Wild China: Two lives converge on Yunnan's Old Horse & Tea Road

Travel, Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: December 1st, 2010 | Updated: March 13th, 2012 | Comments
Yubeng Waterfall near Deqin in Yunnan Province In part 3 of a series (see part 1 here and part 2 here), Sascha profiles two people whose encounters with the Horse and Tea Trade Route have changed their lives forever. Jeff Fuchs was hiking in the mountains when he came upon the trail and a dream, and Zhang Mei returned to Yunnan after traveling abroad and hatched a plan. Both are inextricably tied to this route and the people and places that make it live today ... Life on the Horse and Tea Trade Route moves to a startling number of different rhythms. The slow southern jungle beat of Xishuangbanna separates into the sounds of tea leaves being picked, roasted and tossed. Slowly, as you trek farther north to Kunming and Dali, the sounds of people laughing, crying, haggling and chatting join in, and you start to hear the real music of the ancient trade route. Past Dali, you enter the mountain fastnesses of the Naxi people around Lijiang, soon leaving the lowlands altogether, and all you hear are the sounds of running mountain streams and the snap and swish of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags in the wind. It was here, near Deqin, where Zhang Mei came across the sacred waterfall that reminded her of how beautiful her homeland of Yunnan really is. Not far from here, Jeff Fuchs was hiking with a friend who pointed to a barely discernible track cutting through the mountains and started talking about an interconnected trade route the Tibetans called Gyalam. Jeff had heard that word before, spoken by a Tibetan hiking buddy somewhere in northern India and it stirred something inside. When Zhang Mei stopped above the tiny pilgrimage site of Yubeng (which means, simply, "splashing water") and listened to the waterfall, it also sounded familiar. Did it remind her of the gently lapping waves of Erhai near her hometown of Xiaguan? Or the chaos of southern Yunnan's Water Splashing Festival? Both Zhang Mei and Jeff Fuchs were captured forever by the beauty of this ancient road that links the Himalayan Plateau with the rest of the world; Zhang Mei would turn her fascination into WildChina, one of the fastest growing outdoor adventure tour companies in China, and Jeff would embark upon one of the great treks of his life, following in the footsteps of the old caravans across Tibet, and write a book about it, The Ancient Tea Horse Road. In March, they will be working together during the very first run of the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road: An Expedition with Jeff Fuchs, set to depart on March 24, 2011. If you're  interested, click through for more info, and read on for the rest of the story behind the partnership.... Jeff Fuchs on the Horse and Tea Trade Route Gyalam: Blizzards, bones and bandits Standing there on some mountainside near Deqin looking at the pitiful little path that was somehow connected to the other pitiful little path in Ladakh, Jeff Fuchs had an epiphany. He looked up at his friend and said, "One day we are going to walk this path together." His friend nodded awkwardly and they shook on it. Jeff's dream hinged on his ability to not only find and interview actual traders who had walked the path laden with goods, but to also "become" one himself. "We had to do it the same way they did it in order to really get a feel for it," said Jeff. "These were the people who gave blood and life to the trail, so it was really important to find them and learn what it was like to drive caravans along this path." It took a while for the dream to become reality, but after three years Jeff had some cash, publisher Penguin's support and a team of six sturdy hikers ready to make the run from Zhongdian to Lhasa. "Run" is probably not the most appropriate of terms, however. Something along the lines of "walking through the valley of the shadow of death" might be a little bit closer. Two weeks into the trek, one of Jeff's close friends fell into an ice hole while the team was crossing a mountain pass during a blizzard (did you get all that? ice hole... mountain pass... blizzard). The team doubled back and found his orange jacket and then spent thirty minutes digging him out. He survived, but after a couple more weeks on the trail, he and another member had to turn back . The team was reduced to four for the remainder of the 52-day trek across the Himalayan plateau. On the way they met a four-fingered ex-caravan driver who remembered the old days when Hui Muslims -- famous for being timely -- would hand off their cargo to the Tibetans near the town of Lijiang and the Tibetans would take it across the plateau to Lhasa. At this juncture, Jeff's pressing question was, How in the hell did these guys take 80 mule caravans across the plateau on a regular basis. The old trader's answer? Many didn't. All along the old trade route are the unmarked graves of countless mules and drivers, scattered throughout what locals call "Valleys of Bones." And if the snows didn't get 'em, growled the old man, the bandits would.   Khampa Nomads By bandits, the old man meant the superbadass nomads that run things around the Litang area known as the Khampas. Khampa men are infamous for their fighting skills and their willingness to stab a fool at a moment's notice with the short swords (known as Khampa blades) that never leave their sides. These men were so fearsome that most caravans hired them on as guides and protection rather than face them on the open steppe. The Khampas also have a habit of wearing the Tibetan garment of choice, the chupa, with one sleeve dangling to allow for better horsemanship and easy acces to their blades -- when opportunistic bandits scouted out a caravan and saw men wearing their chupas in such a manner, they usually scrapped their nefarious plans and waited for easier prey. Jeff's team didn't have to worry about bandits, but if you want to hear more about them, their exploits and the great trading families of Litang that ruled this part of the route, check out Jeff's book, The Ancient Horse and Tea Road. (Sidenote: Khampas have not gone anywhere. If you go to Eastern Tibet, you will see Khampas cruising up and down the strip on tricked-out motorcycles with one sleeve danglin' and a blade tucked into their belt. That's just how they roll.) Zhang Mei of Wildchina Preserve a culture and showcase it...at the same time Luckily for Zhang Mei, her fascination with the trail kept her away from blizzards and bandits, leading instead to a career managing a tour guide business dedicated to showcasing the beauty of China without dealing with millions of people. Zhang Mei was born and raised in Xiaguan and her first memories are of playing in the hills overlooking the town. Growing up as a child of nature, it wasnt much of a stretch for her to get into environmental and tourism consulting for NGOs looking to balance development with preservation in the areas around her hometown. On one such consulting job for Beijing as the Washington Post's Bureau chief. Right around then Zhang Mei developed the name and the idea for WildChina. Before she could make that idea reality, Zhang Mei needed to see more of the world, so she took a trip through Tibet and India to South Africa and back. It was only after she got back home that she realized just how beautiful Yunnan really is. But instead of immediately getting into the tour business, she went to Shanghai for a stint with Ctrip, a company that has gone on to lead China's booming online travel sector (full disclosure: Ctrip is also the sponsor of ChinaTravel.net and the China Travel Blog). But back in 2000, Ctrip was just a little guy breaking into the travel market, and Zhang Mei's job was to help launch their English-language website. "I felt I could add value to Ctrip," she said. "It was a great experience being the first employee for the English website, but I had to commute every weekend to Beijing to visit my husband and there were many times on the plane when I just sat there asking myself, is this really what I want? Traveling for me is so much more than booking tickets and hotels, its about connecting with people and influencing an area in a positive way." So she took off on her own and launched WildChina. There are many NGOs working in the area and many of them have great ideas for how to develop the region while preserving the ecosystem and the culture, but Zhang Mei found that the real judge of whether or not a development model is working are the reactions of the people affected. NGOs might have great ideas, but they tend to move slow and often disregard or play down the ruling desires for many people in the countryside: the desire for a better life for their children, and the desire for more wealth.   Dali Zhang Mei went for the middle road, in which she goes full-profit but focuses on making positive changes in the communities through high-end tours for a small number of people instead of high-volume tourism that tends to dilute or outright destroy that which the tour is meant to showcase in the first place. Places like Weishan, a little known town outside of Dali, are for Zhang Mei the exact location she wants to help.   "When you go to Weishan, you'll find that the town is culturally very refined. The people are very serious about eating organic food; the government issues announcements on color coded paper (red for births and weddings, white for deaths) in hand-written calligraphy and everyone in the community knows that you can only drink green tea grown in the spring and pu'er tea in the winter." "This authentic Chinese culture is being replaced by cheaply produced goods, but Weishan is proud of their culture and heritage and when I bring clients to their their town and the community sees how much the clients love the lifestyle there, they are all the more eager they are to preserve it." "And that's really what its all about, people meeting and interacting and influencing each other in a positive way."
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