ROUTE OF Salt
“If one had salt or tea, one was rich, one could live”.
-Wangdu, Tibetan trader
Constant seeking and traipsing in search of more of the striating strands of the Tea Horse Road in northwestern Yunnan and western Sichuan inevitably led to several traders mentioning another route - one that seemed to be related but disconnected because of its remoteness. A separate routing with an emphasis on another commodity, this one white and savoury. It is how many a journey has begun and many more will begin: conversations over tea, in tents, with shepherds, or beside a fire somewhere where a memory is sparked and story of a route, a character, or a mountain, is rekindled.
This latest ‘referred’ route, the Tsa-lam, dealt with salt from high altitude lakes in Amdo (Qinghai Province) but was – even by fire-side chat standards – vague in its exact routing. Oral narratives can be as ambiguous as they are colorful but there are always tidbits that resound and remain consistent. A nomadic trader, who’s face was itself a map after a lifetime of living intimately with Mother Nature’s moods, was adamant that this route of salt had its origins in southern Amdo in a space he described as being, “in the way of the winds”.
Descriptions involving numbers, like altitudes and distances often were described this way. Context and information in such places were gathered and offered up with tributes, landmarks, weather conditions, and even details about the angle of snowfall or the colour of stone at a certain time of day. Such descriptions gave far more of a context and impression than a simple set of numerals of altitude or GPS readings. It was in such a way that our suggested route was introduced to us with this wonderful textured language...but absolutely no maps.
Tea, salt, resin, wool, religious artifacts and leather all moved along pathways that at times, were nothing but hints of lines, or scuffed pieces of stone along the mountain corridors. Salt was the dusky “white gold” of the mountains and though there were many sources, the one that was mentioned as the most coveted and remote, was from ‘Tsa’ka’ (place of salt'), and it was accessed by the Tsa-lam (Salt Road) in south east Qinghai. It was alternately known as the “Nomadic Salt Road” as it was a route frequented by nomads in their perpetual scouring of the highlands for vital resources and commodities. Throughout the Himalayas there remain vestiges and memories of trade routes that saw salt and other commodities travel their coiling lengths, but this particular route remained dedicated to salt, its export, and its trade. Apparently too, local nomads and salt traders kept the exact location a secret, as it was a kind of secret stash for them and them only. The barter system was very much the system of trade upon this route of white gold. Further north in Golmud, there are still wide swaths of salt excavation, but this intimate route and source – for a time at least – remained relatively unknown, though the quality of its salt was well known. Salt from these remote areas would find its way back to communities as well as be hauled by yak to market centres that were always parched for the mineral. As one old nomad remarked "If one had salt or tea, one was rich, one could live".
A remarkable month-long journey would ensue as I was joined by patient friend and fellow mountain junkie, Michael Kleinwort. It was a month marked by good portions of our time being entirely lost through the feisty borderlands of Sichuan and Qinghai and on to the nomadic gathering point of nomads, Darlag . Along the footpaths amid wolf scat we traipsed; we would sit for three hours in a remote police station answering polite questions to police officers who asked again and again, "why we were in this space away from everything"? We were released eventually and wished well. We would have a further police presence inspect every single photo frame taken. Evidently satisfied, we were once again released, this time with a meal and tea provided. We were in the realms above 4000 metres, where everything encountered seemed somehow more intense and more away…and in recent years, a little more sensitive. We eventually found ourselves within the magnificent presence of nomadic guide and powerful woman of few words, Gamzon, who was as epic as she was silent. She, her two yak, her horse, and an indestructible canine with some terrier blood we called 'Fritz', accompanied us through a section of that circumambulated the sacred Amne Machin range. We would find two vast ghost lakes of salt - the actual salt had withered away and the lakes themselves had basically died.
These sources were a series of high altitude lakes, amidst swaths of copper mountains and close to the fierce nomadic Golog clans. One couldn’t get a more satisfying setting and source for a timeless currency. The high altitude salt lakes near the twin masses of Nyaring and Gyoring lakes in Qinghai Province sat in a flat valley surrounded by nothing but sky and warm colored stone.
One of the great inextricable realities of the Himalayan world was that trade and the spiritual world were – and still are to a degree – linked. Whether it was the more current Buddhist realms or the ancient world’s animist adherences to nature worship, traders paid homage to the sacred, the divine, and the perceived worlds of deities and fates. This was etched into Michael and I as we circumambulated the sacred Amne Machin, which was a portion of the greater salt route. The Natural world had long dictated life, trade, and journeys upon the Tibetan Plateau. Traders, having made long journeys to the salt flats would take time to also pay tribute to the deities and sacred mountains that held sway.
By the end of the month long journey we had taken in close to 800 km’s. The traders, travellers, and seekers who came for 'tea'/salt have faded because the mineral had faded. The tradition of taking the brine water and spreading it in small shallow pools, to let the sun and wind do the rest, had ended and when it had ended there was only memories of a few to recall the great lakes of salt, the 'tsa tso'.