Interview: Jeff Fuchs, 2011 WildChina Explorer

WildChina > WildChina Explorer Grant > Interview: Jeff Fuchs, 2011 WildChina Explorer

Our 2011 Explorer Grant winner, Jeff Fuchs, set the bar high when he and his friend Michael Kleinswort set out to rediscover the Tsalam Road in Qinghai province. Also known as the Nomadic Salt Road, this old trade route once held great importance to the communities of the Tibetan plateau. In recent history, however, the route had fallen into the most extreme obscurity and was at risk of being forgotten entirely. In the same way that he had traveled the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road to capture the remaining memories of that historic route, Jeff decided to track down some of the last remaining elders of the Salt Road to document their experience and shed light on the cultural and economic significance that this road once held.

We asked Jeff about his experiences on the Salt Road, as well as his earlier adventure retracing the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road: a twelve hundred year old trade route that allowed muleteers to carry tea from China to Tibet, Nepal, and India.


Interview: Jeff Fuchs, 2011 WildChina ExplorerJeff standing on the north face of Kawa Karpo near Shola Pass

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

What inspired you to explore the Ancient Tea and Horse Road?

Firstly, the fact that this ‘route through the sky’ combined two long held obsessions in my life: tea and mountains. Secondly – and sort of surprisingly – was the fact that so little of the route’s history and mention was made in documentation of the mountains and peoples. The most vital trade, migration, and conduit path in the Himalayas’ long and fabled past and yet barely a mention made beyond the same rehashed bits of information. It begged being done and it begged being done right, taking down as much of the locals’ and elders’ recollections as I could find and giving this great route some much needed light.

Why do you think this kind of expedition is important?

An expedition can bring back something and hopefully unveil a portion of a world that may not otherwise ever see ‘light’ or be understood. This idea of exploration for its own sake is great, but if something (anything really) isn’t brought back for a larger audience to engage in and savor, then it is more of an indulgence. So much of ‘exploration’ is simply racing up or across a terrain or summit in record time and while fantastic from a physical dynamic point of view, it for me holds little interest.

Tea, one of the globe’s timeless commodities, traveled along these overland routes and spread its liquid influence over much of the globe via these pathways. In the west we’ve typically read much of teas coming abroad by schooners but for much of Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, tea was hauled along on epic journeys that often took months to make, and were adventures and tales in themselves. I wanted to dig this up and give these daunting and linking journeys a physical context.

I also feel personally that the ancient ways of so many peoples on the planet of telling tales through oral narratives is something of huge value, so if one can not only engage in a journey itself, but also tell a tale through this old way, so much the better. It was one of the most daunting journeys ever taken that just happened to have a hugely significant cultural component.

Interview: Jeff Fuchs, 2011 WildChina Explorer

Even today, along remaining portions of the old tea route, villagers will travel with caravans as the pathways are often more useful and efficient than the roadways

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

Adventures always seem to incorporate some element of the unknown. When you set off on this journey, did you have a good idea of what you would encounter? Was there anything that surprised you?

The extent of what I knew the expedition would incorporate was: mountains, more mountains, tea, more tea, and the elders that I’d hoped to track down to give flesh to the days of trade. I knew that our team was about to embark on a journey that wasn’t nailed down on any map, and that so much of our journey would have to be adapted to terrain, health, good graces, and the fates.

What surprised me was the vastness of the route and how the ‘Tea Horse Road’ was so much more than one road and so much more than simply a route of horses and tea. It was a pathway that ushered life, commodities, ideas, and culture along for 13 uninterrupted centuries. The last remaining traders and travelers of the route touched something in the very core of the soul and it was they and their words and passion that continued to motivate and encourage our own team. I hadn’t expected (but hoped) that I’d be so moved by the tales of the elders who remembered the route.

The face of a Tea and Horse Road nomad is weathered with stories from the route. Photo by Jeff Fuchs, 2010.

The face of a Tea and Horse Road nomad is weathered with stories from the route.

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

What has been the most difficult thing you have had to deal with during your travels in China?

To remind myself to look twice at things and dig a little deeper before claiming any true ‘knowledge’. Learning too, to wait, is a something that time and again has frayed the nerves…just when you think something is set down in stone, it all changes and one must simply sit down and wait it out until something either happens….or doesn’t.

Spanning over 5000km, the Ancient Tea and Horse Road passes through a range of cultures. What differences or similarities struck you most about the people living on this route?

Without a doubt the similar reverence and way in which so many cultures along the route (two dozen) all saw the route’s inherent value. People shared a vision of the route as being something timeless, vital, and something to be cherished. Tea, salt, and the valued commodities all bound people to each other – even if they had never encountered one another. Languages, culture, DNA, and traditions may have been different but the route linked the peoples along the route. Often forgotten is the fact that the lifespan of the Tea Horse Road (called ‘gya-lam’ or ‘wide road’ in Tibetan) spanned 13 centuries.

It is amazing how peoples living thousands of kilometers away had impressions of one another along the route due to simple trade. DNA and genetics were also transferred along the length of the route so that Turkic blood, and that of ancient Persia flowed (and remain) in many of the mountain peoples to this day. Linguistics and habits were also affected and have carried over into the present, though this often is overlooked entirely.

Nomads along the route live simply and closely to nature Photo by Jeff Fuchs

Nomads along the route live simply, and close to nature

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

How do these communities relate to their history today?

Like so many portions of the globe, much of the young population wants to move forward out of the past. So many of the communities along the trade routes were (and still are incredibly) remote and strangely the more remote a community was, the more memories there were that had been transferred down and preserved. While there are usually members of households that recall the days of trade most youth that we encountered had little idea or interest in much of the past.

Apart from your exploration of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road, what other expeditions have you gone on in this part of the world?

Five other major expeditions in this part of the world including the most recent in India’s Himalaya along Pashmina wool route. Another, the Nomadic Road of Salt, a month long trek through southern Qinghai to one of the most remote salt lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, two other expeditions along other trade corridors through northwestern Yunnan – one of which was a previously undocumented portion of the Tea Horse Road that linked a series of villages to the main corridor into Tibet. One, last year was a fascinating and understated journey where I traveled with an old Tibetan herb collector to find two sacred lakes high in the mountains of Yunnan. Much of the journey was spent lost but it was a memorable journey because of the travel and time with this ancient.

Interview: Jeff Fuchs, 2011 WildChina Explorer

The elevated altitude of the Tea and Horse Road allows for intimate views of some of nature’s greatest peaks

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs) 

What have you found most rewarding about your travels?

Inevitably the experience; being immersed and abused by nature’s force and beauty is a consistent infusion of good and tangible force. In time though, the human dynamic has become more and more crucial for me. So often it is the human element – whether it be locals or elders who remember a time of journeying – that gives a place lifeblood. Having said that though, the magnificent spaces of the mountains in their lonely purity and joy continue and will continue to be one of the prime draws for me.

The world seems to grow smaller each day. Your experiences show that there are still opportunities for real exploration and discovery in China.  How do you feel adventure plays into our understanding of this complex country?

Often the ‘adventure’ aspect, the actual doing, and grinding away over terrains and through communities gives one insights that no book or theory can.

jeff-and-yakJeff loads a yak during his trip along the Nomadic Salt Route

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

In 2011, you received a WildChina Explorer Grant that brought you to one of the most isolated portions of the Tsalam route in Qinghai. Prior to your expedition, this salt trading route had been virtually unknown in the western world. How did you first find out about it?

Like so much in the mountains, one needs time to simply sit and listen and converse with the elders. It was during a research trip to scout a portion of the Tea Horse Road, that I came into contact with an ‘elder’ who spoke of another more remote, blizzard prone zone that was home to an ancient route of salt for the nomads. When I researched this route, I found nothing in the conventional data bases, so I pursued more elders to confirm and corroborate this information by tracking them down and simply questioning them. In time, several elders did support the salt route’s rough location and source. it is in such a way that oral narratives, and the oral tradition have fed and fueled much of my journeying.

How did your experience on the Nomadic Road of Salt compare to that of the Tea and Horse Road?

Summed up in two words: shorter, remoter. Many of the traders who are now very few had traveled both routes and others as well, and their descriptions were entirely accurate. The Tea Horse Road was a huge series of winding routes that converged, striated out, and converged again. Anything that had value was transported and the route itself was known by many in the Himalayas as the ‘Eternal Road’. It was a trade route, migration route…it was everything and known by all. The Nomadic Route of Salt was by comparison something much more localized and specific. It was a far more intimate, and desolate, thoroughfare that was almost entirely based on accessing the great salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau.


Jeff and travel companion, Michael Kleinwort, high in Amne Machin Range during their exploration of the Tsalam Road

(Photo Credit: Jeff Fuchs)

Between the Salt Road, the Tea and Horse Road, and India’s Pashmina wool route, you have explored some of the world’s major trade corridors. What keeps bringing you back to such places?

It is always the same elements: mountains, trade routes, and the desire to record the fading human elements on these routes through the sky that provided so much more than simply commodities. That the routes were so physical in their dimensions and such utter adventures makes them – in my mind at least – some of the largely unheralded journeys of all time. Another aspect of these routes is how they acted as conduits for DNA, and all sorts of cultural intrigue across the top of the world….utterly fascinating.

Join Jeff on his next adventure, this October 2015. View the Ancient Tea & Horse Road journey itinerary.

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