More than 1,000 years ago, horse caravans along the Southern Silk Road carried tea and salt. Today's mule caravans carry construction materials. Hu Yanhong reports
Riding mules for most of the year may not be everyone's idea of making a living. But for 27-year-old Ying Chengjun, it has opened up a fascinating world and brought romance into his life. A native of Dechang county, Sichuan province, Ying has been riding mules since he was 16. He is now head of a mule caravan that helps carry goods to remote construction sites.
Although his travels to almost every corner of the country have given him many memories, the one that will remain with him forever is that of an afternoon in June, 2001. The caravan was navigating a narrow country road, when a young woman suddenly walked across their path.
"This agitated one mule as the road was too narrow to allow both to pass," Ying recalls. "It kicked her into a creek."
Ying immediately jumped into the water and grabbed her. This was to start a romance that culminated in his marrying the girl, Wei Juchang, a year later. And it was that very same mule that carried the bride to their new home. Wei later joined Ying as the only female rider of his caravan.
Ying and Wei are among hundreds of Dechang residents making a living as mule riders in the 21st century. The mule caravan, a present-day version of the horse caravans of yore, began to appear in the 1990s, centuries after plying the Ancient Tea Route, also known as the Southern Silk Road, during the Song (AD 420-479) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties.
While the horse caravans in ancient times were used to carry salt and tea from Yunnan to Tibet and beyond, today the mule caravans help transport construction materials over fragile roads to modern construction projects, such as the Ertan Hydropower Station of Yalong River in Sichuan. The mules have replaced horses as they can last longer distances and carry heavier loads.
Liao Qingfang, 32, grew up in a traditional horsemen family and is now head of a mule caravan, earning 10, 000 yuan ($1,465) annually.
Over the past 10 years, he has moved from one construction site to another in the most trying conditions. The caravans usually move between 4 and 10 in the morning to avoid the scorching sun, and again for two or three hours after sunset.
Every rider must know how to nail a mule shoe and Liao thanks his grandfather for passing on this skill.
Back in the saddle
Even so, things can turn ugly if the mule gets hurt and kicks. Despite a fresh scar from one such recent accident, Liao is sensitive to the needs of his mules. He says rains can be particularly treacherous for them as they can twist their bodies on the slippery mountain trails.
Each mule carries an approximately 160 kg load and walks for at least 10 hours every day. "Sometimes, they are too exhausted to even eat," Liao says.
"Feeding them grass and corns is far from enough. We have to give them nutritious food such as dextrose water, eggs and even traditional Chinese medicine to keep them in good health."
Liao says he spends about 30 yuan every day on food for his 10 mules, which is three times what he spends on himself. Besides the physical strain, Liao also has to endure long periods of separation from his family. Like others in his caravan, he can return home only once - during Spring Festival.
"Last year, I left home shortly after my daughter was born," Liao says. "Now she's already a toddler. And she barely knows me."
Chen Tianbi's husband has been working as a mule rider for more than 10 years. Dejected over the extended periods of separation from him, she decided to join him as part of the caravan and thought traveling to various part of the country would be fun. On her first day, she could barely lift the bags of sand onto the animals' backs.
"The six horses of our caravan carry about a ton of materials every time," her husband explains. Although Chen has got used to the workload, she misses her children. "I keep thinking about them whenever I am free from my work."
But despite these hardships, Dechang resident Gong Pingfu is happy to be with the caravan. He used to work as a porter at the train stations in Hefei, Anhui, and Zhengzhou, Henan, before the caravan's revival in 1997, and was barely able to make ends meet. Life is more affordable now.
"I have two children studying in the county", Gong says. "That costs me around 20,000 yuan every year. Now I can finally afford their tuition."
While the demand for mule caravans remains high, "I do hope my son and my daughter won't follow in my footsteps", Liao says.
This article first appeared in the November 2009 edition of Chinese National Geographic under the heading, Dechang Horse Caravans in Modern Times.
A lost tradition is revived
As an institution, Dechang county's horse caravans stretch back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
The location was then a communications hub on the Southern Silk Road, linking present-day Sichuan with India through Tibet.
Driving horse caravans was a major source of employment in the area until the tradition began to fizzle out in the 1980s, following the opening of the Chengdu-Kunming Railway and the completion of the No 108 Highway, linking Beijing and Kunming.
Most villages in remote areas then enjoyed access to roads, and residents could travel by automobile. Consequently, the number of people raising horses in Dechang dropped rapidly.
The caravans underwent a revival in the mid-1990s, when China intensified basic infrastructure construction. Work began on huge projects, such as the Ertan Hydropower Station on Sichuan province's Yalong River. Because the mountainside roads were too perilous for most vehicles, mule caravans became the main means for transporting building materials. And they still are.
Dechang's caravans earned 25 million yuan ($3.66 million) in 2005, accounting for about 70 percent of the county's annual revenue.