THE SALT TREK Page116.gif (121496 bytes)

SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL, TIBETAN NOMAD MEN have been the main source of salt for the villagers and townspeople of Tibet and the adjacent Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. Each spring Pala men drive transport animals 140 miles northwest to salt flats at Lake Drabye, a 50- to 60-day roundtrip. Goats and sheep are normally used, each animal carrying a load of 20-30 pounds. Yak can carry much heavier loads but most nomads have relatively few male yak and can transport larger amounts of salt using the more numerous sheep and goats.

From a distance, the salt flat at Drabye looks like a vast white snowfield, and even up close, it crunches underfoot, crystallinelike crusted snow. It was hard to accept that this white substance was really salt until we each picked up a piece of the white crystal from the surface and tasted it. The salt, about a foot deep, appears to be replenished in summer when, according to the nomads, the dry salt bed is covered by a foot of brackish water.

Like so many of the nomads' tasks, the entire process of gathering the salt has been worked out to the last detail. One nomad we met at the lake explained how they do it:

On the trip to the lake we go very leisurely so that our animals can maintain their strength. Pasture is a problem, for the new growth of spring grass has yet to begin and we must depend on the grass left over from last summer. At the lake, pasture is even more sparse than along the route, since there are so many nomads and animals concentrated there. Because of this, we send an advance team of four or five men to dig up and pack the salt. Then when we arrive with the animals, we can load up immediately and leave the next day.

The advance team pitches its tent right on the salt. One or two men pound the crust with yak or sheep horns to break the salt into small pieces, while another scoops it into wool saddle-bags, and a fourth sews the saddle-bags shut and piles them to one side. The day before the pack animals arrive, a corral is made from bricks of salt and the fined saddle bags are piled beside it.

Page118.gif (104362 bytes) The sheep and goats are driven into the corral, 30-40 at a time, and the back-breaking job of loading begins. Several nomads stand at the entrance to the corral to prevent animals from escaping, while a couple of others, often singing haunting work songs, wade into the densely packed throng, grabbing an animal by its horns and dragging it to a man at the entrance. He takes over, wrestling the animal's head and pinning it between his legs, fixing the saddle-bag in place, and tying it on firmly. The animals, however, are continually trying to break loose and the men are soon sweat drenched and panting from the effort to keep the thrashing animals under control. Compared to the preceding days' slow and steady salt pounding and filling bags, the loading process is lively and noisy.

By evening, the sheep and goats are loaded and settle down to sleep right on the salt, their saddlebags not to be removed until they reach Pala a month later. One advantage of using sheep and goats for transport is that they relieve the nomads of the time-consuming task of loading and unloading scores of animals each day. When they leave for home early the next morning, the main group of transport animals has spent less than one day at the salt flat itself.

The Changtang's salt flats have always provided a free source of income for those willing to make the Page119.gif (95041 bytes) trip. Old Sonam explained- the importance of the salt trip for him some 40 years ago.

Back then I was a poor bachelor without a family (or livestock). I survived by working for rich nomads-herding, cutting wool, and so forth. I also earned substantial income every year by going to collect salt. We drokba have a saying, 'The salt lakes of the north are a storehouse of precious gems; whosoever's hand is longer can reach and take them.' And this is true. Although I did not have transport animals of my own, there were always wealthy nomads who did not want to take the long and arduous trip themselves and were willing to hire, poor people like me to accompany their animals. In fact, I used to enjoy the trip despite its hardships. Ten to 20 of us would travel together taking along the best food-good mutton and Page120a.gif (200393 bytes) lots of butter. We stopped early every day because the animals had to graze, so we had lots of time to sit around the fire enjoying each other's company-talking, joking and eating during the long evenings.

He then related another traditional saying regarding the trip to collect salt:

For the best man, it is a place for playing (i.e., easy)

For the middle-quality man, it is a place for singing (i.e., singing work songs meaning it is like work)

For the inferior man, it is a place where you -hit in your pants! (i.e., because you have to work so hard)

Collecting the salt, however, and getting it home are just the first stages of the process. Selling it Page120b.gif (95306 bytes) requires another long caravan trip to the areas of the farming villages about a month to the south. The nomads make this trip to barter salt for grain the following Page120c.gif (96575 bytes) fall or winter, soon after the villagers have completed their harvest. All told, therefore, collecting and selling the salt require an investment of roughly three to four months for both the nomads and their transport animals.

After the nomads return home, some of their salt journeys onward. Other traders purchase and carry it still farther south until some ultimately come see the Himalayas and reach Hindu villagers hundreds of miles south of the Changtang. For example, when Goldstein conducted research with Tibetan villagers in Northwest Nepal, he commonly encountered Hindus from central Nepal who had come to buy salt from the Nepalese Tibetans who, in turn, had bought it from the Changtang nomads. 

Page122a.gif (218184 bytes) Recently, the government has made dirt roads leading to many of the main salt flats in Western Tibet, and has started hauling salt from the lakes in trucks. Cheaper Page122b.gif (221557 bytes) ocean salt also now competes with Tibetan rock salt. These changes have decreased, but not eliminated, the market for the nomads' salt. Many Himalayan and Tibetan villagers still prefer the taste of Tibetan salt, and since the nomads obtain the salt at no cost, even a modest exchange such as the 1987 rate of five units of salt for four units of barley is still profitable.

Nevertheless, very few Pala nomads took the trip in 1987. Most did not feel the profit was worth Page123.gif (83623 bytes) spending four months on the trail, particularly since the poor forage at this time of the year could impair the health their livestock, possibly producing increased mortality. Salt collection, therefore, is an option in the nomads' system of production whose utilization varies depending on the overall well being of the nomads. If economic conditions are bad, then more households will want to make the trip. If they are relatively good, fewer will take the trouble.


next chapter