In an exclusive blog for Vision, award-winning reportage photographer Michael Freeman documents his two-year expedition into the heart of the Tea Horse Road, the fantastical ancient trade route between China and Tibet previously untouched by Western photographers
One of the most powerful themes in narrative, possibly the most powerful, is the journey. It carries the promise of purpose, a destination, a length of time set aside to focus on travelling. The greatest journeys have been epic quests, from Homer’s Odyssey to Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West [西游记]. What turns a road and the act of travelling into a journey is the idea of it. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
My publisher Narisa Chakra and I (she is also an old friend) had arranged a lunch. It was a few years since we had made a book together; too long, we both agreed. We should find a theme for a new one, and she wanted to move on from our old projects, all of them focused on Southeast Asia. “Something in China”, she said, but not too far from our earlier publications. These had been cultural and historical, in Thailand and Cambodia. They had included a book on Thailand’s ancient capitals, another on the north of the country, five books on Angkor, and more.
I began searching for a subject. It was always going to be a big book, and would be driven by the photography, in the region of 300 pages and 300 images. In addition to my other work as a photographer, I try to have one large, personal project on the go at any one time, partly for sanity and partly to have a new subject and place to explore. Each book means a commitment of two or three years, so choosing the theme is not something to be taken lightly. The predecessor, published in 2005, had been on Sudan, with two old friends, Tim Carney, former US Ambassador there, and his wife, writer and journalist Vicki Butler. Inevitably because of its starting point in southern Yunnan, I came across the Tea Horse Road. What was wrong with me? Why had I never heard of this? Here was an ancient trade route going back to the 7th century, a few to several thousand kilometres long, depending on which way you looked at it, and crossing some of the most varied and interesting territory on the planet.
Not only was the Tea Horse Road a journey, but it was virtually unknown outside China. This was virgin territory for publishing, and more or less untouched by photographers in the West. A rare opportunity. It was also much more than a physical journey. It began with tea, a story in itself, and the botany extended to ethno-botany, because the tea mountains on the right bank of the Mekong are tended by ethnic minorities. The story would also take in politics, trade, more than a thousand years of history, and the Tibetan horses that gave the road half of its name. There was plenty to be going on with, and would certainly justify a 300-page book. In fact, the road became the armature for a story that went beyond the exchange of commodities, tea and horses. It was the twisting spine from the far southwest of China to Tibet, on which I thought I could hang all these different topics. A book needs structure above all, and what better than a physical armature to hold it all in place.
Michael Freeman will be appearing at the 2017 Emirates Airline Festival of Liteature. The 2017 edition takes place from 3-11 March. For more on the festival visit www.emirateslitfest.com