me but that initial introduction was the hook that embedded itself in my blood. Dakpa had, as a youth, come along that route from India after months of travel to settle back in his father’s ancestral home, Gyal'thang (Shangri'la). That route had ushered commodities, brigands, migrants, pilgrims, DNA, and cultures to all points of the compass, wandering across the expanse of the Himalayas, through the Nyenqentanglha range, over many of the great rivers of the world, hauling anything of value - but one commodity in particular that has never lost its appeal was the most vital: tea!!
Unknown to most and overshadowed by the Silk Road, which steamed further north and a lesser known 'Silk Road' further south which included Yunnan and the Gya’lam (‘Wide Road’ as it was known by Tibetans) predated the Silk Road and was a vastly more Himalayan-centric route. Daunting, susceptible to blizzards and landslides, a catalyst for disorientation, there were the added 'bonuses' of the infamous Tibetan bandits to deal with. The entire journey, rarely if ever done by one trader or mule, could take up to a half a year crossing some of the more hallucinatory spaces on the planet. On such journeys, commodities would change hands, traders, muleteers and mules. By the time such commodities such as tea arrived to their final destinations, four to six months could have passed. By various accounts (and largely oral narrative ones) extension and feeder routes reached as far west as Persia. Tea, both a stimulant tribute and panacea, would leave from southern Yunnan and western Sichuan and climb into the Himalayas and onto the Tibetan Plateau trading, collecting, providing and often being lost to the elements. In time the rough Tibetan ponies and other mixed equine breeds would be sent in an opposite to the burgeoning Han kingdoms of a very different China than the one now.
Two and a half years after that trip which tattooed the Tea Horse Road upon me; two and a half years of preparation, finding funding for the journey, and returning and researching the route's character and the route's character and finally a team of six of us stood in a field near Napa Lake and getting blessings from a Lama. And so, we reintroduced traffic onto the great trade route and began to tread north and west.
The caravans of mules, horses, yak, sheep, and humans only ebbed in the 1950's and so the journey that we made, which took 7.5 months became as much about documenting and tracking down a last generation of traders and participants and their memories, as it was about following what was left of the physical route. The ensuing book, 'The Ancient Tea Horse Road - Travels with Last of the Himalayan Muleteers' tried to pay homage to the great highway through the sky, and to those men and women who remember still when hoofs and tea fuelled journeys rather than diesel engines and aircraft. Later and based loosely upon the book, we filmed a documentary, 'The Tea Explorer' for CBC Docs.
As with most things in the 'life realm' so much of the efforts were supported and possible through marvellous cups of tea and a team who suffered, guided, clarified, and were in many ways the lifeblood of my own journeys. Interviews over tea, intending on an hour of discussion, became days' long events and pathways that were "just over there" became wisps of dirt that clung to cliff faces going on for weeks. Nothing would have moved at all without those who joined upon the route: Dakpa, Sonam, Norbu, Nomè, Yeshi, Tenzin, and the incomparable 'Peter O'Toole' of the mountains, Dorje Kandro. All these characters, and more; logistics and guesses were gathered and organized by Khampa Caravan - it is a bit of magic to have 'fixed' what they did, though it was an easier time then, when permits were accessible and when one could follow the actual historic prints of the route exactly.
With two main routings, the paths gave way to multiple striating feeder routes accessing even the most remote communities, with tea literally flowing into the valleys and high arid grasslands. Wherever one goes in the Himalayas, there is wind and there is tea and while many things have changed up there in the heights, this truth remains.
Tea, a stimulant fuel that assisted in breaking down the high fat, protein heavy diets became as indispensable to the clans as their yak. The route itself embodied that most clear philosophy and mantra of the Himalayas, “Cooperate or Perish”.
Dakpa and his pointed finger stimulated a promise that between us we would somehow travel the route following the route that tea took onto the Tibetan Plateau. It would happen, though the 7.5 months that it took to travel the route (most of it by foot) was almost twice than the time we planned for. A team was assembled; a team that would become iconic pieces in my life and memory.. Our routing took us through the regions of Yunnan, and through the zones of Tsa’kalo along the Tsa’Chu River. ‘Tsa’ can mean both hot and salt in Tibetan but in the later River’s case, it meant ‘hot’. We continued through Chamdo, Temba, and over the great snow passes of Shar and Nup Gong La (East and West Gate Passes respectively) onto Gonbo’gyamda and onto the spiritual and market capital of Lhasa. From there we headed south into India to West Bengal and Sikkim. Later I would follow another of its feeders down through the Kali Gandaki Gorge in Mustang down into Kathmandu’s buzz. The team Dakpa and I assembled remain vivid figures in my waking hours. Sonam, Dorje, Norbu, Nomè, Tenzin, and Yeshi found their rightful place in the book and Sonam became like an appendage for countless other ascents and journeys. He remains ‘Spiderman’ to me and I'm fortunate to still call him a friend.
The journeys along the Tea Horse Road’s length were not simply to highlight the route but also to introduced the ‘ancients’ and a last generation who had participated in journeying along its length. It was (and remains) their memories that give life and colour to that epic route through the sky. Over the years, I’ve been gifted dozens of sit downs, tea sessions, and all nighters throughout the Himalayas and sub-Himalayas, listening as the old memories are stirred once again into retrieving some little memento from the memory banks.
A decade of living in Shangri-la would provide me a launch pad for dozens of journeys and expeditions along portions of the greater Tea Horse Road and other remote routes and feeder paths of the greater path. It would also allow journeys into the deep lush sub-tropics where tea grows and give a sense of not only the physical dimensions of the route, but also of the ways in which the route affected culture and relationships of the region.
In the words of one old tea trader, Tenzin, “This road was the provider of everything to us who had nothing but the mountains around us. It was a window to see worlds that lie beyond our mountains”.