I am in the village of Lhat’sè, east of Lhasa (Tibet), desolate in the cold under black peaks and permanent snows but once a stop along the 1,300-year-old Tea Horse Road of Yunnan.
An elder named Neema is speaking. He is “close to 90”, but no one here recorded birth-dates when he was born. Although fragile with age and illness, he is eager to transmit something of the great trade route.
“From which direction have you come?” he asks. I tell him we have walked from the east over the notorious Sho’la Pass, which turned back two of our team. Neema nods and talks about its “two faces.” Indeed, during our own crossing, we spent a full day struggling through a raging blizzard with zero visibility and two-meter drifts of snow. We came close to losing the lives of an expedition member and two mules. Passes and their risks line the length of the Tea Horse Road to such an extent that locals say there are “valleys of bones” along it. In his time, Neema traveled the better part of 40,000 kilometers on caravans between market towns.
“His time” spanned more than 80 years of working as a muleteer along this “road through the sky”. For 13 centuries there was no more coveted or valued commodity than the tea his hulking grandson has prepared for us. My partners and I have been trekking for more than a month on a quest to trace the entire 5,000-kilometer route and meeting Neema is the equivalent of meeting one of the route’s royalty.
The word for muleteer in Tibetan leaves no doubt as to the physical attributes required for the job of transporting the “great gift”, as tea was called locally. La’do in Tibetan is made up of two words: la, meaning hand, and do, meaning stone. Hands of stone were needed to carry goods across the top of the world. “The job of transporting tea and other goods was not for the weak,” says Neema simply.
He speaks of the value of his cargo from trades he remembers as ‘recently’ as 60 years ago: 120kg of tea for a horse of superb quality – or 50kg of tea for a horse with a pulse and little more. Until the 1940s, tea was a more coveted currency than cash. Copper, medicine, resin, incense, and wool were also precious, but nothing came close to the ‘sacred three’: tea, horse, and salt.
Bidding us farewell, he warns of the Shar Gong La Pass ahead. “Stay high on the snow ridge… and take double amounts of tea.” On a wall hang the bridles, crinkled leather satchels and stirrups covered in soot from the fire that are the remnants of his trading days. He and his kind referred to the Tea Horse Road as the “Eternal Road”. Nothing less than an eternal road would suffice for the eternal leaf.