Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tibet Caravan

Image_00042 I recently returned to Yunnan to check in on the caravan I helped create. My timing couldn't have been better. I left Beijing just before it's worst sandstorm in a decade, and there was good old Kunming, bathed in its golden sun and just perfect at about 85 degrees.
That was not the case when I flew up to the northwest corner of the province, Zhongdian, or as the tourism authority would have it, Shangri-La. Right up on the Tibetan plateau at just over 10,000 feet, it was cloudy and mighty cold. I travelled there with an associate to catch up with our caravan, which had just left in the general direction of the Tibetan border a few days before.
First, I guess a short introduction of the caravan is in order. Late last year, a caravan of 99 horses set out from our tea factory in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna, a Thai region of southern Yunnan. They loaded up their horsepacks with our tea, which would then travel across the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Trail (aka Southern Silk Road) through Yunnan and Tibet to its destination at Gyatse and the Thasilunpo Monastery (home of the Panchen Lama).
I will make no attempt to mask our marketing intentions here, but please don't let that keep you from seeing it as we do: an earnest attempt to revive the ancient highway that brought the many cultures of southwest China together and introduced tea to the world several millenia ago. Our horsemen (and women) hail from several of the many tribes that are found in this part of the world, and they document the cultures and throw rocking parties everywhere they go. The value it creates for those involved far surpasses any marketing or tea markups involved. Through auctions of collector's teas we have already managed to raise more than 100,000 USD for the construction of schoolhouses in the impoverished mountains of the region.
Our caravan reached Shangri-La shortly after Christmas last year, and after joining in the Gedong festivities at the Songzanlim Monastery (see caravan photos), we had to take a break. Winter conditions made the mountains unpassable.
Image_00032 We took a second go at the passage to Tibet on April 10. The caravan set out again, this time with an imbedded reporter from Phoenix TV, among others, and worked their way to Baima Mountain, a majestic chain of glacier capped mountains that hinders all entry into Tibet Proper.
We caught up with them just as they were attempting the pass. Remember what I said about winter conditions? We had spent many late hours trying to calculate our passage across the Hengduan Mountain Range. This is easier said than done for as soon as the snows begin to recede, the monsoons are close behind, eager to shower our horsemen with torrential rains and mudslides. Obviously we figured wrong; the caravan was breaking camp at the base of the mountain as we caught up in our Jeep. Though cold and muddy, their campsite was in an idyllic setting of moss-covered old growth pine forest interspersed with several varieties of wild rhodedendron in full bloom. But just a few dozen feet up the slope was fresh snow cover, and we could feel a blizzard brewing.
The original plan was to hike to the base of the first of two mountain passes, and camp there the first night. One look at the sky told us that this would be almost certain death. Giant thunderheads were rolling past us at warp speed, and we were getting slapped in the face by snowflakes the size of a baby's fist. We heard over our CB's that the cops were already closing the road. After lots of yelling, the lead horseman, Zhao Baochang, chose to take both passes and get everyone down the other side. Anything else would have led to weeks in delays, leaving us stuck in the Tibetan badlands during the coming monsoon. To beat the mountain, our caravan would have to trudge some 40 miles through deep wet snow (in canvas shoes no less), almost double our usual daily limit.
After hours of nail-biting (and pushing stranded buses out of the snowbanks), we made it across the first pass. Everyone was running around and shouting, but the only sounds heard were the howling winds and the violent flapping of prayer flags.
Somehow we managed to make it down the mountain, despite the fact that every landmark was masked by the clouds and the sun was long gone.
Two days later, Zhao turned his dirty, ragged horse team into a first-class parade. Everyone brokeImage_00039 out their best ethnic finery to march into the welcoming arms of Deqin county's entire government and best dancing troupes. If you've never been to a party hosted by the government of a poor, remote ethnic county in the Chinese hinterland, you've never really been to a party.
Top officials from almost every branch of the county government gathered us into the largest restaurant in town where we commenced stuffing our faces with yak meat and downing copious amounts of barley liquor (80 proof) by the glass. Local cultural workers began to dance around the restaurant trading songs and whiskey with the horsemen. By about 8:00 everyone was rip-roaring drunk and we decided to hit the town square, where everyone in town was dancing. Somehow we eneded up with a huge entourage working our way across the few saloons in town. I don't quite remember how I got home that night, but I was assured by witnesses that I had a great time.
Image_00034 Deqin County Seat is a ramshackle pile of houses gathered in a tiny pocket surrounded by half a dozen giant mountains. It is reminiscent of an appalachian coal-mining town. Having said that, it is a great place to meet Tibetan culture face to face. The roads and accomodations are bad enough to discourage most of the tour groups from invading, and most of the local Tibetan men still sport their swords everywhere they go. Walking down the main street, one often has to dodge the occasional Yak who decides to browse the garbage cans.
Lacking a Tibetan travel permit, in dour need of a shower and mindful of the growing pile of work on my desk back in Beijing, I headed back to Shangri-La for a hot bath and tickets to Kunming. Our caravan made it safely to Yanjing (salt well) on the Tibet-Yunnan border a few days later, and should have passed Markang by now. I hope to catch up with them again somewhere on the approach to Lhasa, which they should be reaching in mid-June. I'll keep you posted.

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