Kensington Explorer-in-Residence, award-winning explorer and author Jeff Fuchs is currently leading an expedition to trace one of the ancient world's longest trade routes through the daunting and stunning geographies of the Indian Himalaya. On August 1st, Fuchs began what he's coined as the "Route of Wind and Wool".
He is leading the first-ever western team on a close to 8oo km journey shaped by fierce blizzards, jarring rock surfaces and remarkably lush valleys. Along with a team of local Sherpas and his long-time expedition partner, Michael Kleinwort, the Explorer-in-Residence is retracing the same route that was, for centuries, used to transport precious pashmina, tea, and salt upon the backs of mule, Bactian camel, and yak. The 33-day journey by foot will see some of the most remote landscapes on the globe and is for no other than the brave and devoted. Fuchs is taking on the challenge to not only retrace the fabled route but to track down the remaining traders who may still remember the days of the great "highway in the sky."
Here is Fuch's first account of the expedition along with a few pictures of the expedition thus far:
Of Ice and Men... and Mules
"The days of trade were good times, but the travelling itself was a time when people prayed for themselves, for others, and that the mountains would allow safe passage". I start with a line spoken by a trader I respect and admire with great reverence.
So much of this route that we're travelling is within a world that is elevated. Within the Chandra River Valley we've met with winds so consistently raging, they literally suck breath from the lungs.
Ice – glorious even as it melts – is stapled to peaks on every horizon. We've entered into the world (and these places of magnificent desolation are 'worlds') where the wind, the wafts of snow, and the site-lines are all particular. This world is the valley of the Bara Shigiri glacier, which is one of Asia's largest glaciers. I'm not convinced the glacier cares a bit of man's views of its size. It is an overlord in its own right with its own weather system and its own particular stone.
It is a vacuum that we enter, a tunnel that is layered in ice, moraine and rock. The moraine is perhaps the most dominant, standing out in dirty, boulder-gouged angles. It is difficult treading as one slip amid the boulders and would snap bones. Our team, which includes seven porters, has the look of a wind-blown caravan about it as we settle in the valleys micro-climate. Dust, ice-pellets and wind have molded features and voices that are hoarse with simply surviving the winds.
A glacier valley it is, but the Chandra River valley that we've just left is also a typical (if such desolate and abundant nothingness can be typical) area of shepherds that linger for only a couple of months a year before heading down into more temperate zones. Goats and sheep (and of course the ever-consistent wolves) are found ranging along the sheer cliffs. Wool and specifically Pashmina (called lèna locally) has been the commodity of choice in these regions for centuries.
Some hold that the Bara Shigiri Valley itself was an ancient route through which caravans passed. Within the glacier's breath; the peaks, the tongues of ice and the valley floor, shepherds and perhaps muleteers named all there was to name. It was they who named the peaks, and described in great detail the shapes the ice and snow made upon stone.
Our team has been chosen for both technical and linguistic abilities. Suresh is the mountain man, who is both direct and forceful. Dharma is a lean local who eats up terrain and geography in gaping strides and understands the 'local' dialects, and Kaku and Karma are the 'keepers of the home' – cooks, do-it-all rugged men who smile as they move.
We are pushing north slowly towards Ladakh. As one old horseman had told us, simplifying geography in a stroke, "Every valley leads somewhere, and every valley has a name to someone. Caravans passed over most mountains and through most valleys on their way to source trade items".
We've zip-lined over a glacier torrent on our way here. The ice caps and glaciers are melting, sending their liquefied remains down in grey masses. We've been told to heed the dangers of these powerful rivers, as recently a man was swept away never to be found.
We ascend into the Bara Shigiri's main valley. Ascending will be something we spend much time at in the coming month. To travel within the Himalayas is to ascend and descend in a never-ending circuit of thin-aired wonder.
Here, we ascend not for any communities that are left or for any mortal memories but rather for the land itself and its memories. It is a stone locked zone of where herds and wolves still roam, but little else.
Caravans along the trade routes were not simply mule and man driven. They could be comprised of sheep which had their own leather satchels hung onto them for carrying salt, yak for the heavy loads, mules for almost everything and even further north where we head and Bactrian double humped camels that could travel for days without water or food. A simple way of looking at trade in the mountains was; 'any item that was needed could be traded for, and anybody that could transport items would be used'.
Traipsing about in this thin-air and windy silence, it is up to the mind to imagine traders around these lands. Snow contentedly can fall almost any month of the year in these regions, and part of the challenge for trade wasn't simply delivering goods to market towns, it was surviving the journey. The snows, 'ka' , wrought havoc not only through the cold white it brought, but more lethally was the threat of disorientation that would exhaust the most hearty of caravans.
Tucking into a camp, the temperatures zoom south the second the sun decides to part behind the nearby peaks which encase us. Our supplies keep us content: a huge supply of green Puerh from my home, in Yunnan, fresh veggies which seem immune to the sun, porridge, and a number of little items that our magician of a cook, Karma will unveil in increments. He will evolve into, as many camp cooks before him, a kind of deity in our time with him, with the belly and the feet being barometers of happiness in the windy heights. When those two are content, all is possible.
A vital for us on this journey too is harnessing the relentless sun's energy. Michael and I have both got solar panels with chargers to ensure that our slightly intrusive electronic family of items remain functional. We are in a valley at 4700 metres, so the sun doesn't seem that far away at all.
'When winds disappear in the mountains, the cold begins' goes the informal saying about nights in the stone abodes. Informal saying or not, the silent cold arrives, seeping out of the earth. High above our camp a rock tumbles down an icy layer echoing its bumpy trail downwards.
More About Jeff Fuchs:
Jeff is an author who has lived most of the past decade in Asia where his work and research has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories and an obsessive interest in tea. He gained prominence in the realm of exploration for being the first westerner to trek the daunting Tea Horse Road, one of the world's greatest trade routes. His book 'The Ancient Tea Horse Road' documents this 8-month ground breaking expedition covering 6,000 kilometers through the rugged Himalayan Mountains to uncover the mysteries of this vital route that has been so critical to the lives of the remote Himalayan people.
Jeff is a current member of the Explorers Club fluent in several languages, most notably in Mandarin, and calls the Shangri La County his home. His passion for exploration can be seen through his powerful photo essays which have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, World Geographic, Kyoto Journal, The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, The China Post Newspaper, Silkwinds, Outpost, The Toronto Star and The South China Morning Post amongst others.
Visit Fuch's website to earn even more about him and his other adventures: http://www.jefffuchs.com/
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