In July 1943, a large tea caravan of two hundred animals is bound for Lhasa. The men in the caravan include a canned food factory merchant and his twenty-one year old nephew Mudu.
The horses are saddled and the pack animals–mules and horses–are loaded in Lijiang, northwest Yunnan. The caravan continues northwest to Yezhi in the Lisu Weixi Autonomous County (see map), passing the Golden Sands (Jinsha) River en route to Shangri-la and Deqen.
This caravan route borders the upper watersheds of the Mekong and Salween Rivers. Mules, horses, men and cargo traverse the Mekong on single rope bridges which takes the whole day. Where animals cannot be hauled on the ropes, they wade across.
From the Mekong, the caravan travels north crossing the Kawagarbo Mountain through the Dulong Gorge and finally to Chayu County in southeast Tibet. At some of the camp sites, there are palpable signs that other caravans have passed through: stones arranged in circles for fires and dried dung for cooking fuel. As night descends, men huddle close to fires to eat pancakes called baba with shredded pieces of dried meat, flakes of dried cheese and roasted barley flour mixed with hot yak butter tea.
Votive offerings are made along the journey. When the caravan arrives at Chayu, tea gifts are presented to local officials. The tea caravan is still over 960 kilometers from Lhasa, and the muleteers must navigate some of the world’s highest mountain passes, the unforgiving weather, and marauding bandits. Like other trading routes, Lijiang to Lhasa is a vast array of cultural, religious and commercial threads tied together by an intricate network of caravan tracks, roads, rivers, and mountains. And around and along these paths and roads, flow stories of people Mudu meets: pilgrims, traders, nomadic tribesmen, Tibetan monks, missionaries, vagabonds.
The caravan arrives in Lhasa, a holy mecca for pilgrims and home to a culturally diverse community of traders. Since at least the seventeenth century, all kinds of commodities have flowed out from the city–musk, medicinal plants, furs, and yak tails ‘not only for use as fly swatters and staffs, but also as ritual fans in Hindu temples, and as Santa Claus beards in Europe,’ and a steady stream of imported goods including tea, sugar, chillies, saffron from Kashmir and turquoise from Persia.
In the 1940s, the wealthier residents of Lhasa could purchase all kinds of luxury items including Australian butter and Scotch whisky. ‘There is nothing one cannot buy, or at least order,’ writes Austrian mountaineer and author Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Lhasa in the mid to late 1940s:
One even finds the Elizabeth Arden specialties . . . American overshoes. . . sewing-machines, radio sets and gramophones and . . . Bing Crosby’s latest records. . . we found an enormous store full of European felt-hats which are the dernier cri in Lhasa.
Mudu meets traders and their families from Lijiang who have settled in the city for good. But Mudu does not anchor himself in ‘place of the gods.’ He joins a caravan bound for India. They start west across the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley which lies north of the Central Himalayan Crest and finally arrive in Kalimpong, a hill station in West Bengal. From Kalimpong, they continue to Calcutta.
Mudu works in Calcutta for the next three years alongside his uncle. The city inhales a kaleidoscope of traders, long term sojourners and peripatetic merchants. Mudu absorbs the frenetic chaos, the hard work, the intense commercial activity. He meets a community of tanners originally from Mei County in northeastern Guangdong and learns of the first Chinese settlers who came to India in the late eighteenth century. These early Chinese settlers began working in sugar plantations, but they soon branched out in other areas–carpentry, shoemaking, dentistry, laundries and piggeries. Mudu eventually takes up leather–the tanning, the manufacture, the trade– learning the trade from the Chinese tanners.
In April 1946 Mudu returns to Kunming on a cargo aircraft via a stop over in Burma. He remembers that it was bumpy ride, passengers strapped to their seats, the aircraft shaking, the headaches, the nausea, the vomiting.
What else is remembered on the flight and all the other patchwork of stories in Mudu’s world from Lijiang to India are not embellished here, but the rich mosaic of tales could be deftly woven into a novel. Mudu might agree that out of his three year journey, a writer could fashion a novel on an epic scale, but also echo a sentiment expressed by Osama al-Harat’s paternal grandfather in Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Hakawati: ‘No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling.’
Fu, Ba, Chamagudao “chayuxian” de jiyi–fang Yindu guiqiao Mudu xiansheng (‘Recollections of the Tea Horse Road at Chayu: With Mr. Mudu, a Returned Overseas Chinese from India’), in Lijiang yu Chamagudao (Lijiang and the Tea Horse Road), Kunming: Yunnan Daxue Chubanshe, 2004: 25-29
Tregear, T.R., Geography of China, University of London, 1965: 265
Yeh, T Emily, ‘Living Together in Lhasa: Ethnic Relations, Coercive Amity, and Subaltern Cosmopolitanism’
Accessed at: http://spot.colorado.edu/~yehe/Mayaram_ch_3.pdf