"Difficulties were so great and the hardship so enormous," Luo said. "It was a terrible job."
Luo had crossed back and forth over Maan Shan, the point I had hoped to reach. In winter the snow was three feet deep and six-foot icicles hung from the rocks. He said the last time someone had crossed the pass was in 1966, so he doubted whether I would be able to do it.
But I did get a glimmer of what it must have been like to travel the road. In Xinkaitian, the first stop on the tea porters' 20-day trek from Yaan to Kangding, clean-shaven Gan Shao Yu, 87, and bristle-faced Li Wen Liang, 78, insisted on acting out their lives as porters.
Backs bent beneath immense, imaginary loads of brick tea, veiny hands on T-shaped crutches, heads down and eyes on their splayed feet, the two old men showed me how they wobbled single file along a wet stretch of cobblestone. After seven steps Gan stopped and stamped his crutch three times, following tradition. Both men circled their crutches around to their backs to rest their wood-frame packs atop the crutch. Wiping sweat from their brows with phantom bamboo whisks, they croaked out the tea porter song:
Seven steps up, you have to rest.
Eight steps down, you have to rest.
Eleven steps flat, you have to rest.
You are stupid, if you don't rest.
Tea porters, both men and women, regularly carried loads weighing 150 to 200 pounds; the strongest men could carry 300. The more you carried, the more you were paid: Every pound of tea was worth a pound of rice when you got back home. Wearing rags and straw sandals, porters used crude iron crampons for the snowy passes. Their only food was a satchel of corn bread and an occasional bowl of bean curd.