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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

A picture and a thousand words

June 30, 2008

You never know who you'll meet, when you hit the road. This weathered face belongs to one of the last in an ancient line of muleteers who travelled along Asia's Tea Horse Road for an unfathomable 1,300 years
Jeff Fuchs
Special to the Star
The Toronto Star (Canada)
June 29, 2008

The human face can reveal more than just the standard features in variable shapes. In some faces there is a force of character that's undeniable. Such faces communicate their efforts and struggles; they have not learned the art of vanity.

Amid nomadic tribes and isolated cultures that live close to the earth, there remains a character that is at once harmonious and fierce, a character that is entirely tangible.

The photo of 84-year-old Tenzin's dark, weathered face is itself a map, of sorts, that speaks of his many voyages and trials along one of the globe's most daunting and brutal trade routes. Worn and uncompromising, the face of Tenzin, one of the last in an ancient line of muleteers who travelled along the fabled Ancient Tea Horse Road, reveals a life lived in full exposure to Mother Nature's force. Embodying a last generation that actively traded along the ancient corridor, he represents a crucial but rapidly disappearing element in the history not only of the Tea Horse Road, but also of human society.
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Tenzin arrived in my life when I was on a journey of my own along the Tea Horse Road, a route whose history and peoples have effectively remained a mystery to those outside Asia for more than a thousand years. The Ancient Tea Horse Road (Cha Ma Dao in Chinese, and Gyalam, or "wide road," in Tibetan) headed north from the subtropical birthplace of tea in southwestern China's Yunnan province, then continued west into the daunting grey spires of the Himalayas to Lhasa and beyond. Men, mules and tea moved (and died) along the route until the late 1950s. Legends of the Tea Horse Road abound in the Himalayas, as it once held title to being one of the world's most perilous journeys.

A team of Tibetans and I were ourselves engaged in a physically and mentally challenging, 7 1/2-month trek to document what and who was left along this mythic trail.

One day, our dehydrated team travelled along a dusty path into a valley (at 4,000 metres in altitude), passing just metres from Tenzin's wind-ravaged community in Eastern Tibet. Ragged and exhausted, we were greeted by the warm, gracious Tenzin, who was curious about the purpose of our expedition and forcefully insisted we sit for butter tea and stale barley bread. In the ensuing hours his unending supply of tea and tales of his own journeys along the route created a clearer picture of what had come before us. He also served to remind us of the importance of storytellers and their oral histories.

It was through such storytelling that communities remained linked to one another. Tenzin's scarred hands and rumbling voice recreated past worlds and his former trials. He told of a time of honour, when promises were kept because they had to be, of times when entire caravans were engulfed in avalanches and friends were lost in thunderous white walls. He spoke of a life lived on the very brink of nature's wrath. His face lit up with long-ago memories of risks and camaraderie. Pointing at the yak butter tea we sipped, he spoke of a time when an offering of tea was an offering of friendship, and he extolled the simple pleasures of a tea break. He repeated an old maxim of the mountains ­ "Man can go without food for three days, but without tea not one" ­ pointing out that as long as a person had tea, friends and time, all was well.

He lamented not so much the world's modernization as the race to move forward without regard to the past's lessons. He mourned the loss of people's ability and desire to communicate with one another, and how material things had become master of all. Having himself led caravans through bandit-ridden lands, blizzards and landslides, he spoke not of his physical fear or courage but of how these experiences "breathed life into the soul," and how such living allowed one to enjoy even the briefest of pleasures -- of how these experiences edited life down to absolute essentials.

Ancient muleteers like Tenzin, known as Lados -- literally, "hands of stone" -- in Tibetan, enjoyed few rewards apart from living to tell the tale, but they knew the value of life like few others.

Months later, my own voyage along the Ancient Tea Horse Road complete, I sat down to write a book about my travels, and the ragged faces and tales of the elders I had encountered came back in waves. Their experiences had given life to the route and to my own tale.

These people's ability to communicate and, perhaps more crucially, take the time to communicate, is a rare quality in a world that values speed above all else.

Let us hope that the very social ways of these "ancients" are not lost -- that their simple practice of sitting down for tea and talk are not forgotten.

When it was finally time to leave old Tenzin, he reminded us of one of the understated qualities of the Ancient Tea Horse Road: it is a connector of peoples and ideas. After all, it had brought my trekking team into contact with this venerable elder for a cup of tea, 1,300 years after caravans began travelling along the route.

Canadian Jeff Fuchs chronicles the journey he took in a newly released book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road, published by Viking Canada. He lives in China's Yunnan province.

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Canadian Jeff Fuchs spent 7½ months trekking the Tea Horse Road, which begins in China's southwest, winds north, then heads west to Lhasa and beyond.

Excerpts from his book about the journey:

At one point, Norbu stopped and pivoted slightly toward me; in that instant his feet shot out from under him and the weight of his pack sent him rocketing down the snow-packed slope. Sonam's shriek as he watched Norbu was almost inhuman. In an explosion of strength, Norbu managed to flip himself onto his front. Even as I heard Sonam's terrified screams, Norbu was digging in his hands and feet to slow himself in a spray of white. I knew that in that one movement he had saved himself ­ and the rest of us ­ a lifetime of grief. Incredibly, a few hundred metres down, he ground to a halt. Carefully scuttling down the slope we found him sitting quietly, smiling slightly, with only a small tear in his pants. Sonam's face was strained as he looked beyond Norbu to where our friend might have ended up. Another 20 metres or so and he would have been pitched into a rocky gorge, to become a modern-day casualty of the Tea Horse Road. So often, it seemed, the distance between a tragedy and a miracle was minute.

The tea Tibetans craved was not the tea of the West. The most consumed beverage on the globe still struggles for an identity beyond the cultures that grow, harvest and live with it. The West, long duped into believing that the tea they were imbibing was a quality product, would scarcely recognize the black brick of tea carried by a mule. A plump bag of Lipton's best would taste like nothing more than dusty hot water to a drinker of the powerful black teas so loved by the Tibetans.

Excerpted from The Ancient Tea Horse Road by Jeff Fuchs, published by Viking Canada.
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