Jeff Fuchs lived in the foothills of the Himalayas for almost two decades, retracing the trade and pilgrimage routes of human history, and exploring the ancient stories of the people who live there. In this exclusive for Outpost, he retraces the old Salt Route, a tributary of the ancient Silk Road.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
“If one had salt or tea, one was rich, one could live.”
Spoken slowly, the words come out of a lined and haunted face, the mouth barely moving. It is a face worn and enlightened by eight decades in the full of Mother Nature’s whims, at close to five kilometres above sea level.
As he speaks, Wangdu’s long hands smoothly work their way through the 108 beads on his Japa mala, or Buddhist rosary. We sit tucked away near Darlag, in southeastern Qinghai province, China, in a hut, as he gazes somewhere above me, searching his memory. “Tsa’lam,” the Old Salt Route. On the Ancient Trail with Jeff Fuchs
While Qinghai rests north of present-day eastern Tibet, it has always been the domain of Tibetans. Still known locally as Amdo, its legends speak to a land and people that often defied all that was around them. The land and its empty quarters were often referred to as the ”lands of dust.” Wangdu, in his years, had walked close to 20,000 kilometres, taking tea and salt along some of the planet’s most dangerous and unheralded routes—trading, ushering, surviving.
It is not everyone that survives the Himalayas’ serene but fierce forces. The Tea Horse Road had gained notoriety for its tea and horse trade, but the “Tsa’lam”—the nomadic route of the salt trade—was known only to a handful who travelled its dust and snow-blown length. Wangdu is one of the few ancients I met in China who recalled the time when tsa, or salt, was slung onto the backs of yaks and transported across mountains, valleys and Himalayan plateaus on journeys that bound south, west and, to some extent, even east.
Journeys that, at times, resonate as so fantastic and hidden, one wonders if their stories might all be fable.
That meeting with weathered Wangdu years ago had lingered in the mind, and the result brought me and my trek partner, Michael Kleinwort, here, to a small scarred corner of southeast Qinghai province. We had come to track the Tsa’lam by foot, to see what ghosts remained…and there are always ghosts in these places. We seek to trace a route that has been forgotten by most, a crucial path linking some of the most isolated nomadic communities on the globe with some of its most remote salt sources. Here, the centuries—some say as many as eight—hold testament to the plodding caravans that carried this white gold aboard mule and yak, for hundreds of kilometres, to all points across the barren mountain compass.
The source of the salt we seek rests atop the highest plains in the world, and the route we hunt is but a wisp of a trail that stretched more than 500 kilometres: from Sichuan province’s remote western nomadic zone to the empty quarters of the plateau north of Lhasa, Tibet. Quarters that hosted life-giving salt.
Though the precious crystals made their way as far south as Nepal and India, it is the long-forgotten salt route of the nomads we have travelled here to find. Michael and I have made it to the eastern gateway of Qinghai, a borderland region of nomadic clans, ochre valleys and cold and wind, even in summer. Honkor, in its time, has been known for its fierce inhabitants, who were (some say still are) famed in the blood art of war.
We are trudging at some 4,000 metres above sea level to gain an overview of the valley along the curling finger of what the locals call the Nyi River. Nomads often say of the Tibetan Plateau that its winds are eternal. Here, the winds tear. Mortality in the mountains is felt in all its sensory glory, as temperature, snow, wind and altitude either bludgeon the senses or revive them. All journeys through these regions require an understanding of the elements and the fates. Bandits, wolves and a space known (even to locals) as a kind of void that swallows up life, make the lands potent and ominous. Here, economics had a physical dimension like no other geography—there is no easy way of transporting goods.
This unofficial gateway along the Qinghai-Sichuan border was a conduit onto the Qinghai Plateau, and onto its precious salt lakes and flats. The fearless Khampa nomads of Sichuan province sought not only salt, but the best salt, as salt from a particular region was prized above any other.
Why, or how, it became so valued is a mystery; some say it was due to the isolation and altitude of the source—a remote lake reaching some 4,300 metres skyward. However life-threatening the expeditions were for the salt hunters, it was worth it: both a staple and a luxury, for centuries tsa has been one of the world’s great commodities, and it was crucial in the lives of the salt nomads.
Bustling market towns along the Himalayas have long hosted great trade routes: ornate and colourful goods were brought from the south in India and Nepal; routes from the north brought vital staples.
Market stalls held bricks of tea and sacks of salt, which were carefully measured out and sold. Lhasa’s undisputed place was as a central market hub where goods, peoples, grievances and spirits alike gathered. Not all the salt, though, reached these busy bases of commerce.
Below us, wind shrieks along the river valley, where yak caravans once patiently tread west, destined for the salt lakes. Caravans were comprised entirely of nomadic communities and their behemoth yak, who banded together for security as they travelled through the badlands. Yet, one elder we met on our journey, Yangdon, reminded us how a single member of a family might travel with just a yak or two to haul salt back home. Such was the route that it provided transport for the powerful and the solitary alike.
Little memory of the route remains here in Honkor, but one of our unrequited questions—Where was the major source of salt?—finds an answer. Though we had an idea of the area, we are told that a hidden lake, the aptly named Tsam’ Tso (Salt Lake), which is far west near Maduo, was renowned by the nomads for its salt.
Though salt sources dotted these highlands, it was this lake’s salt, near the origin of the Yellow River, that was most coveted. Again, it is the stories of locals that tell of the Himalayan salt trade, as fathers and grandfathers passed on the knowledge and the history, with the land itself giving evidence to the words: more than 200 million years ago, a great prehistoric sea dried-up, leaving a mineral legacy—salt—that became a vaulted currency on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
While Lobsang, yet another elder we meet in our travels, tells us the salt lake has been there “forever,” its whereabouts among those in the know was limited. It was in the best interest of local traders who took the salt south not to divulge the exact location of the source, as they knew an invasion of traders would follow. It is the nomads that accessed these salt sources most often, and through their fearless travels took it abroad. As with much within the Himalayan trade, the higher or further afield the source of a good, the more coveted it became.
Michael and I have made our way northwest, further into Qinghai, along a corridor the salt caravans used, following river valleys as they swerve through the mountains. Horses and yak, though still active deep in the mountains, have given way to trucks and motorbikes as the transport of choice. Ornately decorated 150cc motorcycles (so common in China) are seen flying through remote valleys with nomads aboard in their billowing wools.
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Though the modes of transport have changed, the indomitable terrain hasn’t. For the hardened dwellers of the heights, mountains aren’t always viewed as obstacles but as guides and protectors—inevitable, and not always threatening. Force doesn’t work in the land above 4,000 metres. One needs endless patience, and an ability to endure. One great truth of the highlands is that there are no straight lines through the mountains; and this fact is plain to see in Darlag.
Michael and I make our way up a 4,600-metre ridge above the gleaming striations of the Yellow River. Darlag lies below us, wedged into a valley. Trekking with us is Jackie, a local Tibetan guide whose passion is doing one-armed push-ups. Michael, an Iron-man triathlete, is relishing the challenge the mountains offer up, but even he acknowledges the special labour required at these altitudes.
Arriving at the wind-blown summit, the snaps of prayer-flags fill the air. From our vantage point we can trace the various paths and wanderings of the topography. Salt caravans passed through Darlag, spending nights along the banks of the Yellow River (Ma Chu in Tibetan, meaning Peacock River). The Darlag of the present is a hastily assembled series of houses that lie in grids, but from where we stand above, one can make out its once-strategic centre, lying in the crucible of three valleys.
South of us lies a curling ridge that we have heard becomes an abode of wolves at dusk. The warning is clear—be away from it by sundown. Jackie’s finger points west to a series of neverending ridges.
“It is there that the salt lake lies, and there that you will go.” When I ask what lies in between—from where we are now to the salt lakes—Jackie looks at me dead-eyed and simply says “nothing.”
Within Himalayan trader-speak, distances and time frames are often referred to in measurements that have to do with landmarks. Old Tibetan traders, who in large part were historically nomadic, might reference a journey as being “a trip of eight valleys and four passes,” which might translate to three weeks of travel.
The salt road journeys were also measured this way. From the borderlands of Sichuan to Tsam’Tso (remember, the Salt Lake), a trip typically took between two and three weeks. It has taken us less than that, though we’ve managed to avoid snow, wolves and bandits.
Our own journey is somewhat hobbled by the fact that with so few people now remembering the nomadic salt route, we are often totally off-course—until someone, usually an elder we meet, guides us in the right direction. There are times when Michael and I fall into silences that last for hours as we make our way over the land. It is a place where mountain peaks pierce clean horizons and seem to touch the sky, and powerful winds meld eyes shut with ice. Getting lost here is easy: the senses are so engaged with the expanse of space.
Above all, as we trek across the frozen Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, we come to understand how we need time and knowledge. If one lacks either, the mountains will devour us. It is only in the past five decades that asphalt intrusions like the Qinghai-Tibet highway have appeared here. Roads (lam in Tibetan) were finally built to link far away places, and in many cases, the ancient trade and migration routes, which often followed the natural contours of the geography, provided their blueprint. And so now, some of the highest roads in the world—the Qinghai-Tibet, Sichuan-Tibet and Yunnan-Tibet highways—help tell of the region’s history of trade and migration.
We finally arrive in Maduo, one of the coldest counties in all the Tibetan areas, a place where snow can fall any day of the year. So vast and hushed is the land that I think this must be the ‘nothing’ Jackie spoke of—yet a beautiful nothing, where wind, sun and snow share lordship of the place. On our sun-browned faces we see the tell of ‘trekker eye’—deep heavy lines made by the sunglasses we wear to keep our eyes from evaporating in the sun. The long days at 4,500 metres require, in my case, litres of potent tea daily to keep the blood and mind in good running order—and in Maduo, the cold from seeping into my bones.
Forty kilometres west of Maduo, Michael and I come upon a valley of silence, where even our old friend, the wind, has vacated—it is as though both life and sound have been forsaken. We have finally come to Tsam’ Tso, the great lake of salt, and one of the most valuable sources of salt for the nomads, a place unknown except to those who have travelled here. It is the great lake of salt the nomads have referred to. Ahead, the shimmering sand-coloured floor ripples; approaching, it becomes a glass surface of milky water that reflects a slightly smudged image of the sky above.
With us by now is Lobsang, a thickset man wearing an ill-fitting suit that struggles to contain his bulk.
“Nothing left,” he grumbles. “There is no longer any salt.”
With his words come the dual prongs of relief and sadness: joy that we can behold this lake, sadness salt is no longer present. What remains are earthen fingers that push out into the still water like long forgotten docks. These man-made forms were the salt pans, where the salt-laden water was gathered to rest in shallow hollows. Thick iodine-free salt would be all that was left after the sun had evaporated the water, sometimes in as little time as a day or two. Gathered in piles with wooden brooms, it was cleaned of mud and debris, dried again, then packed into bags of a predetermined weight or volume to make its journey to the outer world.
Michael wanders out along an ancient earthen jetty that bisects the lake, and where the water has dried, and wonders how long it has been since anyone trod the path. We are at 4,300 metres, and though there were, and are, more significant salt sources—like those north in Golmud—it was the salt of this lake that was coveted by the nomads. Lobsang beckons to a portion along the lake. He is like a proud father, excited to show us a favourite child.
“Here is where the yaks would be loaded up—about 100 kilograms of salt per yak.” I try in vain to imagine this—yaks and their keepers waiting their turn to load up. There is no living thing in sight and even the ubiquitous undertakers of the sky, the vultures, have faded from view. A set of prints mark out a trail in the milky water of the lake—some sort of bird, perhaps indulging in the odd bit of salty treat. But nothing more.
“Then they would leave through that valley,” Lobsang continues, as he points to a V-shaped cut in the ridge about a half kilometre from the lake’s distant edge. Salt from the lake not only travelled east, but it also made month-long journeys south to Naqu and Lhasa, to Nepal and India, where it was sold in ever-active markets. The fearless Khampa nomads from Sichuan were known for taking it as far west as Pakistan.
Meanwhile, yak caravans would arrive here, bearing items like resin from the pine trees of the forests of Sichuan province to barter for the prized salt. (Resin was used to make incense and as a sealant or glue.) So prized was it that the salt was also used as a form of payment.
Lobsang tells us that when he was young, the surrounding valleys were covered in the nomads’ yak-wool tents (ba in Tibetan), alongside the scattered homesteads of the valley’s more permanent residents like Lobsang and his family. Now, only one lone homestead remains—his son’s.
Twenty-minutes later, we are sitting in an ornately coloured tent, being fed all things yak. Yogurt, cheese, butter tea and dried yak meat. Michael touches none of it, but I taste all of it. Lobsang’s son Nyima and his family tend to their 200 goats and small herd of yak that roam a patch of land near the lake. They have the entire valley to themselves, but it is, even by nomadic standards, solitary. The salt brought people here, and when the salt’s reign faded so did traffic. It is often the way in such remote corridors—that Mother Nature seems to reclaim her own.
Traders, travellers and pilgrims alike never failed to add a touch of the divine to their journeys atop the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Here, economics and the spiritual world often find themselves entwined.
Resting between the nomadic communities of Kham and the Tsam’Tso is the sacred Amne Machin Mountain Range. For Buddhists, circumambulating the 140-kilometre span is considered the equivalent of wiping one’s soul clean of sin. The nomadic traders, coming for salt but sometimes wanting to wipe their own slates clean, would do half the circuit on their way to the salt lake, and half on their way back.
Our first vision of the snow-clad back of Amne Machin comes when we are more than 30 kilometres away. Xiadawu is a dusty, one-road town at the western edge of the mountains that sits in a small, cupped valley, with remarkably shabby huts and a main square of errant, apathetic dogs. Its decrepit appearance serves as an entry to something far greater than itself, Amne Machin, which erupts, splendidly, to the east. Flowing west out of the mountains, past the town, the Nam Chu (or Nam River) wanders through, over and around the valley in a never-ending search.
On our morning of departure from our little valley two kilometres northwest of Xiadawu, we wake to a driving white fury of snow that is obliterating all surroundings. We are on the eastern-most bluff of the Amne Machin, which rises above us in an opaque mist. Our guide, another Nyima, and the local head-woman (who hails from a local wealthy family) are tying our gear to two yaks, while gigantic flakes settle on their cloaks.
Both Michael and I are smiling—we are finally tasting a bit of highland weather. Our yaks are calm and quietly powerful, understated mountain icons that seem to take no notice of the weather. Our hosts, however, take a few moments to discuss whether to continue with the planned morning departure.
The journey of 140 kilometres around the base of Amne Machin, most of which is above 4,000 metres, can take anywhere from a week to 12 days. But the snow’s impetuous arrival can change everything. I am antsy to go, but also aware how my assessment of the weather is not that of a local. Nyima, after consulting with the headwoman, makes the decision to carry on with our plans.
The snow is unrelenting, at times giving us only the briefest glimpse of the mountains. As we were exiting the valley we managed to attract a small army of dogs, one of which, a fearless little terrier (already a favourite), belongs to the guide’s family. Others have the black, heavy-boned bulk of Tibetan mastiffs, and I feel a kind of comfort in our autonomous team: four dogs, two yaks, one horse, three mortals. We plod through the ever-thickening white blankets of snow, cutting east along the northern range of the Amne Machin.
Returning salt caravans, laden with their loads, would have used these corridors to head home. After trekking for about 20 kilometres, we make camp at 4,200 metres. Our tent, a small canvas triangle, is barely big enough for the three of us and, of course, our little terrier. Our insulating barrier on the floor is made of goat and sheep skins, and after a pot of noodles, and tea, we are off to bed.
As I am tucking in, three things happen almost at once: the snow stops; the temperature drops; and a small furry ball burrows into my sleeping space. Morning’s bone-jarring cold has frozen our bodies, and we wake slowly. Even the little canine seems loathe to move from under me, letting out a growl of disapproval when I prod him. It’s only when I peek out to a semi-sunlit morning that I realize something is wrong. Huddled over our fire, it is not Nyima I see but his wife, Gamzon, who we had met a day earlier.
She shrugs her shoulders and smiles softly to my unspoken question. Later we find out Nyima had come down with a fever the night before. Feeling unable to go on, he climbed a nearby hill to get phone reception to call his wife, and asked her to replace him as our guide. How she had come, either by horse or motorbike, we knew not—but here she was.
Worrying about her husband’s health gives way to a kind of selfish joy, as we see Gamzon’s immediate effect on the animals, and by extension, us. Under her calm competence, our entire unit seems to gel into an organized team. Breaking camp, we immediately begin an ascent to 4,600 metres and what the locals refer here to as the Dorde Lhatso Pass. Winds whip up and the sun burns bright, giving us a view of our coming day’s journey. Our route veers within a valley that has been ploughed smooth by an ancient glacier’s path, and we are gifted a view of Amne Machin’s north face to our right, where it rises like a white blade.
At day’s end, almost 40 kilometres have been taken in and we are approaching Chon Ge Re, a wedge of a town that is also Gamzon’s hometown. Bodies are stiff and brittle, and Gamzon’s mother and grandmother host and humble us, offering in an instant all they have in the tradition of mountain solidarity. They know well the toll the mountains take, and in their graciousness we feel the comfort of a home for the first time in weeks. It is here that our own journey will cut south and west, bringing us slowly around the eastern-most edge of the greater range.
We are heartened to hear from Gamzon’s grandmother that, yes, salt caravans came through the town until not long ago. Again, it is the elders who keep our journey moving forward, with their memories and beliefs in oral history. Somehow, just hearing the words lights up the morning. Within the landscape we’ve been travelling, the daily dose of the spectacular can overshadow the search for the salt story itself. But suddenly, in a moment, the old salt routes come to life.
Gamzon’s still-magnificent grandmother tells us about how when the leather-clad traders and their salt-laden animals wandered through the valley, their bells would clang out across the open space. Gamzon’s grandfather tells us about the myriad salt sources offered by the land, but reiterates that the great lake we visited was the most coveted. During a lively discussion, we learn that the nomads believed that “to reach the white gold, one must touch the sky.”
Two days later, we are tucking under Amne Machin’s range and heading west to a valley Gamzon simply calls nup (meaning west in Tibetan). We awake to a sparkling clear morning of -10°C, and our departure is delayed while we double up on tea to thaw out bodies. Already, the sun’s beams are bouncing off surface ice, drilling into eyes and skin with force.
Above us, caterpillar fungus pickers are gently moving through the highlands, in search of their precious medicinal wonder. Our terrier is now sleeping with, on, or under me every night, and I’m strangely flattered, though don’t admit it to Michael. Most of our ascent now is along a thick slab of ice that covers the valley floor.
Deep below our feet there is the odd creaking throb of ice shifting, and the gurgle of the ArunMu River. Our yaks, with Gamzon’s intuitive guidance, know which portions of ice are secure and which are traps, their huge bodies surprisingly nimble. At one point Ive er from the path, only to plunge my walking pole into an invisible trough two metres deep.
As we’re slogging along, Gamzon suddenly swivels her horse and screams back to us, but her words are taken by the wind. She repeats, “Nom’sho, Nom’sho,” pointing to a great valley that opens up before us. Michael and I stop dead, and a sound comes out of Michael’s mouth.
Before us is a valley of such width and splendour that neither the eyes, nor the mind’s eye, can take it all in. It is enormous, a magnificent amphitheatre for the senses. On the right flank, the white wall of the south face of Amne Machin stretches into the distance. We have entered the southern empire of the range, with its 6,230-metre peak. Below it, multiple lower peaks ripple with the wind’s force, sending sprays of crystalline snow into the sky.
Moving into the valley, up to a plateau of more than 4,700 metres, the full extent of Nom’sho becomes evident. To the left is a chain of peaks called Mor’do, though they seem but hills compared to what they face. At one point a miniature stone forest sits abruptly in the midst of the valley. Hundreds of stone piles created by traders and travellers over the course of years sit as a tribute from people who have toiled to come to a place that demands so much to simply arrive.
Then, something else catches the eye—a pathway that suddenly erupts out of nowhere, wandering through the valley beyond the horizon. The nomadic salt, trade, pilgrimage and even invasion routes merging together.
Without warning, I am reminded of something my Hungarian grandmother used to say: “Never underestimate the importance of friction.” For whatever reason, this comes back to me with full clarity. Perhaps it is imagining the physical efforts of the traders.
What must they have felt upon reaching this point—what sort of ecstasy, or pain, for having made it? I once heard a nomadic hostess say that salt was a gift from a woman deity residing deep within the Earth, and that all items the Earth offered up were gifts to the deserving.
Quite when Tibetans themselves discovered this great mineral offering isn’t quite certain; but they certainly were moving loads of it across the mountains and valleys for centuries. Passing over a tract of land that was obliterated by an avalanche five years ago, we are reminded of how quickly things disappear, even in these heights. Like the distant lake of salt, and soon our own footprints, the tale of the great and secretive Tsa’lam will disappear forever.
Passing underneath the white dome of Amne, I can’t help but wonder if the mountains miss their trader friends that once passed so relentlessly, graciously, below. A friend of mine’s father from Ganzi in Sichuan province, who has travelled the expanse of the Himalayas, once described coming upon a “great pile of gleaming white gold” near a salt well in Tibet. He spoke of how salt and its isolated sources made it a legendary and almost exclusive item for some traders. Old Lobsang, our Salt Lake host, spoke of the nomads often taking just enough salt for their own clan—four or five yak loads—and maybe their own community.
“As long as they brought items to trade—a log of pine loaded with resin might fetch its own weight in salt or tea—they could leave with precious salt.”
These nomads travelled the Tsa’lam route that few could endure. This wasn’t a sensual route of colour and culture; it was one whose threats were tangible. We arrive back to Xiadawu, having crossed the ice-cold, hip-deep Nam River. It has taken us less than a week to make it around Amne Machin. Though there’s contentedness at having completed our journey, it marks the end of our search for what remains of the old nomadic Salt road.
Leaving the valley itself two days later, in a car that putters, my little canine friend tosses me a last sniff, before moving off to hassle the yak.
- Jeff Fuchs lived in the Himalayan foothills for more than 15 years and specializes in retracing the ancient trails of human history: the Silk Road, and many of its tributaries (the Wool, Salt and Spice routes), and recently the Great Inca Road in Peru, where he led Team Outpost across the Andean highlands in search of the spirit of ayni. This story first appeared in Outpost magazine.