The Price of a Pilgrimage
by CuChullaine O'Reilly
As I write these words, a brave man sits in prison.
Some have mocked him as a fool.
Others have denounced him as a law-breaker.
He is all these things, brave, foolish and an admitted trespasser.
He is also an equestrian explorer whose Quixotic pilgrimage along one of the world’s oldest trading routes has landed him in a gruesome Indian prison.
At first glance the case of Daniel Robinson seems clear enough.
According to the international press, the 39-year-old Englishman set off last year on an equestrian trek across China and Tibet.
His plan, they said, was to follow the legendary Tea Horse Trail.
His problems arose when, after a gruelling 3,000 kilometre journey across the roof of the world, Daniel’s beloved horses became ill in the Himalayas.
His mistake, the Indian judicial authorities say, started when the naïve Englishman wandered into their country in search of a vet, a hot meal, and the legendary hospitality of the country that gave birth to Buddha and Gandhi.
From London to Tibet
I don’t know if Daniel really understood what he was taking on when he left his job in London and set his eyes on the distant Tibetan horizon? If he had contacted The Long Riders’ Guild prior to his departure we would have warned him that despite its modern reputation as being the revered birthplace of the current Dalai Lama, Tibet had enjoyed a historical mean streak. The journey Daniel was contemplating had broken, killed and destroyed stronger, tougher, more seasoned travellers than he.
the famous English Long Rider Henry Savage Landor had tried to ride across Tibet
in 1890, only to be captured, tied to a saddle full of spikes and forced to
undergo a ride through hell. But at least he lived.
The American Long Rider and CIA spy, Douglas MacKiernan wasn’t so lucky. After fleeing capture by the Red Chinese in 1950, he was shot and beheaded in Tibet by over-zealous border guards.
If Daniel had approached The Guild prior to his departure we would have warned him that the sun and moon may change but the harsh Tibetan landscape is still a man-breaker.
But the former chef turned spiritual pilgrim didn’t seek any advice before trying to make his way along the Tea Horse Trail, a bone-breaking track stretching thousands of miles from western China, up and over Tibet and down into the distant plains of India. Instead he joined up with a company of Tibetans in China and set off in search of that oft-times deadly combination, external adventure and internal harmony.
The Tea Horse Trail
They say it takes raw courage to travel the Tea Horse Trail to Lhasa and pure nerve to follow it from there on.
It was in the Tang Dynasty, (618 - 907), that caravans began to transport bricks of tea from Xishuangbanna, over the crow’s nest of Central Asian mountains before reaching India many thousands of miles away.
Historians date the introduction of tea to Tibetan-inhabited areas back to the 7th century. Tea quickly became indispensable to Tibetan people's daily life as its role in dissolving fat helped them digest their diet of meat and milk. As Tibet's climate and geography precluded tea cultivation, the hermit kingdom heavily relied on inland areas for tea supply.
The Chinese tea was exchanged for Tibetan horses during the ancient dynasties. Normally a horse was traded for 50 kilograms of tea but sometimes, as in the Reign of Yuanfeng (1076-85) of the Song Dynasty, for just 20 kilograms of tea. The Office of the Tea-Horse Department in Mingshan could handle 2,000 traders a day, said Ren Xinjian, a Tibet specialist in Beijing, and some 7,500 tons of tea were dispatched into the Tibetan interior every year.
Unlike its more famous logistical cousin, the Silk Road, the historical value of the route known as the Tea Horse Trail is only now being fully appreciated by international historians – and amateur equestrian explorers. While silk fabrics found in sixth century B.C. German graves, and silk threads found on an Egyptian mummy dated at 1000 B.C., demonstrate the longevity of the well-documented Silk Road, efforts to document the Tea Horse Trail have barely begun.
For example, Chinese archaeologists have only recently determined that a temple-like building in Mingshan is actually a government office set up in 1047 during the Song Dynasty to manage the tea-horse trade. Yet while ancient buildings have their appeal, eye-witness accounts of still living Tea Horse Trail travellers are little less than astonishing.
"This was the highest and most perilous known passage of economic and cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups in the world," said Li Xu, a research fellow with the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.
Though horses had a role to play on the return journey, it was displays of incredible human strength by heavily-laden porters carrying immense loads of tea into Tibet which set the tone for the outward journey.
“It was 180 kilometres one way from Tianquan to Kangding," says Li Zhongquan, an 81-year-old survivor, who carried loads along the Tea Horse Trail when he was a teenager. "An able-bodied porter would carry 10 to 12 packs of tea, with each weighing 6 to 9 kilograms. Then you would carry 7 to 8 kilograms of your own grain and five or six pairs of homemade straw sandals to change on the way. The strongest could carry 15 packs of tea, with a total load of 150 kilograms [330 pounds]," he recalled.
According to the retired tea porter, the worst part of his journey was the climb over Erlang Mountain, which towers 3,437 metres [11.276 feet’] above sea level. The precipitous mountain path was so narrow that it allowed only one person to pass.
When contacted by Chinese authorities seeking Tea Horse Trail survivors, the retired porter said he had no idea anyone was interested in the ancient tea-horse trade. Yet while several government expeditions have attempted to document the old route, Tea Horse historian Cheng Minghui is disappointed that so little is being done to study and preserve this ancient highway of commerce and culture.
"While the government has focused their attention on the more famous caravan routes, no one seems to know there was a porter passage and that there are still survivors of the trade,” he said.
According to Cheng there are more than 30 stopovers along the Tea Horse route through the Tianquan area of China alone.
"I think it's worthwhile to dig up the forgotten history and preserve all the relics that serve as witness to this ancient trade, including the path dotted with holes bored by porters' sticks, the tools they used, the houses that once served as post stations, and so on."
A Search for the Sacred
Could it be that he discovered that even though everything in the world has changed, the ancient urges of our nomadic ancestors remain the same? Though Daniel Robinson resided in a country of great material prosperity, could he have been driven to reach Tibet in order to satisfy the deep human longing for inner peace? Though Europe offered him labour saving devices, new cars and scientific advances, could he have wanted instead to repair the moral order of his life? Could he have felt so spiritually impoverished in Britain that he longed for freedom, not campaign speeches and mindless television? Could he have decided to risk his life travelling the forgotten Tea Horse Trail, rather than be reduced to the bland sameness he witnessed in his neighbours? Could he have discovered that happiness doesn’t come from things, but from accomplishments?
If Daniel had those thoughts before he left England, then he probably also jettisoned the three sacred texts of today’s modern tourist, namely comfort, convenience, and security.
It was the 1970s travel philosopher, Ed Buryn, who grumbled that tourists are pseudo-travelers, vegetables in motion, pawns with accessible bank accounts in economic servitude to travel agents, governments, businessmen, and industry,.
“Unfortunately the tourist is a human locust. Tourists bring their easy money and upset the economy of the places they visit. They flaunt the customs, insult the natives, leave behind a bad taste and a glut of money that threatens public morality and private integrity. Tourism destroys what it touches. The values that created the original tourist interest are inevitably eroded or simply grossed out of existence by the profit grubbers. Kathmandu and Everest are good examples of modern tourist catastrophes,” Buryn wrote.
This avant-garde travel writer believed that a true traveller is a person who’s interested in spending as little money as possible. That he shouldn’t want to disrupt anyone’s economy. That he should keep a low profile, living as the locals live on their standards. That he should be interested in native customs, observing, practising and learning from them. That he should be especially interested in meeting people for the richness of involvement and sharing. That he should offer and expect friendship. That he should never forget that honesty never costs very much.
Because Robinson fits those definitions, I suspect Buryn would have approved of the Englishman and sent him on his way with one final bit of advice.
“Travel light so as to leave behind the things which rob you of first hand experiences, weigh down your spirit and burden your back,” Buryn was fond of saying.
When Daniel Robinson sat on his horse at the Chinese border, staring ahead at unknown destiny, hoping he could survive to reach mystical Lhasa, he must have realized that Buryn was right and that life never tastes sweeter than to the man previously condemned to drudgery, whose spirit has awakened on that altar of travel, the saddle.
Into the Unknown
Later, after he had become the first foreigner to cross the Tea Horse Trail in modern times, after he nearly died in the Himalayas, after he was betrayed and imprisoned, and after a British reporter finally tracked him down to a shabby jail cell in India, Daniel Robinson recalled that his journey had taken him across some of the cruellest mountains in the world, that when his original Tibetan companions remained in Lhasa he journeyed on alone with just his two trusty horses and that after more than a year on the road the physical side of his sacred journey had become a gruelling nightmare, especially when the infamous trail forced him to winch his horses across steep mountain gorges.
“After Lhasa I went on my own. It was extremely difficult because only nomads in yurts live there. I marched more than 18 miles every day without stopping, except when I walked on a sprained ankle for five days,” Robinson recalled.
When things were good he lived on fried cabbage or rice. When things were bad he was reduced to surviving on handouts of flour given to him by villagers along the way.
“At one point I nearly died crossing a river. The current was taking my legs away. It was freezing cold. When you reach a point close to death it’s like turning towards the light again and it brings you alive and makes you realise that everything in life has a great value,” he said.
But despite the discovery of these important personal revelations, Daniel learned that there was always one more obstacle lurking just ahead on the Tea Horse Trail. After climbing a nearly 20,000 foot high mountain, for example, the equestrian explorer experienced the agony of altitude sickness.
“When the horses became sick I was already suffering headaches because of the altitude. Then the snow came. That’s when I realized our chances of surviving were growing slimmer,” the English pilgrim remembered.
Yet fate wasn’t done with Robinson. He and his horses were on a treacherous portion of the trail that left them balanced on top of a 100 foot drop down to a raging river below. With things already looking grim, the horses bolted.
“We all three ending up falling down the slope. If we had slid for another 4 feet we would have gone over the edge into the river,” Robinson said.
“That’s when I cried, he recalled, “I couldn’t see my way through anymore.”
If, as he later told the Indian court, Robinson had launched the expedition as a spiritual journey that would test him to the limit and bring him face to face with death, the weary traveller had reached his physical and spiritual goals by surviving sub-zero temperatures at high altitude and crossing raging Himalayan torrents. He now knew that the more you know, the less you need. But what he needed was help.
At the end of October, 2006, with the temperatures dropping, Robinson decided to head south towards Nepal and the end of his long pilgrimage along the Tea Horse Trail. The problem was that he no longer had a map, didn’t know exactly where Nepal began and had no entry visa for India.
But with winter’s icy winds rushing down on him from the high slopes of the Himalayas, Robinson began trying to guide his still trusting, but now ill, horses south as quickly as possible. Then their food ran out in a vast and empty landscape. To make matters worse, the weather was trying to kill them and they were all three weary unto death.
Under such conditions mistakes are made.
With his horses clinging to life, and the temperature plummeting, circumstances forced Robinson to change course away from the more distant Nepal and descend instead down a mountain pass into Uttaranchal, one of India’s northern Himalayan states bordering China.
Thus in freezing
weather and desperate for assistance, Robinson
crossed the northern
Indian border near Mana and
entered a military
zone without a visa. Yet instead of attempting to evade the authorities,
Robinson sought help by walking
into the Lapkhal military post near Chamoli, thereby
making the fateful decision to place the
veterinary requirements of his horses before his own legal needs.