Tea has been traded far and wide since time immemorial. Before there were planes, trains, boats, and automobiles, tea was transported strapped to the backs of people and horses. For over a millennium, one ancient footpath has connected the tea markets of Yunnan, China to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Known as the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, this unpaved and rugged path— which was formed only by the foot traffic of humans and horses— is one of the most dangerous ancient commercial roads. It stretches across nearly 2,500 miles of mountains, rivers, canyons, valleys and planes. In addition to tea, trade goods like salt and sugar flow into Tibet via the Tea-Horse Road, while livestock, furs, musk, and other Tibetan products are transported to world beyond.
This ancient commercial passage first appeared more than 1,200 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since then, movement on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road has promoted exchanges in culture and religion and has been the path of great migrations similar to those along the routes of the Silk Road.
What is it like on the path of the Ancient Tea Horse Road?
While parts of the Ancient Tea-Horse Road pass by the bustling, picturesque cities of Dali, Lijang, and Shangrila, most of the ancient path crosses a rural terrain of imposing scenery and soul-stirring quietness.
As one walks along it, all things seem static and the surrounding mountains stand silent. There is a kind of beauty in the desolation that makes you feel like you are someplace timeless.
The distant mountains are peaked with strong and exquisite ridges, while rain and snow melt together, rushing down the slopes, flowing into innumerable rivers. If the mountains make up the skeleton of Tibet, then the rushing rivers and streams that flow down them are its veins, which pour vigor and vitality into the plateau.
Walking along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, you might meet reverent pilgrims heading to the holy city, Lhasa. They walk slowly along the rugged path—some of them even crawl— as they travel toward their sacred destination. But the main traffic you will encounter is still the traders’ caravans. Since ancient times, carvans (mabang) of men and horses have carried goods back and forth along this treacherous and beautiful path– creating distinctive music of jingling bells and clomping hooves. You never know, if you stop one, they may share a cup of tea from their thermos with you.
From China (the birthplace of tea),
Simon for Samovar Life