Across China: New life on millennial salt pans in Tibetan valley

By the running water of the Lancang River, a woman is scraping a thin layer of white crystals in a grid of wet fields, facing the ground and bent fully over.

The particles that Tashi Lhamo collects are salt, using ancient salt harvesting methods that have maintained their magic through the ages.

Over a thousand years, people like Tashi Lhamo, living in a village of Mangkam County in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, have made their fortune by making salt.

The place was an important spot on the ancient Tea Horse Road, the centuries-old trade route that linked Tibet with the neighboring provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.

The lattice pattern of small wet ponds stretches for several hundred meters on both sides of the river, creating a terrace-like scene in the deep valley.

Local people follow a traditional salt harvesting method which requires drilling salt wells near the river, setting up salt pans with logs and mud, drawing brine from salt wells to pans, and evaporating their harvest under the sun until crystallization.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tashi Lhamo is not only a salt producer but also a social media influencer in the village.

She describes the process of harvesting salt as akin to applying makeup, as it calls for a meticulous touch every step of the way.

The crystallization of salt can take as little as a week in March and April when the weather and light conditions are ideal, and except for the rainy season in July and August, salt pans here can produce salt all year round, according to Tashi Lhamo.

The village has more than 2,700 salt pans, according to Gesum Donden, a local village official, adding that each pan can produce about 500 kg of salt each year.

"These salt pans are our natural bounty," he said, pointing out that the earnings from selling salt are the primary source of income for the villagers.

The best seller in Tashi Lhamo's shop she runs on social media is a kind of salt that is white with peach-pink hues and is reaped in March and April.

The product is called "peach blossom salt" for its harvest season comes as peach blossoms are their most resplendent.

The internet helps her to sell her handmade peach blossom salt to different places across China, as far away as north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Salt also stimulates the sale of other agricultural products, such as red wine and wild pepper, Tashi Lhamo said.

The spreading of the salt contributes to the popularity of the village as a tourist attraction, which now receives tens of thousands of visitors every year.

Doje, a physically disabled man who calls the village home, has benefited from the thriving tourism industry.

By running a grocery store, with help from a government-led poverty-alleviation program, his family finally shook off poverty in 2017, and their annual income had grown to about 27,600 yuan (about 4,128 U.S. dollars) in 2019 from around 12,700 yuan in 2016.

"Life is much better than before," said Doje, adding that both of his two sons have the chance to study at universities in big cities.

"We don't have to worry about food, clothing or safe housing anymore," Gesum Donden said, adding that the average annual income of families in the village has reached around 46,000 yuan.

"Fuller coffers also allow the locals to have higher expectations for their quality of life," Gesum Donden said.

Losang Dawa, who is in his twenties, returned to the village from Lhasa, and now works as a tour guide in the scenic region of the salt pans, with a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan.

"I used to like living in big cities, but now, every time I leave here, I find myself longing to return," he said.