Li Xu is a professor at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, and one of six men who began an epic journey across Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet along the fabled Tea Horse Road in the summer of 1990.
Li’s book The Tea Horse Road: A Study of Himalayan Mountain Culture Along Ethnic Corridors is a story as much about these six men (and their dog) as they trekked across daunting landscapes as it is a historical narrative about trade networks, people and commodities, the perils of travel, the unforgiving elements of weather, the formidable terrains, the pack animals, the men going out and the women back home, the muleteers and porters that perished, buried on the side of unmarked roads or trails beneath rocks, stones and weeds.
The lives of the muleteers and porters are stories of untold hardships, deprivations, endurance and survival. In Chapter Five (pp. 99-126), we read of the comfort and strength of opium (chewed and smoked) for porters as recounted in Peter Goullart’s Princes of the Black Bone: Life on the Tibetan Borderland (1959) to get them through the days, the weeks or perhaps months of backbreaking journeys. Opium may well have been the reward at the end of a hard day, but the image I have of these porters (there were women porters as well who also took to the road with their husbands) are men drugged, men fatigued, exhausted to the point where they collapsed or slipped on loose stones across a narrow mountain path and plunged into a valley or river gorge.
Horse, mule, yak, sheep and humans hauled goods along paths, trails, river crossings, covering terrains ranging from tropical forests to the Tibetan highlands. One of the major routes started in what is today Xishuangbanna and Pu’er in southwest Yunnan province passing through Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (present-day Shangri-la), Deqin, Mangkang, Zogong, Bangda, Changdu, Luolongzong, Gongbujiangda, and Lhasa. And from the Tibetan capital, south through Gyantse, Pali, and Yadong, then into Burma, Nepal and India.
The other started at Ya’an in Sichuan province and from there crossed through Luding, Kangding, Batang, Changdu and Lhasa, and then to Nepal and India. And then there were vast branches of roads, paths and trails that connected these two major routes. The Tea Horse Road might suggest that tea was the only or main commodity, but on these vast trade networks all manner of goods intersected and flowed including pelts, medicines, incense, jade, sugar, salt, rice, oil, corn and potatoes.
The first stage of a journey transporting goods might have used pack animals and then porters, then pack animals. And different animals were used depending on the topography. Yaks thrive at elevations of up to 6,000 metres, are wired to withstand freezing cold temperatures dipping as low as 40 degrees Celsius below zero and adapt to altitudes with low or minimum oxygen. While low oxygen content, solar radiation and freezing cold temperatures are not barriers to these ‘ships of the plateau,’ I have trouble getting my head around how the yak drivers survived.
I was informed of how even this creature [the yak] suffered la du–altitude sickness–above sixty-three hundred meters, and how the more independently inclined beasts left their herd and simply disappeared into the mountains, to live out their grazing days. Known as drong or brong, the wild yaks are not threatened by anything in the wild, and meeting one alone might be considered both auspicious and a death knell, as these huge creatures would stomp or gore you in a flash if perturbed.
–Jeff Fuchs, ‘Litang to Yong Zhr: Dorje,’ The Ancient Tea Horse Road
Yaks and pack animals aside, the muleteers avoided certain words in everyday language considered inauspicious or inappropriate because they mentioned realities that could seriously undermine the journey. Many were fear-related taboos. Muleteers avoided using the word for ‘chopsticks’ (筷子) because it sounded like a word they used for ‘tiger’ in their own jargon which literally translates as ‘big fast’ (大快). Dreading unforeseen delays due to weather, illness or being attacked or robbed by bandits, the muleteers avoided the word ‘eating bowl’ because it was a homonym for ‘late’ and instead called it a ‘lotus.’ The word for ‘ghost’ became ‘black shadow,’ ‘wolf’ became ‘mountain soldier,’ and ‘tiger,’ ‘high eagle.’
Some of these euphemisms may have circulated among all muleteers and porters across vast geographic distances with all their diverse linguistic regional differences, but others may have been confined to a particular cultural group such as the Yi or Naxi.
Bandits were naturally feared, but some had notorious reputations. Brigands from Tongwa (Dongwang), located in the eastern part of what is today Shangri-la County along the Dongwang River, were particularly dreaded. These bandits are described in Peter Goullart’s Forgotten Kingdom (1957) as ‘so avaricious and unprincipled that even the bonds of friendship mean nothing to them, and there have been cases when a man has killed a bosom friend for the sake of a couple of rupees in his belt.’ Caravans from Tibet bound for Lijiang were periodically robbed by the Tongwa bandits who often joined forces with brigands from Xiangchen. Goullart writes:
When the caravan has been plundered and witnesses eliminated or scattered, the goods, arms and animals are taken to the robbers’ lair. There the merchandise is carefully repacked and reloaded and, lo and behold, the robber chief, resplendently dressed, enters Likiang as a peaceful and affluent merchant, at the head of a sizable caravan. No questions are asked and no explanations are vouchsafed. Of course rumours do travel, and travel fast; but rumours are rumours and proofs are proofs. The bogus merchant knows that the people know and the people know that he knows what they know, but everything proceeds according to form. The merchant sells his goods, gives generous parties right and left and acquires merit by rich donations to the local lamaseries.
–‘The Tibetans’ (Chapter 8)
The Tea Horse Road could very much be an epic novel, a world rich in history, rich in humanity, stories set against landscapes beautiful and bleak, heroic deeds of endurance and resourcefulness. But it is the small heroics of these men and women getting through the day that draws me, the things they lost and what was never lost–humour and faith and a dogged belief that tomorrow would be a better day.
Goullart, Peter (1957). Forgotten Kingdom, John Murray Publishers Ltd.
Li Shihong et al, (1981). ‘The preliminary observation on yak’s heat resistance,’ Journal of China Yak, (2), pp. 1-4.
Li Xu (2012). Chama Gudao: Hengduan Shanmai, Ximalaya Wenhua Dai Minzu Zoulang Yanjiu (Tea Horse Road: A Study of Himalayan Mountain Culture Along Ethnic Corridors), Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe.
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