National Geographic : 2010 May
traditional yak meat-and-butter economy. It takes ve hours to cover the 18 miles to Tsa- chuka, a nomad camp at the base of the Nub- gang Pass. e ride thoroughly jars our spines. e cowboys build a small sagebrush camp re and, a er a lunch of yak jerky and yak butter tea, Sue and I set o on foot for the legendary pass. To our delight, the ancient path is quite vis- ible, like a rocky trail in the Alps, winding up meadows speckled with black, long-horned yaks. After two hours of hard uphill hik- ing, we pass two shimmering sapphire tarns. Beyond these lakes, all green disappears and ev- erything turns to stone and sky. Mule trains of tea stopped crossing this pass over a half century ago, but the trail had been maintained for a thousand years, boulders moved and stone steps built, and it's all still here. Sue and I zigzag through the ta- lus, along the walled path, right up to the pass. e saddle-shaped Nubgang Pass has clearly been abandoned. e few prayer ags still ap- ping are worn thin, the bones atop the cairns bleached white. ere is a silence that only ab- sence can create. Sue stares at the snowcapped peaks surrounding us, raw gray pyramids. Over centuries, only a few Westerners have ever stood here. I catch Sue's eyes following the enduring trail down into the next valley. "Can you see it?" she asks. I can. In my imagination I see a mule train of Modern workhorses, Chinese-made motorcycles line a street in Sershul. Many belong to nomads who come to sell yartsa gompo---dried, fungus-infected caterpillars---marketed as a medicinal cure-all. Dug from high-altitude grasslands, a handful of "worm grass" (le ) may sell for thousands of dollars, bringing much needed cash to rural families.