So it comes down to this...the last few days before heading back to the other cold land of Canada.
Wrapping everything up at 4000 + metres under glacial blue skies, with a few last interviews to make sure that I have information correct.
Snow is falling in the Himalayas and the nightime temperatures are numbing. There is an addiction to this place though...uncompromising natural elements and uncompromising people...how refreshing!!!!!
It is beautiful in a harsh and pure way. Clear and surrounded by those ever inspiring mountains this area at the border region of Sichuan and Tibet seems a quietly majestic place to 'end' this journey.
These interviews with the elders have been the true treat of this voyage. It might seem to some to be slightly boring sitting for hours while these "people of the mountains" tell their tales, but in many ways although the journey itself and the magnificent landscape has thrilled, it has been the words of these 'ancients' which has given blood, colour and life to the expedition.
Their words echo and bounce around in my mind without fail every day and now the responsibility is to give as true an account of their journeys as possible....of course with some of my own experiences intertwined. It is in fact time to relive this almost eight month journey by way of memory, written word and photographs.
Back in Canada the 10th.
-thanks to everyone who chose to journey along with me on this voyage and a hope that in some small way it has inspired ... it has for me beyond any words I can write.
This entry is more of about the adventure of 'city life'.
After leaving Lhasa, Yeshi and I made our way slowly south and west through the old trading towns of Gyantse and Shigatse through huge valleys and across rivers. This portion we did in an old 4x4 jeep going up and cresting down mountains.
We stopped in a tiny town near the Bhutanese, Nepal, Tibet border to interview a crusty old man who had witnessed the caravans coming into his town years before. We slurped the customary Tibetan butter tea which was stunningly potent due to the fact that because of poverty, the locals often use ''goat"s milk" instead of Yak butter...cheaper.
He told us that mule caravans stopped in the village while yak caravans stayed in the higher ground (4600 metres and higher), because of grazing and time. For hours he spoke of the importance of the animal's health, how entire caravans thrived or failed based on how well they were handled and cared for.
This segment of the route is somewhat different in that the main articles of trade carried were wool and tea. these articles made their way into northern India to the old trading towns of Gangtok and Kalimpong. High altitude deserts around the areas of Tingri and Nyalam...stunning emptiness. Mount Everest was poking its head through the clouds and whispering to me....mountains do this to me often.
Due to a 'sensitive' border area along the Sikkim - Tibet - Yadong area we were unable to cross here... we made our way overland to Kathmandu where we patiently!?!?! wait for our Indian visas to these areas (at the time of this writing we are still waiting).
Kathmandu is gently chaotic with none of the edge of huge Indian towns. Nepalese are a little more subdued. On the news front yesterday it was announced that the Maoists here have agreed to voluntarily hand in their arms and seek a 'peaceful' resolution....they want an increased number of seats in the House of Representatives in the Nepalese Parliament. Poeple here seem pleased but suspicious of all the forces involved which include government and the rebel forces.
Warm weather, smog, smells running rampant and a stunning aray of cultures. Tibetans, mountain tribes, Hindis, Sherpas have all blended. Beauty here is often breathtaking.
The ability to bargain well here is an art form. If you cannot, not only do you pay more than you should, your lack of skill is viewed
as a 'shortcoming'. Locals 'wag' their head in a wonderfully subtle way when they agree, BUT....they have a similar 'wag' when they are not satisfied, so careful attention must be paid to what kind of wag is being displayed. Total chaos can ensue if there is a 'misread' of what sign is which.
Yeshi is a master of dealing with this. Having grown up in Nepal, he speaks the language and understands the little signs and signals.
We have also been interviewing many old Tibetans (many escaped here during the Cultural Revolution) who have voyaged along the Tea Horse Road. Some incredible stories that will be in the book...mind numbing how casual they are about such determined and arduous journeys.
Last evening we had dinner with a high Lama in his little apartment. After a simple dinner prepared by his niece he spoke at length about his life, his travels along the route and the state of the world. Hard of hearing and refusing to wear a hearing aid our questions and conversations were sometimes hysterical. He often would not hear the question properly, thereby answering a question that he thought we asked but didn't... cute and a little sad. His eyes, however would sparkle when speaking of the past. He told us of how it was like 'unburdening his heart', being able to speak of all of these things kept inside for so long.
We have more interviews scheduled (I will never tire of these as they feed, inspire and humble everytime) and Yeshi and I will most likely head to Sikkim (look on your maps) for the last of our journey on the 13th or 14th of November. Hard to fathom that this journey is winding down...
I'm sure we will have a couple more entries before I am in Canada.
"Never doubt that passion and perserverence are keys to this life"....this was told to me by an 86 year old former muleteer and rings in my ears everyday of this trip.
Just a little blurb here.
We've finished the Sichuan to Tibetan borderlands Tea Horse Road section. A massive education in all things tea to add to our constantly growing knowledge bank pertaining to TEA.
Officially there are two main routes and sources of tea into Tibet in exchange for horses. One is the Yunnan - Tibet route and the other is called the southern Sichuan - Tibet route.
We slurped yet more tea in the warm misty mountains around Yaan in Sichuan making our way by jeep towards Tibet. On the way we encountered glorious white snow coming down in sheets, but melting away under a high and powerful sun.
We were educated in how Yaan tea differed from the Yunnan tea and how tea culture has created a cult like following of the various serving methods.
It always pleases me to get into the 'higher lands' where winds and the elements rule...the snow always makes me nostalgic but returning again and again to these regions gives joy in simple doses.
Once again we marvel at the route that the caravans took through rock, wind and floods.
I have to save the 'people shots' for the book.
Our last section begins in earnest in a week where we commence the final journey from Lhasa into Nepal and northern India, and we will wrap at the end of November, and then it is back to Canadian snow sometime at the beginning of December.
Make your time precious and live it!!! I am constantly reminded to do this by these old men who made this incredible journey. Their passion and vitality inspire hugely.
this might be the last entry for the remainder of the trip...and then its time for the book
hugs and peace to all
Back from our venture south into the heat, mist, and world that is occupied by tea. Tea growth, picking, harvesting, producing and transporting all rule here. Xishuanbanna the prefecture is home to 13 officially recognized minority groups and each has played some role in the tea empire.
The heat wiped us out. Dakpa and I were joined by Mr. Zhen a cameraman and expert in indigenous tea culture. He is from the Yi minority group and getting an indigenous perspective is vital as these tribes were in fact the first to harvest tea and they have very different perspectives on the tea trade and serving styles. His rampant energy and ferocious passion had us drinking, smelling, picking, eating tea everyday at all hours. A huge thank you to him.
Trekking to remote bridges and villages we were able to see first hand the old stone routes which still bear the scars of horse and mule hooves from centuries ago.
We visited mist shrouded hills where ancient forests of centuries old tea trees live. Bent over and thirty or forty feet tall, their tender leaves give off a sweet fragrance in the wet air. Tea from these trees is extremely expensive and rare. The Hani, Wa and Lahu tribes all occupy and grow tea in this region.
The south provided insight into the original starting points of the Tea Horse Road. Places like Menghai, Menglian, Yiwu, Nanoshan were all tea areas in which the leaves were collected and then transported to Simao and eventually Puer (the main market area from which the caravans began). Puer Tea's name comes from Puer town which was the central point of distribution to sellers, buyers and traders. The tea then made its way north.
I on my own visited towns like Nanjie and Weishan which were important resting grounds for the caravans.
On to Dali I travelled where the incomparable Neddy Luo entertained and talked into the wee hours about tea history, and the caravan routes. I trekked around the important areas and every free moment I had spent in his tea shop sucking back cups of old tea, green tea and getting explanations of the benefits, growth periods, fermentation processes etc. Tea is a world of happily addicted fans with an incredible history. I joyously count myself one of this bunch.
Apologies once again for only half of the photos getting through...it is the computer and not "planetranger".
Osman...of course I remember you and yes I will be bringing back tea for all to try. No to your question of being lonely or not...too much to see, do and drink here. Senses are getting filled with new and old information alike.
I have approximately two months left to go....the "Sichuan - Tibet Road" - which is the second primary Tea Horse Road into Tibet and India and then the final segment travelling from Lhasa into Nepal and India.
More photos in a couple of days.
Location: Dali, China
Slurping and gently making our way into southern Yunnan in amidst those green leaves that provide so much contentment - TEA.
A hotbed of minority culture, the gentle Bai people and and their history inhabit this area.
Small and delicate they are disciplined agricultural people with stunning ornaments hanging from their heads.
Finding out more about how the tea here (Xiaguan Puer) differs from that further south....takes longer to ferment because of the cooler temperatures so it has less 'strong' smell and flavours.
Last night a tea professor I had met earlier, tracked me down to my hotel room and burst in delighted he had found me...he is passion on legs about anything to do with tea and he is a veritable knowledge bank of information on anything tea related.
Dali is the Southeastern most edge of the Trans Himalayan plateau and it is with some reluctance that we leave our high mountain sanctuary which has taken such good care of us for the past months...good news is that in another month I will be nestled back in her arms.
So much conflicting information on where the actual Yunnan Tea Horse Road is. There are many old caravan routes, postal routes, immigrant corridors, but only ONE Tea Horse Route....some scholars have clarified where the exact route lies.
This project is dependant upon scholars, elders, legend, diligence and patience in no particular order, and up until now all has worked out.
From here we head deeper south to near the Laos/Yunnan border regions where the heart of the tea growing region exists. Traditionally Bai people grew and produced Puer tea for the purpose of transportation further north and into Tibet.
Later we head to Sichuan for the second major tributary of the Tea Horse Route, the aptly named "Sichuan Tibet Tea Horse Route". Here they transported Ya'an tea into Tibet although from what we've been told, Tibetans loved the Puer from Yunnan far more than the "shallow" flavoured Ya'an from (yes you guessed it) Ya'an.
The last and final segment will be a half jeep/half trek from Lhasa to Nepal and into northern India where we will meet with some of the oldest traders left in Kalimpong.
All is well and I suppose tea has taken over from the mountains as our guardian.
Congrats to Laura and Carsten's big W Day.
Resting my buns and the rest of my being...just back from time with mushroom pickers - way up in the mountains, where these earthy wonderful delicacies provide a livelyhood for many of the poor mountain villages.
These mushrooms were also essential for the villagers to trade for tea and other items that the traders brought from further west in India and Nepal along the Tea Horse Road.
The damp forests above 3500 metres provide a sanctuary for these delights, and the people who pick them are stories in themselves, spending days on steep wet slopes prodding through the earth with carved sticks. The mountains are dizzying even for me, but these pickers tread easily in shoes that cost a mere 20 Yuan ($3.00 Cdn). They carry a satchel, with some tea and "Abee" (Yak Cheese) and that's it.
There is a "mushroom mafia" that controls the prices of various mushrooms per kilo. Many locals complain that the prices have dipped consistantly over the last five years and that now it is very difficult to make a living by just picking mushrooms.
I stayed in a small village called Ja Bay in a hot little valley with a family of nine people. Three husbands to one wife (yes this still exists in Tibetan regions and in India), one grandmother with two husbands, along with two sisters. Everyday was a story in itself with the various personalities doing battle, loving eachother, and having the 'odd' drink of Arra (the local barley wine which I've written of before). The three husbands were brothers and it is not uncommon to find households with similar familial situaltions in certain regions. I know the girl who is the daughter of this 'four person marriage' and she says that she and her siblings all know who their 'fathers' are. The wife/mother has her favourite 'husband' and everyone seems fine with this arrangement.
The grandmother and her two husbands are the real treats of the household. All of them sit with a stiff drink every evening, sitting silent until the wine kicks in and then they become animated. The grandmother clearly has her favourite husband and she treats him with deference and the other she dominates and screams at at will. The husband who is dominant, is a short powerful man with a drinking problem. The drink hasn't slowed his 76 year old body down at all...up at 5am, into the mountains to collect juniper (sacred and burned every morning - called Duba) and back by 7:30 for a breakfast.
The grandmother herself is a real piece of work. About 6 ft she towers above her two men and her voice is deep and that of an Alpha female...not to be messed with.
The lesser of the three forces is a sad looking man whose eyes speak of his years of being dominated. His laugh though is a treat...and his is a heart of genuine gold...he looks at his wife with soft and gentle love.
A scenario that is played out every night is that of the dominant grandfather wanting to argue with and eventually dominate the grandmother, who mutters threats into her cup and then in turn takes out her frustration on the less forceful of her husbands who then in turn sips a little more Arra and accepts what has become a daily ritual which everyone accepts.
Being part of this was a genuine treat and all the family members were incredibly real and warm. One of the real joys of being amongst these simple, hard people is the lack of any pretention whatsoever...no formality, no titles, nothing that was unecessary...the bare essentials, a little whiskey and eachother.
Dakpa and I are in the final stages of organizing the "Tea section" in Southern Yunnan.
Until the next dispatch I wish all, safe and passionate wanderings.