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Tibet's last caravan with transporting salt(I)

Text by Gyayang Xirab

Travel route of Galsang Wangdui's caravan.

Gyayang Sirab (1957-2003) was born into a far from well-off herder family from a pasturing area of northern Tibet. In 1971, he had only just begun going to the primary school at the age of 14. In 1978, he was allowed to stay as a teacher after graduating from middle school.

In 1983, he was transferred to the Nagqu Cultural Bureau and commenced literature creation and published the suite of poems such as Childhood, Salt Lake, and Soliloquy of Soul. In 1994, he was transferred to the Tibet Association of Writers and held various posts including secretary general, vice-chairman and executive vice-chairman.

Every year, men from the northern Tibet pastures became involved in a traditional transportation activity--carrying salt on the back of cattle to engage in a salt-for-grain exchange --that lasted many days or sometimes even several months. When he was young, Gyayang used to go to the Salt Lake with the salt-shipping team.

In 1994, he returned to his hometown with a production unit and followed a salt shipping team for 28 days. In all, the production unit shot footage over a period of two years centered on No.5 Baogyi Village of Bango County.

The documentary film entitled The Last Salt Shipment Team On Cattle Back Of Tibet (released by Beijing October Literature and Art Press in January 2004) won the “Luxun Literature Prize” of that year and “the 3rd Zhengtai Cup Prize for China Reportage”. Unfortunately, Gyayang had died the previous October.

Our periodical will select and publish related sections from this issue.

The beasts charged with transporting salt (the herders call them “kai”) face two long journeys each year, carrying the salt back from the Salt Lake in spring and then going on to the farming area to exchange it for grain after the autumn harvest. At other times, they remain on the mountain, being driven back to the pen every day like other livestock.

The men of the herder family, in turn every few weeks, go round and inspect the beasts that will carry the salt. There are usually some who have strayed or even been stolen, as well as those who have become sick and who will be slaughtered for their meat.

The Importance of Beast Charged With Transporting Salt

Cattle and sheep are very important for Tibetan herders, and the wealth or poverty of a family will be judged by the number of animals at the door.

The Ouju’s with the No.11 Village of Bolung Township of Biru County in Nagqu Prefecture are very rich, and breed over 700 livestock of all kinds. They live among lofty and precipitous peaks far from the township. Traditional values remain and their lifestyle has not changed at all.

It snowed all of a sudden when the herders were on way back home.

The herders have a deep sentiment toward the livestock during the long-term process of breeding them. An excellent herder can identify by name the many sheep he grazes and distinguish one from another, so that he is very reluctant to slaughter any livestock.

Just after the lambs have been born, the men ready their own luggage and turn out to drive the cattle to their mountain home.

This day, there is a line for fastening cattle laid out in front of the house of every family in the No.5 Village. This line is two strands of rope twisted from the hair of the cattle’s tail with a ring buckle located every two meters for fastening the beasts. The length of the line is worked out according to the number of beasts that will transport the salt for each family. Generally, 25 to 35 beasts are required.

Galsang Wangdui has over 40 cattle to transport salt. He has fixed up a u-shaped line in front of his house. The other half is left to his partner—Radi. Radi lives in the No.4 Village of Baogyi. When Galsang Wangdui began carrying salt, he invited Radi to be his partner, because the latter’s family only had four cattle.

Cangnorbu has 23 head of cattle. The ground line of his family is triangular-shaped.

The animals are fastened to the line according to their rank for orderliness. If there is one rebel who fights and defeats an animal of superior rank then the order will be adjusted to ensure harmony.

When Toingya prepares to saddle the cattle, he is always reciting sutras. Toingya’s mother holds the burning plant emitting thick smoke in her hands and prays incessantly round the phalanx of yaks and her son as he scuttles among the beasts.

Yongcog is also burning aromatic plants and reciting sutras round the beasts belong to Galsang Wangdui and herself, wishing her father-in-law and his animals a safe journey.

The salt traders like to dress up their favorite animal or those who will lead the caravan. Cangnorbu creates a pair of red eardrops made of cattle hair and also sews a piece of red cloth and places it on the mane of the black beast charged with transporting salt. On the mane of the Galsang Wangdui’s leading beast are a few pieces of red cloth, one piece of which is sutra streamers printed with sutra lines designed to protect the salt shipment team from calamity and wishing them a safe return home.

Spring Snow Sends the Salt Shipping Team Off

It snowed the day before the caravan set out. After everyone had drunk their morning tea, they walked out from their home, lifting up the long, rectangular bags filled with food and placed it on the backs of the animals; all the people of the village came out to send them off.

Female villagers see the caravan off.Walking in the forefront is the wife Galsang Wangdui.

As the animals began to move off, people offered some parting blessing and a salute, cheek touching cheek. Galsang Wangdui felt a little anxious. Although he still blessed everyone, he omitted the name before the blessing as though this could shorten the time of parting.

Nudi sent Sangdog off and continued to shout from far away: “Wish children carrying salt every success”. This shows parental confidence in the younger generation.

However when he sent Galsang Wangdui off, he saluted others by touching their faces with his open arms—doing this was an etiquette as well as expressing respect for Galsang Wangdui.

For the herders, carrying salt is a form of productive labor that must be done every year, and is never interrupted. Now that there is no longer any bandit menace, there is little need for solemnity in the sending-off or any reluctance to part.

The Family of Salt People

The salt shipping team went to the first campsite where men from three different starting places had arranged to meet. An advance team had already reached the campsite to nail down the lines for the cattle. When the main team reached the campsite, luggage would be unloaded inside their respective ground line circle. Then, while some put up the tent, others would be away gathering dried dung for the fire. Everything seemed to be done in perfect order.

Salt men live in tents. Photo by Jorgo

Toinzhub, the “mother” held an aluminum pot filled with water level in both hands, and placed it on the triangular stove in the tent. Then, he put a burning cigarette in the crumbed cattle dung powder and used a sheepskin bellows to set it ablaze. For a moment, the tongue of flame licked the smoky bottom of the pot, quickly increasing as the bellows wheezed away.

The tea boiled. With a call of Toinzhub, the other men walked into the tent from their own ground line circle, lifting the long, rectangular bag bulging with food, and respectively played their own part in this temporary family.

According to age, this salt shipping team, guided by Galsang Wangdui, is divided into two small families distributed in two tents.

The seating arrangements are set according to each person’s post. Galsang Wangdui’s family is composed of eight persons. The seat of “father” is at the right top end of the tent, and is naturally occupied by Galsang Wangdui himself. On his left is Radi, and this is the seat of “judge”. To the left of Radi is the seat of the non-fixed post. This is near the door of the tent, and is very convenient to come and go; originally, it was the seat of the one taking part in carrying salt for the second time and was called “the odd job-man of carrying salt”. But there is no one in that position now, so Zhaxi Caindain is allowed to sit in this seat and serve as the “odd-job man”. Toinzhub sits on the left of the door, and is in charge of looking after the fire, making tea and cooking the dinner. On the left of this “mother” is “Bobu” or the one who takes part in carrying salt for the first time so he is somewhat “mothered” by Toinzhub.

"Mom"Toinzhub of the salt men's family. Photo by Jorgo

While Toinzhub was making buttered tea, the people took the food that their wives had made the previous night last night from their bags to eat. Every now and then, they exchanged food with each other to taste.

Zanba (roasted highland barley) is the staple food of the Tibetans. The usual way to eat it is to mix it mixed with butter and milk dregs into a paste. Galsang Wangdui said: “that the family made zanba for the person who will go on a long journey means that they wish the long journey will go smoothly and everyone will come back home at an early date like grazing.”

Galsang Wangdui is aged 55 and there aren’t5 many people of that aged who went to carry salt. Moreover Galsang Wangdui has a very capable son, Wangqen. Since Wangqen grew up and could go on the salt trek, Galsang Wangdui hadn’t set foot on the road to the Salt Lake for a long time.

This is a interviewing topic of our production unit——

Gyayang: “Please talk about why you personally go to carry salt”

Galsang Wangdui: “Since the Tibetan New Year I haven’t grazed the sheep, and it was left to Wangqen. This year’s harvest is bad, and a large number of livestock have died. Once the herder changes, some things will be difficult to manage. For example, if the mother sheep dies, I don’t know her offspring who will die if not properly cared for. If the young sheep die, I don’t know its mother sheep. So the mother’s milk will dry up and there will be no milk in summer unless I take measures in time. This is the first reason. Secondly, I want to see the Salt Lake and the place where I used to go.  Again I want to see how the highway opens into the Salt Lake, whether the highway condition is good or not, and which mountains and rivers we should cross. I almost forget all the routes that I used to walk across carrying salt on the cattle’s back. I want to know if it is convenient to carry salt using the truck. That’s all.”

Salt men catching forty winks out noon in their tents.

Gyayang: “Will you carry the salt using the truck in the future?”

Galsang Wangdui: “I just bought a truck and haven’t too much confidence in carrying salt using it. From now on, if I know some lake assuredly has salt, I will use the truck instead of yaks. Thus, I can quickly report the salt quality to the people of my hometown.”

Gyayang: “How will you use your beast charged with transporting salt in the future?”

Galsang Wangdui: “The beast will remain behind. I don’t think that the truck will take the place of animal power. My family has both manpower and beasts to transport salt, and the animals will continue to serve as a means of exchange between salt and grain. The salt carried by cattle from the north to the south, exchanges for grain.”

After we finished interviewing Galsang Wangdui, we went on following and shooting other scenes. It was noon, but our Director Tan still didn’t intend to stop shooting and he always shuttled between the two tents out of breath. Song Hequan gasped more fiercely but he still followed Director Tan and recorded every word and every song. I was very hungry. Every time I got into the tents, my gustatory sensation was always so sensitive as to catch the full-bodied fragrance of buttered tea.

When we came into the family of young people and starting filming, the director asked me to interview Burqoin and invite him to introduce the members of the family. The two brothers, Burqoin and Toinzhub, respectively worked as the “mothers” of the two families, and Garsu served as the “judge”. Below is a section of the interview with Burqoin…
   Burqoin: “This is the ‘judge’, and he is a ‘Bobu’.”

   Gyayang: “He is a ‘Bobu’?”

   Burqoin:  “Yes.”

   Gyayang: “It’s very bewildering. Isn’t ‘Bobu’ the mother’s pet?  Why is he allowed to serve as ‘judge’?”

   Burqoin: “Indeed you are an old salt person!”

   Soigya: “He is the partner of the ‘father’, who allows the small ‘Bobu’ to serve as ‘judge’ by the “back door”.

   Garsu: “Yes. Right. No matter what it means, I, the small ‘Bobu’, anyhow I took the seat of ‘judge’. The fellow, he is the ‘servant’ of the salt team. All the people of our family have the right to send him. Even if he is sent to lick our buttocks, he has to obey the orders obediently.”(Everybody guffaws at this).

   Burqoin: “I am the ‘mother’. I made a fire and made buttered tea for everybody, I am just the genuine servant.”

Soigya sit at the position of “odd-job man”, taking from the long, rectangular bag a soft “sheep’s belly”, from which black pot ale made from zanba (roasted highland barley) was extruded. Drinking wine isn’t popular among Tibetan herders. Except during the Tibetan New Year or at a marriage celebration, qingke barley wine almost is never seen. And it is seldom known for somebody in the salt shipment team take the pot ale made from zanba (roasted highland barley).

Caravan members Burqoin(first left) and Toinzhu (fourth left) and their families.

Later, I found that all the people drank the pot ale stored in the sheep’s belly. The old chief said that this was the invention of the present generations. It originated from the period of people’s commune when all the livestock belonged to the production team. There was little privately owned livestock and the salt transporters had no sour milk to drink, so they took to pot ale instead. Thus custom continues until now.


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