Xishuangbanna, China's Ancient Link to Southeast Asia: Traveling China's Tea Horse Road (Part II)

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Updated: August 9th, 2014 | Comments
Dai girls having a splash during the Water Festival in Yunnan

In part II of a series on China's Tea Horse Road (read part I of ), Sascha Matuszak considers Xishaungbanna's return to ancient form as it transitions from being a sleepy border region and backpacker secret to a humming commercial center connecting Southeast Asia to China, thanks to new superhighways, rail lines and trade agreements. Yet, despite all its modern trappings, the region's roots lie in trade, and visitors will find fascinating traces of ancient ways amidst new. >>>

When I dragged my exhausted carcass across the border at Mengla (Měnglà, 勐腊) in Yunnan a couple of years ago, I passed from the thatched huts and hills of northern Laos into the white tiles and concrete of modern China. It was a dramatic transition with a massive, empty casino as the segue point. A few bored Chinese gamblers sat at the tables, but the real bustle was outside where construction workers marched back and forth while a small ghetto of aluminum shack restaurants (all Sichuanese it seemed) vied for their lunchtime business. Chinese businessmen, laborers and a smattering of tourists lined up at the border to get their passports stamped. I leaned up against my trusty Giant and rested as the staff slowly checked out my visa.

I had traded a bottle of Sambuca for the broken Giant bike back in Laos, then pedaled up and down hills for two days before I reached the border. Once the border guards approved my visa and sent me on my way, I mounted up for the last time and and coasted downhill (thank you God) into Mengla, where I promptly sold the bike and bought a ticket to the regional capital, Jinghong. It was an epic ride for a non-biker like me and it took me from Chiang Rai in Thailand through northern Laos and into a region known today as Xishuangbanna (a sinocized version of the name sipsong panna, which means 12 thousand rice paddies). Back in Laos, I had passed through several villages that somehow managed to line their best-looking girls up for me as I wheezed my way up another hill. A few made lewd gestures, and when I didn't take up their offers, they tried to sell me warm beer in dusty green bottles. The poverty was as oppressive as the heat; a shady spot under a tree was as attractive to me as a sweaty white boy on a bike with no chain was to them....

History repeats in Southeast Asia

Map of Yunnan

It wasn't always like this in Laos. Before modern borders separated dynamic China from the relatively stagnant nations of Southeast Asia, the peoples of this region—the tea farmers of the Shan States, the Siamese Kings and Lanna nobles, the Tai Leu lords of Jinghong and a dozen others—traded, intermarried and fought along the Mekong River (known as the Lancang north of the border) for thousands of years. Evidence of the region's importance in a far-flung trade network go back at least some 4,500 years, with remains of likely Southeast Asian ivory cropping in the ceremonial pits at the Jinsha archaelogical site in Chengdu, far to the north. Later on, the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties negotiated with (or attacked, depending) the kingdoms that straddled modern-day borders for access to rubies, rice, ivory and, above all, tea. Ancient history? Sure, but in this part of the world, ancient partnerships and rivalries are always just beneath the surface, dormant for stretches of time but always ready to return full force when conditions are right. And indeed today, after a long hiatus during which countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos sank into poverty and oppression, old trade routes that sustained the kingdoms of the Xishuangbanna region are opening again. For adventurous travelers, that means that this fascinating, beautiful and culturally rich part of China—little known outside of the Middle Kingdom—is ripe for exploring.

The slow boat or the fast track?


Since WWII, China has dreamed of tying the various nations of southeast Asia together and linking them via rail and highway to Kunming. For years those dreams lay dormant and the only traffic to and fro consisted of contraband: heroin, jade, rubies and teak wood. Recently, however, at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi, the southeast Asian nations agreed to a framework that would link Singapore, Kunming and Calcutta via a web of rail and road weaving through the ASEAN nations. ASEAN (plus China and India) also agreed to enact sweeping free trade regulations that would cut tariffs, expedite visas and encourage business growth throughout the region. (See the Sydney Morning Herald story "Building the Asian Superhighway" for more.)

While we wait for the superhighway to be completed, the slow boat from Jinghong south along the Mekong or the very slow bus up from Phnom Pen to Kunming will have to suffice. The road from Bangkok through Laos to Jinghong and up to Kunming is a well-beaten path these days, but most of the trailblazers are young travelers. The region has great potential as more than just a photo op, as Action Asia describes in "A Golden Heart, A Golden Chance."

The business relationships that characterize the Horse and Tea Trade Route (or Ancient Tea Horse Road) have yet to take advantage of the increasing links between the ASEAN nations and China. For now, Xishuangbanna still relies heavily on domestic consumption (and eventual export) of its most valuable commodities: tourism and tea.

The Six Famous Mountains and the origins of tea in Yunnan


Tea has been produced and brewed in Xishuangbanna for at least 2,000 years. Evidence indicates that the first tea brewers came from this area and then brought their product to the rest of China, Tibet and eventually the world. They were the original merchants of the Tea Horse Road, driving caravans through the valleys and jungles of southwest China all the way north to the ancient capital of Chang'An (present day Xi'an). There are ostensibly six famous mountains, named after the innovations brought to the region by the famous Shu-Han (221 CE–263 CE in present day Sichuan) strategist Zhuge Liang. According to legend, Zhuge Liang  taught the people of southern Yunnan the art of harvesting and making tea and the names of Xishuangbanna's historic mountains— Youle (copper gong), Mangzhi (copper boa), Manzhuan (iron brick), Yi Bang (wooden clapper), Gedeng (leather stirrup) and Mansa (seed-sowing bag)—reflect the technological gifts that the wily old minister bestowed upon the people. However, by the time by the time the 21st century rolled around, the legendary mountains were over-picked, neglected, burnt up or otherwise out of commission.  What to do? Revise history! The local government picked a few other mountains in the area and designated them the "Six Famous Mountains." Of course, there are at least 26 tea mountains in Yunnan, all of which are "famous," so the true location of the ancient six is unimportant—it's enough to know that Xishuangbanna has a long history of producing brick tea, commonly known as pu'er tea (pǔ'ěr chá, 普洱茶) today.

The Lure of the Dai people and their land

Xishuangbanna holds the bulk of Yunnan's biodiversity and Yunnan holds the bulk of China's biodiversity. There are thousands of different flora and fauna blooming and running around this tropical paradise—rubber trees, banana trees, sugar and spices, strange herbs weird birds, endgangered flowers and hardwood forests—much of which is housed in "Tropical Plant Research Institute on Hulu Island is a great day trip for those interested in all of the strange and amazing plant species that grow in this region. The diversity of the area as well as the local tea are some of the biggest draws, but the local Tai Lue or Dai people have somehow managed to fascinate the Chinese with their water splashing festivals, Thai-style ethnic fashion and weird rumors concerning the demure Dai damsels. All of these attractions are being totally revamped under a plan that has the local government spending 15 billion yuan on tourism—one of the largest expenditures on tourism in western China. (In other words, you might want to hurry if you want to get a sense of what the Dai are all about before local culture is largely reduced to theme park dimensions.)

A new age for Yunnan's ancient Tea Horse Road

When I finally staggered into the Mei Mei Café in Jinghong after the bus ride from Mengla, there was no doubt in my mind that I was in China. I had left the sultry feel of the southeast summer back at the border with Laos, trading it in for the chaos and bustle of a regional capital on the cusp of "blowing up" (in the parlance of our times). Jinghong was hot, but other than that it had nothing in common with sleepy towns like Vientiane or eclectic backpacker hives like Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang. Here, it was all business. Merchants were headed north with crates of bananas and containers of Beer Laos and shady peddlers were gathered in alleys with plastic bags full of tiny rubies and non-descript stones "filled with jade." I threw my 40 lb (18 kg) green pickle bag on the floor in the Mei Mei Café and ordered a cold Beerlao. After a few sips, the sun began to set and I turned to a hippy backpacker who had obviously just come up from Thailand or Laos (he had the "same same but different" shirt on) and asked if he had taken the slow boat up. "Oh no dude, that's only for cargo now," he said. "There's a fast boat now, but I took a car ride up from Vientiane. Nice highway... smooth ride." As I downed my beer I realized that even if we hippy travelers have had it to ourselves for a few years, the heart of the Horse and Tea Trade Route is indeed trade.  It always has been, and soon, it will likely be so more than ever.

Follow Sascha north to the Tea Horse Road in Lijiang.

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