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Muleteers & Merchants: Trading on the Roof of the World

From the windswept traces of ancient trade routes to thriving modern marketplaces, the story of commerce in Tibet is a fascinating one. Joanna James finds out more…

Even with modern transport and infrastructure, a journey in Tibet quickly assumes the air of an adventure. Consider then the challenges and perils of a journey to Lhasa in, say, the 1860s or 1920s. The journey would take many weeks. You would have to contend with high altitude, bandits, extreme temperatures, changeable weather and long, long stretches of tough and waterless terrain. Think for a moment – what could induce you to undertake such a journey?

As I researched our story The Longest Relay last year, the thing that most impressed me was that anyone ever set out on these epic journeys. And yet, while Tibet might live in our imaginations as an isolated mountain fortress, in reality it was connected to its neighbours by a web of well-trodden trading routes.

Salt and wool were trekked out from the wastes of the Tibetan Changtang and exchanged for grain in Kathmandu’s bazaars. Tea from Yunnan and Sichuan was transported to Lhasa and traded for skins, musk and gold dust. Cloth and ceramics were imported from the Chinese lowlands and exchanged for exotic traditional remedies.

Most of these trade routes are now sliding into obscurity as first-hand knowledge of them dies with the last of the traders that trudged their length. But the markets where these men hoped to make their fortunes are still thriving, and in many cases the products themselves would be utterly familiar to earlier generations of merchants and muleteers.

One example can be found in a dusty parking lot in central Golmud. The triangular yard is filled with trucks and three-wheeled bicycles. Each flatbed truck holds a huge rock, often still encased in mud. Traders wearing identical straw hats use a system of hand signals to hide the value of their deals, which may reach millions of yuan. This is Golmud’s rough-and-ready jade market.
Golmud sits in the middle of Qinghai, which is closely akin to saying that it’s in the middle of nowhere. The town is, however, quite handy for the Kunlun Mountains that form the Tibetan Plateau’s northern rim, and for the thick seams of nephrite that run through them.

A thousand kilometres away in Gansu, another modern market selling an age-old product lines the streets of Hezuo. Tibetan and Hui Muslim traders crowd around makeshift stalls, women on low stools scrub dirt from their wares – dried caterpillar fungus, known variously as chongcao (蟲草) in Chinese, yartsa gunbu in Tibetan and, occasionally, as “Himalayan Viagra”.

Caterpillar fungus is half plant and half animal yartsa gunbu translates literally as “winter worm, summer grass”; a parasitic fungus that grows from the body of the ghost moth larvae. Found only at altitudes above 4000m and gathered by hand, the fungus has been used in Tibetan and Chinese remedies since the 15th century.

As the use of caterpillar fungus has become a status symbol elsewhere, it has also become an important source of income to communities across the Tibetan Plateau. Early each summer, you can see hillsides dotted with people bent double, poring over the grasslands for signs of yartsa gunbu, and impromptu markets like Hezuo’s spring up in towns across the plateau.

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The flourishing caterpillar fungus trade has also reached the Muslim Quarter of Lhasa’s Old Town, although the bulk of the city’s commerce goes on elsewhere in its narrow streets. An alleyway near the Jokhang Temple is filled with stalls selling juniper branches (thrown into the temple’s pot-bellied incense burners) and yak butter (for fuelling butter lamps). Hundreds of everyday items – vegetables, blenders for yak butter tea, and mala prayer beads – are bought and sold nearby in Tromsikhang Market.

Regardless of how romantic these trade routes and markets may seem to outsiders, Tibet’s modern-day merchants and traders’ greatest similarity to their fore-runners is in their pragmatism. If there are willing buyers, willing sellers will find a way to meet their needs – no matter how great the distances or challenges attendant in doing so. The face of trade here may look different, but its heart beats the same rhythm as ever.
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