National Geographic : 2010 May
plastic plates, computers to cell phones. Almost all of it goes one way---west to Tibet, to meet the needs of a ballooning Chinese population. e western half of the middle route has nev- er been paved. is is the segment that winds through Tibet's remote Nyainqentanglha Moun- tains, an area so rugged and inhospitable it was simply abandoned decades ago and the entire area closed to travelers. I'd seen what was left of the original trail in China. To do the same in Tibet, I'd have to nd a way into these forbidden mountains. I called my wife, Sue Ibarra, who is an experi- enced mountaineer, and asked her to meet me in Lhasa in August. at the Drepung monas- tery, which lies at the western end of the Tea Horse Road---less than a day's horse ride from Just as China's imperial government used to regulate the tea trade in Sichuan, so monasteries in uenced the trade in theocratic Tibet. e Tea Horse Road, known to Tibetans as the Gyalam, connected the important monasteries. Over the centuries, power struggles in Tibet and China changed the Gyalam's route. ere were three main trunk lines: one from the south in Yun- nan, home of Puer tea; one from the north; and one from the east cutting through the middle of Tibet. Because it was the shortest, this center route handled most of the tea. Today the northern route, Highway 317, is blacktop. Near Lhasa it parallels the Qinghai- Tibet railway, highest in the world. e southern route, Highway 318, is also oiled. ese high- ways are major arteries of commerce, clogged with trucks carrying every imaginable com- modity from tea to school tablets, solar panels to Tea travels the old way, by foot, as a nomad heads back to camp carting two bundles purchased in the Sichuan market town of Ganze. A bundle holds four bricks, more than 20 pounds of tea. Given Tibetans' consumption---drinking up to 40 cups a day---that is barely enough tea to last a month.