Don't miss Yanjing on your way If you join China tour packages from Yunnan to Tibet: its unique salt terrace fields/pans using century-old techniques to extract salt, its fascinating multi-racial/religious population and the only Catholic Church in Tibet. The scenery around here is stunning with beautiful villages and ancient salt pans clinging to the sheer slopes on both sides of the Mekong River Gorge.
Yanjing whose Tibetan name is Tsakalho (擦卡洛) is situated in the south of Tibet, 110 km north of Deqin (德钦) and 115 km south of Mangkang (芒康), along the only road that connects Tibet to Yunnan (the so-called Yunnan-Tibet Highway).
The town is situated 914m above the Mekong gorge. Mekong River is known as Lancang Jiang (澜沧江) in China - at an attitude of 3,109 m. Yanjing has a long history and is an important staging post in ancient times on the “Tea Horse Trade Route” (茶马古道) where tea from Yunnan were transported on horse caravans to Tibet, India and further to trade.
However the town itself is well-known and important as it is the only source of salt for this part pf China for close to a century (until recent times when salt can be easily imported from other parts of China).
*The salt pans
Salt mining has been the main industry in Yanjing for a very long. There are no written records of when it all started but there were references to wars started due to disputes over salt resources in this region. Yanjing’s salt-mining technique is unique as it capitalizes on the long hours of sunshine and strong wind along the Lancang Jiang to dry the brine.
The salt pans are along a curve of the Lancang Jiang, clinging to the hillside. The reason that the pans are concentrated near the bend is the strong wind generated as the river flows south around the bend. These are multiple levels of wooden platforms covered with dry clay and supported by round wooden stilts. There are supposedly around 3,000 of such platforms, each measuring about 5m by 8m on both sides of the river. The sides of the platforms are about six inches high and this is where brine are spread out to be evaporated leaving behind layers of salt crystal.
The brine is collected from a few wells on the river bank, dug a few meters onto the river bed. Apparently this is the only place in the world where salt are collected from river brine; all the other salt fields are either from sea or lake brine. Farmers collect water from the salt wells in wooden barrels carried on their backs. These are emptied into salt ponds in their own courtyards and left there to allow the brine to concentrate. The brine is then poured onto salt pans where the water is evaporated by a combination of hot sun and wind- it takes 2-5 days to dry, depending on the facing of the pans against the wind. In Yanjing, all of the above chores are performed by the womenfolk. Only when salt is collected on the pan, is the men’s turn to collect them into bags and transported by mules to higher up the river gorge to be sold.
There are different qualities of salt being produced here. The top layer of the salt collected is the best quality, normally for human consumption. This can fetch 2 RMB/kg. The middle portion can be sold for 1.6 RMB/kg whereas the bottom layer- closest to and hence, mixed with the clay surface is only used for livestock feed and priced at 1 RMB/kg. For some unknown reasons, the salt produced from brine on one side of the river is red while that on the other side is white. Hence the villages on the banks are also known as White and Red Yanjing (白盐井和红盐井) respectively. During the spring months, the salt acquires a slightly reddish tinge as a result of the flowering season and the wind conditions; this is supposedly higher quality salt and is known as Peach Salt (桃花盐).
Salt is produced all year round, though the busiest months are during spring when the wind conditions allow the brine to dry faster. There are lesser activities in the summer months due to the frequent rain. Furthermore in the summer the farmers are more interested to harvest walnut (核桃) which can fetch much higher price than salt.
Yanjing will give you a totally different view by comparison with that of Shangri-La adventure.
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