WildChina > WildChina > The Jewel of the Heights

The following is an excerpt from Jeff Fuchs’ Tea and Mountain Journals, a blog by explorer, photographer and writer Jeff Fuchs.  Jeff is the 2011 recipient of WildChina’s Explorer Grant.  He and friend Michael Kleinwort are currently traveling through unknown portions of the Tsalam route in Qinghai.

Below is an update from their journey…

The Jewel of the Heights
Jeff Fuchs coddles white gold
At first it is a glimmer, nothing more than a reflection that I think might be there. Shimmering heat already ripples in the morning air blurring my sightlines.  Michael’s eyes are creased studying the same spectre that I see…he is making a humming sound as if to speak and my veins are chocked with blood. Tsa (salt) and its ancient home are close and that sense is within both of us.
The Jewel of the Heights
Tsam Tso – Salt Lake, at last
We are about 40 kilometres west of Mado in a remote but expansive valley and the vista before us refuses to clarify. We should be closing in on our long awaited salt mecca – the simultaneously famed yet hidden source of salt that drew in nomads from all over the plateau. The place to which goliath yak and weather-toughened men came and ultimately left, carting a hundred kilograms or more of pure white gold.
A bolt blue sky above is followed below by red earthen hills that run along the horizon and below these two known jolts of colour, a glimmering reflection continues to hover.  What is stunning here is the absence of anything – as though all life, all moving things have been evacuated so that colour and space may play. We are at 4,300 metres and while the sun pounds down it is cold clear air that is running the show.
Suddenly all glimmering ends and there is in front of us a flat piece of glass and in those first seconds there is that rare feeling of certainty – we have arrived. Tsam Tso the Glorious – Tsam Tso, the utterly still.

The stillness has silenced our tongues and suppressed any grand displays. There are no demonstrations of success, no surges of happiness from either of us at having arrived – the stillness and emptiness is haunting.

“Few know of this place”, we have been told.

Above us a hawk (Nele) monitors our progress, its wings driving through the air, the only sound. For the past thirty years this high altitude lake has shimmered, but not hosted any salt seekers.
The Jewel of the Heights
The Watcher

What we see is a shallow lake that is disappearing – we have been told that in the past ten years the water levels have declined dramatically. Quite what made the salt ‘better’ than other is a mystery but this salt was collected by traders from northwestern Sichuan making the two week journey, up to northern Qinghai and even to Lhasa in roughly a month.

A path to the north – a mere wisp – is what is left of the route which yak used to take their precious mineral cargoes to all points. One single nomadic tent remains. The family has been in the valley for generations and is the only remaining nomadic clan in view.

The Jewel of the Heights
Nomads….gone modern with a much needed solar panel

The family tells us how the lake itself will dry up in time. Thick salt coats the shallow lakes but is unused except by the odd bird that fancies a saline treat. Nomads left the valley when the famed salt dried up. When I ask what made the salt so special that traders traveled through such landscapes to access, the response was vague and simple – “because it was special salt”.

Silence pervades and the wind itself seems to be mindful that this is a valley of quiet – my mind wanders backward in time to when bodies came and went buying and trading for the salt. Traders from Sichuan would often bring special wood, sap and resin heavy pine for trade for salt – bartering has a deep and long running pedigree in these parts.

The Jewel of the Heights
Some things don’t change…at least not entirely

Two structures – salt storage facilities lie forlorn and dilapidated – lie just off of the shallows and saltpans.


For the full post, please visit http://www.tea-and-mountain-journals.com/
Image: Jeff Fuchs

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