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By the 13th century China was trading millions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year. But even all the king's horses couldn't save the Song dynasty, which fell to Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1279.

Nonetheless, bartering tea for horses continued through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the middle of the Qing dynasty (1645-1912). When China's need for horses began to wane in the 18th century, tea was traded for other goods: hides from the high plains, wool, gold, and silver, and, most important, traditional Chinese medicinals that thrived only in Tibet. These are the commodities that the last of the tea porters, like Luo, Gan, and Li, carried back from Kangding after dropping off their loads of brick tea.

Just as China's imperial government used to regulate the tea trade in Sichuan, so monasteries influenced the trade in theocratic Tibet. The Tea Horse Road, known to Tibetans as the Gyalam, connected the important monasteries. Over the centuries, power struggles in Tibet and China changed the Gyalam's route. There were three main trunk lines: one from the south in Yunnan, home of Puer tea; one from the north; and one from the east cutting through the middle of Tibet. Because it was the shortest, this center route handled most of the tea.

Today the northern route, Highway 317, is blacktop. Near Lhasa it parallels the Qinghai-Tibet railway, highest in the world. The southern route, Highway 318, is also oiled. These highways are major arteries of commerce, clogged with trucks carrying every imaginable commodity from tea to school tablets, solar panels to plastic plates, computers to cell phones. Almost all of it goes one way—west to Tibet, to meet the needs of a ballooning Chinese population.

The western half of the middle route has never been paved. This is the segment that winds through Tibet's remote Nyainqentanglha Mountains, an area so rugged and inhospitable it was simply abandoned decades ago and the entire area closed to travelers.

I'd seen what was left of the original trail in China. To do the same in Tibet, I'd have to find a way into these forbidden mountains. I called my wife, Sue Ibarra, who is an experienced mountaineer, and asked her to meet me in Lhasa in August.

We begin our journey at the Drepung monas­tery, which lies at the western end of the Tea Horse Road—less than a day's horse ride from Lhasa. Built in 1416, it has a cavernous tea kitchen, or gyakhang. Seven iron cauldrons from six to ten feet in diameter are imbedded in a gargantuan, wood-fired, stone hearth.

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