Before we set off from Paixiang, ready to discover the land of the mysterious lotus, we were confronted with stories of the journey's challenges—a hard-to-navigate muddy road, the Guaishi mountain range and the constant danger of landslides. This was a journey into the unknown, a path more difficult than we could have imagined. At Duoxiongla Mountain, the fog rolled over rapidly, and dancing snowflakes and drizzle rushed at us headlong. Where the clouds thinned, melting snow and rain formed a fast-falling stream, and where the water hit the ground the noise exploded in our ears. From behind, a small, thin figure approaches, hunched over, steady-footed. This is the kind of person we see most frequently on this trip—those carrying loads on their backs, walking back and forth, connecting Motuo to the outside world. This ancient, hard labor was once a common occupation, and even today, it is still the main means of transport to connect Motuo to the rest of the world. Coming from Motuo the string of haulers form an umbilical cord connecting the hidden land with the outside world.
Motuo, a county in the very southeast tip of Tibet, at the southern foot of the Himalayas, covers an area of more than 30,000 square kilometers. Monsoons from the Indian Ocean bring a warm climate and heavy rainfall. Sister peaks Mt. Namcha Barwa (7,782 m) and Mt. Gyala Peri (7,294 m), in the East Himalayas, are snow-capped year-round, standing in stark contrast to their bases, which are covered in spreading subtropical vegetation. The Yarlung Tsangpo flows through the valley between the peaks before and forms the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon—the deepest, longest, and possibly most dangerous canyon in the world, reaching up to 6,009 m at its deepest point—and finally enters the Assam Valley in India where it changes names to Bhramaputtra. With an average altitude of 1,200 m, compared to the average 4,000 m of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, Motuo seems like a concealed paradise on earth—China's only country not paved with public roads.
The region is geologically active, harried by frequent earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, and floods.
Geographical isolation contributed to the legends around the land, but it also forced people in Motuo to use humans and animals for transportation over the centuries. The inefficient transportation multiplies prices and turns even the cheapest goods into luxury products—a situation the local government has tried to change over the last five decades. Huge efforts were made to connect the land to the outside world. Several routes were planned but none realized. A crude road opened in 1994 connecting Motuo to Bomi (142 kilometers) was fully passable for only two days before collapsing.
Before we arrived in Motuo we passed several villages. From the highest point we looked down on golden rice fields; small crowds of kids ran about, quarreling. We passed an old man in traditional dress calmly seated in front of a door. The general spirit in the poor villages is genuinely hospitable.
After several days of hard trekking we finally arrived at Motuo, a surprisingly small township. The local government is laying out a new plan for the Motuo-Zamba Highway, which includes drilling a dozen tunnels through the Galongla Mountain, costing an estimated total of around RMB1 billion. With construction kicking off in 2008, the four-lane highway is scheduled to be open to the public in 2012.
In the near future, this once-remote and mysterious land will see cars coming and going; the once-unreachable destination will become history; and local people will finally, step-by-step, leave their poverty behind.
A centuries-long lifestyle will be lost to economic development. Yes, maybe we will no longer see the bones of the dead on the way, but maybe youth won't follow the traditions of the older generation, either. Maybe they will forget the songs they once sang while bent over, hauling a load. Maybe they will discard traditional dress, stop hunting, weaving, and knitting in exchange for a fast, modern lifestyle.
These thoughts were on our mind during the journey when we saw the silent, dark-skinned people carrying heavy loads on their backs—old people, children, women—but especially when we saw young people in the prime of life carrying loads with a look that tells you the story of their hardship, a life where everything is carried on one's back, where every item needed for life requires as long as a few days' of sweat and labor.
At one of the rest stations in Maniweng we asked a young Menba hauler, "When the road is open will you still carry loads?"
Without hesitation, he replied, "I will."
"But if there is a road, there will be cars, and you'll still want to carry stuff around?"
"There will always be places the car can't go."
The young hauler's tone is steady, as if the road is of no concern. Outside the rest station is a local villager, his face weatherworn, a bag of rice on his back. On the way home to his village he stops to take a rest; unceasingly people continue on their silent, serene path from and to the hidden Land of the Lotus.
Excerpted from a text by Wu Jie and translated into English and first published by CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 8 ("eat+drink"). Photos by Leo Chen.