Last winter, Roberts joined Outpost Magazine’s Kawa Karpo Expedition, which set out to retrace an undocumented section of the Ancient Tea Horse Road: from the fabled Himalayan town of Shangri-La to the sacred Shola Pass on the mighty Kawa Karpo Mountain. In this exclusive excerpt, Roberts recounts some of the region’s notorious history, and writes about the unique bonds he formed while trekking among the valleys and plateaus of the great Himalayas.
We make our way to the village of Trinyi just outside Shangri-La proper. There we meet the 55-year-old man who becomes our expedition saint — Daba Ngaba. We are into our second true travel day, and our official mountain guide, DK, is to meet us a few days hence, while Daba, who last did this trek with his father when he was 17 years old, is to deliver us to our alpine rendezvous.
Our expedition follows the near-forgotten middle of two main lengths of the ancient Tea Horse Road. Several times along route we tramp on vestigial cobblestones for a few metres here and there, and wonder quietly at the determination of those who built this passageway. Some 1,300 years ago, news, wares and people travelled these high paths (reaching a peak of traffic about 900 AD), streaming goods and services from Cathay (what northern China was once called) into Tibet, in no small measure to placate Tibetan feudal warlords.
The landscape is variously rough terrain, almost scree-like, with hours of snow-trudging and steep zigzag pathways, interspersed here and there by remnant cobblestones etched by hundreds of years of back-breaking porter travel. This western frontier was menacingly insecure for the Han Chinese, and muscular Tibet was the perfect buffer between India and China, while China proper addressed the Manchu and Mongols to the north. The Manchus, originating in Manchuria, eventually conquered China and set up the Qing dynasty around 1644. It lasted until 1912. They and their nomadic Mongol genetic cousins, so to speak, were a constant northern threat to the Han majority for centuries. Indeed, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land dominion in the history of humanity, ushering in the Yuan Dynasty, and helping to take the then-independent Yunnan Province into the Chinese fold. The Mongols also conquered Tibet, bringing much of these nomadic lands into their own.
Our first obstacle within our initial 100 kilometres is the Mozo-la Pass, where we skirt a north face and encounter waist deep snow. Daba, dressed in a red tweed dinner jacket of which George Leigh Mallory would have been proud, and boots gifted by Jeff, leads us up and over with proud tenacity.
Over the course of our trek there’s plenty of evidence of wood and timber smuggling, including illegal logging chutes rocketing timbers with very large diameters our way at fantastic speed. Along the way I manage to do a few Sidney Crosbys that introduce my forehead to a tree or two with concussive enthusiasm.
Before noon on our third day, our second trek motto is born: Just two more hours to go!
Once safely across the Yangtze River we learn that tonight is not a tent night, as our hosts — relatives of Daba in this, his home village — will kindly make accommodation in their home. What strikes me first about our room is the 40-kilogram gutted wild boar hanging from the entrance (alongside a skinned badger). What follows is a typical rollicking night of eating, drinking, smoking and ribald jesting; followed by a veritable Tibetan zoo of animal visits round our sleeping bags throughout the night. Rats, a cat, an untethered donkey, two ducks, a cow, chickens and — according to Roberto — a phalanx of fleas.
Tonight’s conversation pivots on the paradox of finding both snow and cacti in this hamlet. We’re told that though the villagers are poor, they will never move because their homes perfectly face the east “to best greet the morning sun.” So we pick away at our Tibetan chicken, known otherwise as pheasant, apparently killed with a sling shot. And we’re frequently warned to go “kaleh,” or slowly, in our quest along the “gyalam,” the Tibetan word for wide road.
Evening conversation with East Tibetans is often a cautious thing. These are not the zoned-out-happy-flower-children of Hollywood Tibet; the ones I meet on our trek are fun, beautiful, wise — but also tough, quarrelsome and bred fighters. For the men it is especially difficult, being torn between the modern reality and traditional ways — caught in the conundrum of cultural and genetic pride, yet largely helpless. By “helpless” I mean powerless to detour the colossal march of China to industrialize and render into folklore their largely pastoral existence. So little wonder that alcohol and violence permeate the fabric of East Tibetan life.
As reminiscences of days of yore continue, it transpires that one of the things the men here miss most are the exotic trinkets that made their women happy. Then we sip pura, the Tibetan barley whiskey, and I gotta say, I think I drank one or two.
After a few such evenings, it’s apparent I’ve acquired a duet of (repeatable) trail names. My favourite is “the guy who looks like Jesus.” But the one that sticks most is simply “Susu,” or “Uncle” in English. Daba is now “Pops,” and looks after us with an approving paternalism, though I’m not quite sure how he compares us and our relatively light packs with his forebear porters who lugged 150-pound burdens in bare feet.
Garbage and litter are ubiquitous at every Tibetan habitation, big town or small village. There are often no outhouses let alone western toilets (walls and streams seem to be favoured), but that makes sense with the routine collection of night-soil (human feces mixed with soil and ash) used around here to fertilize the fields. While there are resources for solar power for heating water, evidence of the school system seems scant.
However, if one could thrive on the mere inhalation of the physical beauty of the Hengduan Mountains (of which Kawa Karpo is the major peak, and the highest summit in Yunnan Province), our Tibetan friends would be driving Bentleys. The topography is stunning in every direction; and I can’t recall ever seeing such a steep gradient juxtaposition between the almost-scrub arid lowlands and the permanent snow-capped peaks. Everything seems to rise straight up, defying the mortal mountaineer.
We trek desert-like canyons one day, and alpine meadows the next. Prayer flags abound.
Trekking Kawa Karpo at near 10,000 feet (3,048 metres) produces tired legs, and a few daily moments of sucking wind. But there’s no need for Diamox (altitude medication) or anything similarly exotic. The stuff in our guts within our little mob range from loose stools to stressed bricks.
Yet the serene majesty of the mountains through snow, rain or shine impresses by the minute on days five through seven. Again, the surreal bits of our trek jump out and bite the posterior. Private Tibetan homes in traditional architecture blast Chinese punk music with plugged-in USB origins. Yet, in the next twitch, a Tibetan stranger imparts quiet truths — as in: “If there is no fire in the house, there is no home.” Or, “If there is no wind in the mountains, it is the end of the world!”
Photo 2: Overlooking village life along the Ancient Tea Horse Road
Photo 3: Caravans of traders and muleteers ferried much sought after tea across the hills and valleys of the great Himalayas
Photo 4: The two wise men of the Kawa Karpo Expedition, Daba and Bill, who formed a unique and enduring bond
Photo 5: Bill tackling the trek, showing how it’s done!
Bill Roberts is CEO of ZoomerMedia Limited Television Division.
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