Horses, Blue and a Rail

Qinghai or for the Tibetans, Amdo – Michael and I have entered from the eastern Gansu border by that ‘everywhere’ mode of transportation in this part of the world, the bus. The struggle is as usual present; coming out of rugged, silent hinterlands and into a world of chaos and hordes where the mind has to cope with what is and isn’t essential…and much is very ‘unessential’.

Michael waits one of our many waits for transportation

Our collective intention is clear and we make haste to get ‘out’ of the city and into big sky country where horizons are a clear line…the moment we arrive to the dusty bulk of the capital of Xining, we hire a driver to take us west to a lake that is known to Mongolians as Kokonor, to the Tibetans as Tso Humbo (Blue Lake) and to the Han as Qinghai Hu. It is regardless of its name the largest lake within China proper and our direction is northwest towards Gansa, which lies northeast of the great blue liquid mass.

On one of Gansa's many corners a gaggle of men sell everything that the local land provides, including what we know as Cashmere and yak wool

Gansa seems to have erupted out of a flatland. Like many locales in these slightly destitute lands one needs an imagination (or perhaps it is my need to find a more pleasant memory of the place) to try and see beneath the newly erected plastic looking façade. There are always the tell-tale shacks and buildings on the fringes which hint at what once was and Gansa is no different. Everything is ‘new’ but little of what we see is at all natural looking. On the outskirts of the town mud huts and tents become the norm, though I imagine they too in time will be something of the past.

Nomads homes offer up proof-positive of the old adage of what is not essential is not taken. A small solar panel rests atop the solid structure

After a night spent in a room smelling of a century of dirty socks, along with a bizarrely ornate rug, we are up the next morning with a bit of zip and fire in us…we will head into the high flatlands, back into nomadic country. Regardless of aches and tiredness that filters down through the days, we are always primed whenever we are heading into ‘empty’ lands.

Off to the right of the road we have been thrown around upon for hours, a multi-coloured collection of nomads huddle. Ornate braids line women’s backs, broad shouldered men with knives which hang in a kind of reckless homage to the past days of fast wits and faster hands.

Horses, belonging to nomads wait in gleaming knots waiting their turn to impress in the local races

Horses stand in knots, gleaming and frisky. The highlight of this informal horse festival will be a series of long distance races much as they do in Mongolia – the horse and riders are matched and in many cases the four-legged winner might have offers to buy it. Much of Mongolian culture influenced and even conquered these portions, only to fall back into the equally formidable locals’ hands.

A horseman arrives with his four-legged mate at the end of the race exhausted. He is bareback on the horse in a tribute to the past

Deeper we travel into the angled mountains and rains track our progress. Earlier we had been held up on our journey when, with no warning whatsoever, a nomad weaved his motorcycle into our path. What I thought would be an epic crash became a nasty crunch as bounced him and his bike a metre or two. Clearly the nomad’s fault prevailing laws meant that our driver was ultimately responsible and what ensued is part of the great theatrical web of this part of Asia.

After we made sure that the nomad driver was ok, part two of the performance begins with recriminations flying back and forth in a kind of gentle aggression…everyone knowing all the while that our own driver will have to pay up some kind of compensation.

People gather at the sight of our unfortunate accident. The gathering increased pushing up the amount that would be payed - such is the way here

Fellow nomads file in and soon the entire road is blocked with people stopping to get in and see the action – even in this remote little corner or the world. There is one point, one brief moment when I wonder if things will get a tad nasty. A bulky Tibetan who has arrived late, wired and entirely drunk, tries to reignite the entire drama by insinuating all sorts of things. Cooler heads prevail ultimately and a fee is payed and the nomadic driver is shuttled off to mend the leg.

Wandering along I often think on the ways that geography affect the mind, the lives and the aspirations of people. Here with sheer masses of ‘emptiness’, where the sky and earth and yak dung come together, everything seems tangible and touchable. I wonder too if this isn’t one of the reasons (and draws for me) to these lands and peoples – that they are so tangible.

Given this space this way of living, it is hard to imagine a ‘people of the earth’ without their traditional ways.

A mass of gorgeous ‘emptiness’ sets the mind alight with spaces yet to see


At one point off to our left a straight line seems out of place on the huge gap of space. Finally and almost impossibly it comes into focus. A railway coasts above the landscape on stilts. Even here amidst all of this green and sun this sleek transport convener finds a home. We continue until finally the rail and its geometry happily disappear from our view.

A railway line out of nowhere bisects the valley


About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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2 Responses to Horses, Blue and a Rail

  1. ted says:

    “Wandering along I often think on the ways that geography affect the mind, the lives and the aspirations of people. ” Living for the moment in New Mexico, I often speculate that the people who grow up in the grasslands east of the mountains must be rich in imagination. The mind strives to fill in all that empty space. Little wonder that UFOs are seen in the skies, or that oilmen want to control a world whose reaches stretch away in every direction.

    • JeffFuchs says:

      This point about the imagination is I think crucial. When ‘facts’ don’t cloud the mind and eye the world around these ‘people of the land’ opens up possibilities, hopes and dreams….and as you mention the mind tries to “fill in all that empty space”.


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