Yunnan, Yonis, Sichuan & Ponies | Traveling China's Tea Horse Road (Part I)

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Updated: August 15th, 2014 | Comments
Ancient Tea Horse Road

In Part 1 of a series, Sascha Matuszak introduces us to the ancient Tea Horse Road (Chámǎ Dào, 茶马道), which has linked India and Tibet to the Han Chinese heartland for thousands of years. Today, trekkers, adventurers and seekers hit the trade route's ancient mountain towns, temples and passes for an experience of China that's all about the mingling of peoples, goods, cultures and beliefs. Sascha begins with a bit of local color, a little history, and overviews of the Yunnan and Sichuan legs of the old road. >>>

Sammy Belfiori flashes a cheeky grin as he drops a few bucks into the collection box next to the shrine built around an amazingly yonic fissure in the stone. After failing to suppress a giggle, he composes himself and presses his hands together in a small but reverent prayer before heading back down the path to the main temple area below. "You never know, brother, you never know." 

Sammy's right. You can never know how many young wanderers made their way to this ancient fertility shrine to the mighty Yoni, dropped an offering into the collection pot, prayed fervently for some good lovin' and actually got some. The temple below is at least a thousand years old—not in its current incarnation of course—and the various figures carved into the rock date to before the Tang Dynasty, about 1,500 years ago.

The fissure in the rock? Prehistoric young men clad in saber-toothed tiger skins may have knelt here, for all we know. The praying really took off here in Shaxi right around the rise of the Tibetan Kingdom under Songsten Gampo and the height of the Tang Dynasty under Empress Wu Zi Tian. At that time the city of Chang'An (modern day Xi'an) was the coolest place in the world and every proto-hippy, priest, merchant and sword for hire was trying to find a way through the Himalayas and across the Taklamaklan Desert to get in on the action. On their way here, many of these adventurers passed through towns like Shaxi, an old salt trading town on the Horse and Tea Trade Route where Sammy and I found the Yoni Temple.

Another temple in the Sideng Market in the center of town houses all the major gods and sages of eastern Asia—Buddha, Laozi, Confucius and a few others—and across from the temple is a theater and a teahouse where the men who plied the old trade routes rested before heading on to Tibet or, if they were lucky, to the great city of Chang'An. The fabled Western Market of Chang'An had its share of teahouses full of men who told each other that there was no place on earth they would rather be and no period in history they would have rather been born in than this one: the greatest exchange of men, goods and cash across the greatest expanse of land that the world had ever seen. The good news is, it's happening all over again....

Ancient Tea and Horse Road

Sammy and I were on an epic trip south from Chengdu to Kunming via Lijiang, Dali and Shaxi. For veteran China travelers, the road from Chengdu to Kunming is a well-beaten path that was cool back when only a few insiders knew it and there were still massive marijuana plants growing from the cracks in Dali's pavement and along Tiger Leaping Gorge's high path. But such so-called China Hands were deluding themselves if they really thought they were discovering something new and unknown.

Consisting of a collection of ancient highways, dirt tracks and gashes in the mountains, the Horse and Tea Trade Route (or the Ancient Tea Horse Road or the Southern Silk Road or any number of other names in other tongues) winds through Southwest China, connecting Tibet with Burma, Sichuan with India and Yunnan with Pakistan. Once a road like this is established, it never truly dies—at the very worst it will lie dormant for a few decades while the political whims of strongmen sweep people up and away. As soon as those winds die down, people go right back to wandering the same old paths, plying the same old trades, praying to the same old gods and goddesses.

The part of this route that we are going to talk about is split into two major trunks: The Yunnan Section and the Sichuan Section. In upcoming posts, we'll follow these sections and talk about the towns that anchor them to the map, the goods that anchor the towns and the people that handle the goods and walk the path—all the way from the mythical first monk who brought tea to Tibet to the American tourists who dropped greenbacks into the Yoni Temple's collection box a couple years back. For now, an overview of some of the places and people we'll be exploring.

The Tea Horse Road in Yunnan

Ancient Tea and Horse Road

This part of the trade route begins way down south in Xishuangbanna. In truth, a trade route has no beginning, only branches—Xishuangbanna is connected to Laos, Burma and Thailand, and from there the route continues into Bengal, Assam and maybe even Indonesia. Hell, we could probably prove a link between the Maori and some ancient Greek gem trader who stayed at a shady Mongolian-run hostel in Chang'An if we dug deep enough. Anyway. Someone once told me that if you look on a relief map of East Asia, you will notice that the range of the Himalayas that separates Tibet from India looks somewhat like the body and wings... and the ranges that curves out from Sichuan all the way down to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand could be the forelegs and neck... and the curve that stretches west back across Afghanistan and northern Iran could be the legs and tail of... a Massive Dragon.  

At the time I believed him, and it's certainly flattering to the Chinese tendency to put the "Middle Kingdom's" culture and history at the heart of it all, but it's unfortunately rather hard to see on any relief maps of South Asia.

Regardless, the Dragon is as useful a way to visualize the region as any, and it just so happens that along the "neck" of this "Dragon"—western Sichuan, western and southern Yunnan, northern Laos and Thailand—are mountains with just the right altitude, condensation and soil mixture to grow a plant called Camellia sinensis in great quantities and varieties. 

Everybody loves to boil the leaves of this plant and drink the brew. The story of these trade routes is in fact the story of tea and how this fine beverage came to rule most of the world. Pu'er, much prized by cultivated hipsters everywhere from Shanghai to Mumbai to New York, came into being in fact as low-grade tea shavings pressed into brick form and sold to unsuspecting foreigners. Over time the fermentation process created a unique flavor of its own, but that is another story and we'll tell it another time. For now it's enough to know that towns like Jinhong and Simao grew rich selling tea leaves to the rest of the world.

Back before EMS and FedEx, people needed caravans to haul goods back and forth. That's where towns like Dali, Lijiang, Deqin and Zhongdian come in. These towns did not have tea or silver or silk in great quantity, but they had walls and hostels and music and places to swap lies, toss dice and make deals. The Hui Muslims harking from the northwest (and even farther?) set up caravans all along the route—from Xishuangbanna all the way to Lhasa—and today those "caravans" have developed into a trading network that involves Hong Kong, Dubai and Karachi to name a few. Now if I were a hill-dwelling carpenter living in the town of Shaxi 1500 years ago and I knew of some salt mines nearby, I might travel to Dali and try and make a deal.

Does anyone on your route need salt? I got salt. Just as the simple trade of tea kept Jinhong and Simao and other places developing, so did salt make places like Shaxi in Yunnan and Zigong in Sichuan rich for hundreds of years. The Bai minority that lives around Dali also managed to become quite adept at silver and goldsmithing—to this day the smithies along the old trade route sell gold and silver to Tibetan nomads craving a little bling after months on the hard steppes.

The Tibetan influence lapped up against the Naxi and Bai minorities in Lijiang and Dali, but their strongholds were the towns of Zhongdian and Deqin, aeries surrounded by perpetual winter and ice and populated by silent monks, jangling nomads and lowing herds of yak. The caravans wound their way through these towns, dropping off loads of tea at the monasteries and continuing on through the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. Along the way they supplied fortress towns melded to the rocks and transient nomad populations around towns like Nyingtri until they reached the capital of the Tibetan people, Lhasa.

This wasn't the last stop for many of these caravans, but it must have been a wondrous sight for a young hustler from the lowlands—imagine sitting in a teahouse in Chang'An and getting offered a job on a tea caravan heading south to Xishuangbanna and then on the way back, switching trains in Dali to help transport goods to Tibet?

The Tea Horse Road in Sichuan

Ancient Tea and Horse Road (Photo by Sascha Matuszak)

When Sammy and I took our trip, we switched trains in Zhongdian and headed through Kham, in western Sichuan, to Litang, where nomads once traded annual horse racing champ was King. Litang and Batang are the spiritual heart of the Kham region and integral stops in the route that connects Chengdu with Lhasa. The route continues west through Chamdo, but modern visa regulations makes it difficult to follow this route, so we doubled back toward China proper. We passed through Kangding, the quintessential border town and the gate in the cultural barrier between Tibet and China. Kangding is a gash in the rock.

The Zheduo and Yala rivers meet here and flash right through the town rising up around them as if nothing had changed in a thousand years. And really, if you take away the concrete and the electricity, not much has changed. Khampa nomads and Han tourists rub shoulders today, but if you used your imagination, you could go back 1,000 years and see the same Khampas rubbing shoulders with the same Han, just with slightly different clothes and slightly different aims.

Once you pass through the gate of Kangding into the tea producing regions of Mingshan and Ya'an—just a few hours west of Chengdu—you enter a whole different world. The lush green foothills of the Himalayas here create a haze in the air that must have seemed like a deep, impenetrable fog to Tibetan travelers. For tea porters coming the other way, the oppressive heat of the lowlands must have seemed like Hell and the frigid air and hard stone of the highlands must have been some deeper circle of Hell that the priests back home never spoke of.

That is one of the major differences between the two sections: although both took goods west to Lhasa, the Yunnan Section had one discernible path and was dominated by caravans, whereas the Sichuan Section was a mad maze of paths trodden into mud by porters who carried tea on their backs. Some China veterans who have traveled in the southwest might muse wryly that truly, not much has changed in 1,000 years.

The Connecting Tissue: Liangshan

Ancient Tea and Horse Road

There is a region that often gets overlooked when people talk about the Horse and Tea Trade Route and that is the connecting region of Liangshan that straddles the modern border of Yunnan and Sichuan. This is where the Yi and Naxi people meet and discuss whose Torch Festival is cooler. This is where the Tibetans reach out to the lowlands through the Moon City of Xichang.

This is also where the line blurs between Sichuan Tea and Yunnan Tea; where the brick tea from Sichuan and the Pu'er from Yunnan melt into one pungent brew. The line between gender blurs here a bit too: Lugu Lake is actually split in half by the border between the two provinces (it is also known for its matriarchal tendencies, though these have been somewhat blown out of proportion in the last few years). The region encompasses places like Muli (Mùlǐ, 木里), Daocheng and Yading—towns that all have legitimate claims to the name Shangri-La and were all influenced by the traders and travelers that took tea west 1,000 years ago.

A good of no value?

So you might be asking yourself, has China been running trade imbalances with the entire world for millennia? The answer would be no, not all the time. Remember, this trade route is called the Horse and Tea Trade Route. The horses came from Central Asia and the Middle East, primarily. The Ferghana Valley in particular produces a horse that is especially prized and the Chinese paid top dollar for as many of them as they could get their hands on. This in turn, is part of how Tibet came into the picture. The Yunnan Section passes Zhongdian and Deqin and connects with the Sichuan Section in Markam (Mángkāng, 芒康) where the route continues on its way to Lhasa. There it dropped off tea and picked up horses, raw silver and... Buddhism.

The exchange of goods and people along these roads could not help but carry other contagions with them. The most viral contagion that any person brought were ideas, some of which changed Asia, China and the world forever. Over time, many of these ideas have been forgotten or swept away by new ideas but as we will see on our journey along this trade route, ideas are very hard to kill. As long as a road lives, ideas too live to travel up and down them.

Read more about Sascha's adventures in Part II.

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