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Warrior tribes and yak-turd tea

August 26, 2009

Horizons lost and found in 'Shangri-La'
By Mark Medley
The Weekend Post
August 24, 2009

Author and photographer Jeff Fuchs attempted to
become the first Westerner to travel the 2,400-km
Tea Horse Road, which stretches from China
through Tibet, Nepal and India. He chronicles the
journey in The Ancient Tea Horse Road. On a
recent trip back to Canada, Fuchs, 39, talked
about tea, travel and living in Shangri-La.

Q. Tell me about where you're living.

A. It's an area that's promoted as Shangri-La,
though it's not. It's the easternmost extension
of the Himalayan plateau, and it's the
northwestern tip of Yunnan province, which sort
of abuts the Tibetan autonomous region border.
The altitude is about 3,300 metres, so it's a
different world up there. The area itself is
populated by a nutty mix of Tibetans, Chinese,
Nashi and Lisu tribes, so it's a bit of a potpourri.

Q. How does one end up in a place like that? What took you there?

A. I'm a big tea drinker and collector, and
there's a tea region in the south of the
province, so I kept returning to buy these
mangled yak-turd pies of tea, which is actually
something you can collect like a wine. Second, I
was a rock climber, so it was a happy medium between the two needs.

Q. How long have you been there?

A. I've been travelling out there since 2002,
living on and off for the past three years. The
last year was spent in a Tibetan wooden home with
rampant mice and absolutely no heating.

Q. What keeps you there, besides the tea?

A. The imagination. It's allowed to wander there
because in 15 minutes out of my door I can get
completely lost in the mountains. The mountain
air is very literally an addiction. It's very hard coming back into city life.

Q. What would you recommend to travellers to the region?

A. I would say a place called Gansu. It's quite a
large tract of land that sits in the Chinese
mainland. They're grasslands at 4,000 to 5,000
metres, and every year sees this cycle of nomadic
tribes moving entire homesteads about six times a
year. These nomadic tribes are very much the
warrior tribes of the past, with all of the
qualities that come with that: They're
ferociously protective, they're generous to a
fault and they're entirely direct. There's no
airs that are put on for tourists. Nothing has
changed in their life for centuries.

- The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the
Last Himalayan Muleteers is published by Penguin.
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