The Horse Caravan to Nurture the Body and the Soul

I grew up as a young lad hearing stories about the Horse Caravan Tea Route of the Tibetan highland. The stories were shrouded in myth and legend and filled with the romance of those heroic Khampa men, strong and silent types, who overcame insurmountable challenge and accomplished impossible feats through fortitude and determination. It was 1954 and I was just 10 when I found myself part of a glorious horse caravan journey from Chamdo to Lhasa, and Lhasa, all the way to Kalimpong, India. I consider myself lucky, because mine was most likely one of the last of the full fledged horse caravan journeys of its kind at the end of that era. Not only was I able to connect first hand with the legendary stories I’d heard throughout my childhood but in the process, I developed a few good ones of my own to share with eager listeners.

It was the humble mule drivers; their indefatigable stamina, resourcefulness and immense joy derived from their journeys that made Tibet’s commerce prosper and cultural exchange thrive despite the immense obstacles posed by natural and geographic barriers. I am a direct beneficiary of the fortune my grandfather made on the horse caravan trade. I understand why the horse caravan route became the spawning ground to train and nurture the most resourceful Khampa mule drivers who rose from the ranks to become leaders of men and merchant houses in Tibet. I also understand that these great merchant leaders from the horse caravan trade went on to become Tibet’s distinctive brand of social entrepreneurs who were both resourceful in action and generous in heart. They were recognized and called Jindhas, or patrons of their communities, by public acclamation. I grew up hearing my grandfather addressed as a Jindha and learning about his life time of accomplishments as part of the family lore I grew up with. 

These gallant men’s first and foremost responsibility was delivery of tea to Tibet, which is a strategic staple in Tibet, as oil is to American society.  While Chinese and Japanese society made tea drinking into a highly social and ritualized ceremony, in Tibet, due to the high altitude and harsh climate, Tea was a vital part of the Tibetan diet that nurtured the soul and hydrated the body for survival. In fact, when Tibetans were engaged in a war against the Chinese in the Song dynasty, the Tibetans refused the Chinese request to supply them with Tibetan war horses for trade. However, the Tibetans quickly relented when the Chinese threatened to retaliate by blockading the tea supply. In addition, the horse caravan trade brought luxury goods that Tibetans love, like Chinese silk, brocade and porcelain. These were traded for Tibetan wool, salt and herbal medicine. From British India came finished wool fabrics and high-end Swiss watches like Rolex and Omega which Tibetans wore as a part of their fashion statement and status symbol. After all, they were not engaged in nine to five routine jobs or dashing  from one appointment to the next like folks in the West. The Rolex and Omega watches they wore, were worn like jewelry. Other imports from India included snuff for the monks- more discreet than cigarettes- and sizable quantities of simple Indian farming implements.

Miniature painting of Horse Caravan Tea Route

Miniature painting of Horse Caravan Tea Route

Thus when I salute the mule drivers and the Horse Caravan Trade that nurtured the Tibetan body and soul, I also honor my grandfather, Ani Tsering, who proved himself as a worthy mule driver.

- Kesang Tashi