Passion Points: Active/Adventure
The Ancient Tea horse Road, a 4,000 km+ stretch of land that extends from southwestern China into Tibet, was, in centuries past, the highest and one of the most dangerous trade routes to exist (the main products traded were Tibetan horses and Chinese tea). Today there are safer and more efficient ways of traveling between China and Tibet (read: highways), but photojournalist and tea lover Jeff Fuchs (www.jefffuchs.com) was lured by the route’s history. In 2005, he set out on a mission: to be the first Westerner to cross the road in its entirety. Fuchs’ recently released book The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers (Viking-Penguin), documents his journey. Throughout the book, there are stunning photographs (taken by Fuchs), profiles of indigenous mountain people and tales of hunger, snow blindness and frostbite. Below, Fuchs eloquently answers some questions Indagare had on both the highlights and the logistics of such an adventure.
What were some of the most challenging or dangerous moments of your journey? Our team hit a blizzard while trying to cross a mountain pass—a blizzard that cut visibility down to a meter. We were wading through chest deep snow for hours not certain if we were heading in the right direction and not hearing anything but the shriek of the tempest. Our most junior member Norbu, lost his footing on the icy path and plunged down heading toward a valley of stone—and toward certain death. He somehow got enough traction to arrest his fall and survived relatively intact. The image of him rocketing down the slope, though, is etched permanently in my mind. I think true fear is fear for another, while knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do to aid.
Did you, yourself, ever feel endangered?
We got to a point where we felt that as long as we respected Mother Nature’s warnings, and our own limits, we would be fine. One incident when a local community thought we were trying to pilfer some valued herbs from their mountain harvesting region worried us slightly. Eventually though, we sat down for tea and there was no harm done.
So, you never felt the urge to give up?
Actually, as the trip wore on most of the team spoke of the desire to not stop, to continue on. One of the wonders of adversity, particularly of the outdoors variety, is that it encourages people to take part in more adversity.
Where did you stay along the way?
We constructed tent-like structures most of the time. Sometimes, though, we stayed with traditional nomadic families, (called ‘Netsang’) who, in addition to shelter, provided us with supplies, food and information on the route.
Did you meet any really interesting locals?
We met incredible people everyday. Our meeting, though, with Nema, an old muleteer (one of the last remaining) who lived in an isolated Himalayan valley, seemed to mark, not just me, but all of the team. Nema was 90 years old, had just lost his wife and was coughing up blood. Upon learning of our desire to speak with him, though, he insisted on seeing us. His body had been sculpted and wracked by his decades of punishing travel, and his dimly lit home, which had no electricity, cast a gloom all around us. When relaying stories of his own journeys and of the history of the Ancient Tea Horse Road though, his energy and enthusiasm was palpable. We were numb by the time we left him—both from what we had heard and from his ability to conjure up the details of his experiences. At the end of the ‘talk’, Nema, having shared his memories and far too much butter tea with us, was happily exhausted. He told us that reminiscing about his days on the trade route was one of his remaining joys.
In terms of scenery, is there one part of the road that really stands out in your memory?
We were once on a mountain peak around six thousand meters high. We were hip deep in pure white drifts, looking out over layers of snowcapped mountain ridges. Cloud formations were drifting right over our heads and the only sound was that of the ebbing winds. Amidst all this majesty, we remembered that mule caravans had to pass over these lands, laden with supplies for communities tucked into remote valleys. It was a very stirring part of our journey.
How did you prepare for the journey?
We depended on consultations with Himalayan elders—those who know both the geography and the history of the route. They gave insight no map or forecast could ever provide, including information on what they called the “personality” of the mountains. Of course for our team, a lot of experience in the mountains beforehand helped make the physical dimension of the trip less daunting.
What advice would you give others planning a trek along the Ancient Tea Horse Road?
Simple advice: wherever and whenever possible walk and hike. Be sure though to take in the route and the people. Don’t just whisk through an area in a Jeep—breathe in the air, the hardships and the personalities. This is precisely what an understanding of a region and, in turn, a memorable experience requires
What’s one of your favorite stories from the trip?
One unforeseen element of the journey was the unrelenting and undiminished importance of tea in the lives of the nomads and minorities along the route. Sitting in one old nomad’s tent for butter tea, we were told that regardless of the host’s particular Himalayan tribe—be it Han Chinese, Dai, Lisu, Lahu or Bai—if tea wasn’t offered, a relationship was not possible. In the old man’s words, “Tea has marked the earth throughout the Tea Horse Road. It is something exotic to us here, but its role is simple: it is friendship, a food and a bond. If it isn’t offered to someone that person isn’t welcome”.
The summer will be spent promoting the book. There are also plans in the works for a second journey along yet another one of the world’s fast disappearing trade routes. Also, a project on my green-leafed obsession—tea.
Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers is available on Amazon.
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