Michael Freeman: shooting the Tea Horse Road

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.

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April tea-picking on Bulangshan, where the Akha ethnic group maintain some of the most highly regarded Pu’er tea gardens. The strangely bright appearance of the leaves is because here I used a camera convert to record infrared. The chlorophyll in leaves reflects strongly in infrared, hence the whiteness, and it seemed to me that the many shades of white and light grey better conveyed the biodiversity of these forests than colour (actually just dull greens).

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Horses crossing the Nujiang gorge near Fugong over a narrow suspension bridge. Horses no longer carry tea — that ended in the middle of the 20th Century — but they are still used in the more remote parts of the mountains simply to carry regular goods.

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Behind Jade Dragon Mountain, close to Lijiang, are communities of ethnic Yi people. Here, the funeral of a village elder was attended by all the surrounding communities, the women dressed traditionally. These women are waiting for the arrival of neighbours.

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Pack horses cross the Shi Yi Luo bridge across the Yalong River south of 7000m Gonggashan. Ponies and mules are used regularly here to support small-scale mining operations in the mountains.

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At one time the only way for most people of crossing fast and dangerous rivers, cable slides are still in use by the Lisu minority across the gorge of the Nujiang, the ‘Angry River’. An irresistible photo opportunity, of course. My travelling companion was local. We both hitched our rope ‘seats’ onto the same hook and kicked off. I held on to the pulley (as you would) and shot blind, holding the camera in my right hand up and to one side, with a very wide angle lens. The problem was that my own left hand was in shot, with white knuckles. So, back again. The only solution was to hold the camera with both hands, above and behind my head to the right, aiming as well as I could. The travelling speed is about 30 km/hour. There was only one useable shot — this one — because for the rest, my companion was nervously looking at me flying this way, no hands, and leaning back.

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The Tea Horse Road accommodated other goods, and one of the most important was salt. On a bend in the upper Mekong are the unique Yanjing salt pans. In the early morning, as the sun clears the mountains, women from the salt-mining communities carry bucketloads of the brine up from the tanks and empty them into the pans. The sun and strong winds evaporate the water during the day, and by afternoon the salt can be raked out.

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Tibetans took Chinese tea from the south and turned it into a very different, full-bodied nutritional drink, adding yak butter and salt. Monks at Songzanlin monastery in Shangri-La enjoy a morning cup. First, you boil the tea for about an hour until it’s completely stewed, then add yak butter (unfortunately often rancid) and salt and pound in a churn. A difficult drink if you’re not Tibetan.

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A group of young Tibetan men from Litang cross the 5,000 metre Dongda Pass on the former tea Horse Road to Lhasa, body-length at a time on their several-month pilgrimage. This prostration journey, in which the pilgrim stretches out full length, then stands, takes a couple of steps forward to where his or her fingers were, and begins again, is known in Tibetan as Cha or Chaktsai. The destination is always the same — the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, but the length depends on where you live, and can take many months.

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Having unloaded his animals, a Tibetan horseman leads them along a river bank on the shores of the sacred Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet. The number of ponies and mules gradually dwindles, year by year, as the road infrastructure throughout China improves.

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