Former glory of Tibet's ancient "Salt and Sheep Road" reemerges

In the early morning, the first rays of sunlight have just climbed over the snow mountains, shining softly over the crystal clear and white Kachentso Salt Lake. Accompanying the da da da sound of knocking, a group of villagers wearing long boots and holding ox horns bend over to break large, crystallized pieces of salt on the lake surface in the distance, carefully stacking the smaller pieces into piles.

Gongjue Tsering, mayor of Yanhu Township, told reporters that this traditional manual salt mining method has been used for hundreds of years.

Kachentso Lake is located in Yanhu Township, Gegye County, Ngari Prefecture, Tibet. The people who have been born and raised up around the salt lake have made their livings off of the salt for centuries.

According to elderly locals, there used to be many salt caravans stationed here. Due to poor road conditions, they would load the collected natural salt into woolen bags, conveying them on the backs of sheep to Burang County in Ngari, Shigatse, and even to India and Nepal, bartering with merchants to trade for highland barley, tea bricks, and other necessities. Over time, they pioneered the renowned "Salt and Sheep Road".

In June 2018, the local custom of transporting salt by sheep was included in the fifth Tibet Autonomous Region intangible cultural heritage list.

48-year-old Trasang's ancestors all lived by the side of the salt lake. His father Chuwang was once a merchant on the ancient "Salt and Sheep Road", and he often heard his father speak about how his grandfather herded sheep and traded for goods on the Salt and Sheep Road.

"The least number of sheep they had was 20, but at most they had over a hundred carrying salt, which was a spectacular sight."

Trasang explained that his father would be out for two or three months, traveling with Trasang's grandfather to Burang in Ngari and selling salt in Nepal, trading for some local tea bricks, cloth, highland barley, and other essential items.

"My father said that along the way, there was a mountain cliff road that was very dangerous. Every time he passed through with his sheep, he felt as if he was passing by death."

With social developments, the once bustling old road gradually became forgotten. However, thanks to the influence of Trasang's father's generation, he still has fond feelings for the ancient "Salt and Sheep Road".

"Relying on the salt lake, our ancestors used their wisdom and hard work to make their own wealth. With so many business opportunities now, we have no reason to wait for it to come to us again."

In 2005, the village committee of Changmai Village in Yanhu Township applied for 140,000 yuan (20,541.7 US dollars) in funding from Gegye County. The village raised 138,000 yuan (20,248.3 US dollars) and started a salt field for Changmai Village.

By 2010, the salt field had grown and developed, and the village officially established the Yimin Cooperative, appointing Trasang as its head.

"Replacing the hundreds of sheep who used to carry salt, now we have our own trucks, and we can send our salt anywhere," Trasang said.

He added that though he himself grew up eating the salt from the salt lake, because of certain national standards for the mineral content of salt, the salt they collect is currently sold mainly as healthy bath salts.

The township collects 500 to 800 tons of salt per year and has already sold 420 tons till this year. In 2017, the cooperative generated a total revenue of 270,000 yuan (39,616.2 US dollars) with a net profit of around 110,000 yuan (16,139.9 US dollars).

In order to pass down the history of the "Salt and Sheep Road" from generation to generation, Gongjue Tsering revealed to reporters that the next step will be to develop the tourism resources of the ancient "Salt and Sheep Road".

He hopes that visitors will be able to experience salt mining and reenact the historical scene of sheep transporting salt on their backs.