The Tea Horse Road
Introduction – A Song of Tea and Horses
A tale of princesses, warhorses, bandits, ancient cultures, and potent elixirs, the story of The Ancient Tea Horse Road is one that should not be forgotten. The Tea Horse Road or, Chamadao in Mandarin, was a pivotal path used for over a thousand years as a means of trade. Branching from Ya'an and Yunnan to Lhasa, Tibet, the path was as grueling as it was influential. It was traveled by fearsome and brave muleteers who lead caravans filled with tea from the fields of Yunnan, to trade from warhorses bred on the plateau of Tibet. At that time, the Tea Horse Road sang with the sound of cultural commerce. The journey a caravan would face was shrouded in the danger of the constantly changing geological nature, murderous bandits, and dwindling supplies. In the months that it took to travel the road, caravans would be faced with frostbite inducing blizzards, blistering heat, unpredictable landslides, and stinging hail. Bandits were also a consistent threat for the would-be peaceful caravans, as they sought the precious cargo being transported. There was no doubt that the Tea Horse Road's dangers bred muleteers with reputations of heroically formidable strength, diligence, and voyaging prowess. They had to be willing to risk their lives and risk their livelihoods. With that said, just why were so many willing and forced to take this perilous journey? Was tea truly that important?
The Beginning – The Leaf that Launched a Thousand Caravans
The story of the Tea Horse Road starts in Tibet. According to legends, tea first arrived in Tibet from the rolling hills of Yunnan during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 CE) as part of a dowry. When T'ang Princess Wencheng was slated to marry Tibetan King Songtsen Gambo, as a means of a sort of peace treaty, her dowry bestowed upon Tibet a type of tea they had never experienced before. With the introduction of the bitter leaf tea, quickly, all of Tibet, from royalty to commoners fell in love. In such a cold part of the world in which beverages were limited, a hot tea was immediately coveted. Back then, in Tibet, tea was prepared with yak butter and was considered by many to be a small meal. With such instant popularity, tea soon became the currency of the land between China and Tibet. As trade continued, it became clear how important The Tea Horse Road would become. China produced the tea that Tibet wanted so desperately and Tibet bred something that China desperately needed: warhorses for the continuous battles that they faced. Sturdy steeds with large lungs and stout bodies were Tibet's specialty, and with no other country nearby that could provide the same quality, China needed a good relationship with Tibet. By 1074, the going rate for a single warhorse from Tibet was 130 pounds of tea.
Eventually, during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) more than 20,000 warhorses were being exchanged for millions of pounds of tea each year via the caravans traveling along the Tea Horse Road. This trade continued through the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). And although China's need for warhorses started to wane, tea was still being traded for other goods such as medicine, luxurious fabrics, and precious metals.
Paid solely in tea, the muleteers leading these trade caravans traveled along the road for centuries, and through the centuries tea saw no recession in its worth. As tea became currency and as tea gained its popularity amongst the communities that the Tea Horse Road intersected, cultures started to shape around the leaf.
But just how far did those millions of pounds of tea and tens of thousands of horses travel? Just what did those fearless muleteers have to face all in the name of trade?
The Route – A Dance with Danger
For a millennium, hundreds of thousands of porters of all shapes, sizes, and genders have made the arduous trip along the Tea Horse Road. In a day, a caravan could experience rapidly fluctuating temperatures, sleet, punishing winds, snow, and scorching heat. With that said, some would say the route was as majestic as it was dangerous. Along the journey, porters and their cargo-carrying mules would pass along sprawling valleys, lush bright green fields of tea, magnificent mountain caps, roaring rivers, and awe-inspiring bamboo forests. As beautiful as it was, The Tea Horse Road also traveled through some of the harshest environments in Asia. Arguably the hardest part of the journey was navigating the four different elevated passes, each nearly 20,000 feet high, on the way towards Lhasa. Many died along the journey from attempting to cross the freezing Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers. Others perished while traversing the blizzard ridden lands and flooded valleys.
The route had three main branches that all had final destinations in Lhasa, Tibet's 12,000 foot high capital. The southern route of the Tea Horse Road started in Yunnan, spanned 2,500 miles, and took up to sixty days to complete. The northern route, which started in Ya'an, was 1,400 miles long. And the center route, starting in the east, was the shortest and most used, as it went through the middle of Tibet. An expansion of all of the routes saw that the tea grown in Yunnan would reach final destinations of India, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, journeys that would take close to six months. And although there were three main branches of the Tea Horse Road, there were also numerous other trade routes from all directions that shared the same end goal of Lhasa.
While mentioning the lengths of these routes is important in understanding just how grueling the journey was, back in its heyday, those who traveled the road counted distance traveled not in terms of miles or kilometers, but by the distance between suitable rest stops in towns. The importance of these rest stops is undeniable and will be discussed in detail a bit later.
Traveling with mules, cargo, and muleteers, the leaders of these tea and horse porting caravans had to be fearless and intelligent. They were in charge of insuring that their precious cargo made it to its final destinations and insuring that their caravan mates faired as best as they could. It is no doubt that these leaders became revered for their strength, both mental and physical. Once the caravan reached Lhasa, tea was exchanged for horses at the famous horse markets. And then it was expected that the caravans make a quick turnaround and head right back around to deliver the horses that were exchanged for tea. With more precious cargo in tow, the horses, the journey was even more risky. And if the perils of nature were not enough of a danger, the Tea Horse Road was also plagued by bandits.
Cultural Exchange - Tea's beautiful side-effect
The charming and vibrant chorus of bells would echo along the Tea Horse Road during its most economical days. Wearing decorative bells, the lead mules would create music with each step to signal a caravan's incoming. And as beautiful and considerate as the sound was, it also alerted bandits. Prevalent and frightening, these bandits knew what the caravans carried and sough it fervently. During the road's time of operation, many knew how much tea and warhorses were worth and some unsavory persons were not above using threats and violence to try to steal these valuables from peaceful caravans. In response to these bandits, weapons were made specifically to ward off threats and carried solely by caravan leaders. Alongside the stunningly effective weaponry and equally effective caravan leaders, there was something else that drove away bandits. If a caravan was carrying tea that was to be a royal tribute, that tea could not be stolen or tampered with, upon punishment of death. This law was known to be heeded by bandits of all types.
Aside from the threat of bandits, as peaceful as a trade between tea and horses may seem, it should be noted that those that numerous cultures along the Tea Horse Road did not particularly like one another. The purpose of the road was never meant to be a means for cultural exchange, however, it was a beautiful and inevitable side-effect. The most inevitable and influential cultural exchange was that between the caravans and the host families that they relied on during their journey. Although, they have seemed like super human travelers for all they had to face along the road, porters were still very much human and sturdy, powerful mules were still very much animals; each needed rest and food to survive. It was this need that influenced the most cultural exchange along the road. Caravans relied, almost completely, on the hospitality of the host families in the towns they traveled through. To name a few, the Dai, Hani, Xani, Han, Yi, and Bai tribes all contributed to the cultural exchange along the road.
As a result of the caravans stopping to rest in the host family's homes, both parties came away with something they needed. The caravans were able to rest up, as well as gather food and supplies for the next part of their journey, while their host families gained invaluable cultural commerce. Stories of lands that had never been heard of, let alone, seen, would be passed around to the host families during meals and tea. Tea, salt, jewelry, and other inaccessible items from far away lands were gifted and traded to these communities touched by the Tea Horse Road. As the porters moved on from host family to host family, they would always bring with them stories of foreign peoples, towns, religions, languages, and how tea influenced those peoples’ lives. Not only did The Road Horse provide the crucial exchange of China’s and Tibet's needs, it also provided an important boost in economic and cultural wealth amongst the isolated communities it passed through. Through travel along the road, it became clear that tea was being consumed in many different ways and held the connective thread between dozens of tribes.
Creation of Pu-erh - Let there be sheng!
The tea that originally traveled through Tibet along The Tea Horse Road was a very harsh beverage. Made out of mostly large, hard leaves, stems, and twigs from the Camellia Sinensis Assamica plant in Yunnan, the tea that was so highly sought after was indeed quite bitter and jarring. This hodgepodge of leaves, twigs and stems were shaped into disks and bricks for easy portability and wrapped in bamboo leaves to keep safe and dry. The disks that were most ornate were often the annual tributes (the ones the bandits would not touch). Along its route to its final destination, the tea that was packed in the tea growing regions of Yunnan and Ya'an changed significantly. Often beginning to ferment, the flavors of the tea strengthened and the leaves prematurely aged, creating a dark brew when steeped. It was this tea that became so famous amongst the communities along The Tea Horse Road and in Tibet. This process of naturally aging tea is one that we see today in Sheng Pu-erh (also called Raw Pu-erh). Effectively, The Tea Horse Road gave birth to one of the six types of tea: Pu-erh. This type of tea was coveted for not only its taste but also its proclaimed medicinal properties, the most important of which being its ability to aid digestion. In lands where diets were heavy in yak meat, this attribute was hugely important. With the growing popularity of Sheng Pu-erh, many centuries later, Shu Pu-erh (or Ripe Pu-erh) would then try to copy the ageing process that created the lovely Sheng Pu-erh that many in China and Tibet had grown to love. Using an artificial ageing process, Shu Pu-erh was easier to make and gained much popularity throughout Hong Kong and many communities outside of Asia. We wonder what the old muleteers, who spent their lives traveling the perilous road, would think of their contribution to the tea world and the world as a whole. If only they knew that their travels, their hard work, gave birth to an entire tea type and one that is coveted and collected all around the world.
The Road Meets an End – The End of Glory
The muleteers and porters that gave their lives to The Tea Horse Road continued to do from the early 600s to the 1950s. During World War II, the road's importance changed from being a route that transported tea and horses, to being a route that transported supplies between India and China. Japanese soldiers overtook the seaside cities of China and Burma and thus trade could only be done almost exclusively along the Tea Horse Road. After the war, trade with Tibet all but vanished completely and the road's importance waned. During the 1930s and 40s, many tea porters individually still carried loads of tea weighing up to 300 pounds on their backs. Through the same blizzard ridden, blistering heat burdened, raging river containing paths, these impoverished and desperate porters struggled to make a living, as each pound of tea delivered was worth a pound of rice. As romanticized as the road was in its heyday, as the road slowly reached its end, it became clear that the porters who risked life and limb to carry tea on their backs in the 1900s, were no people to romanticize. They were struggling to make a living and to provide for their families.
Soon after porting was eliminated, highways were built over two of the three main branches of The Tea Horse Road, leaving only the middle path still raw and overrun by vegetation.
Even with the need for horses waning, Tibet, to this day, possesses something that not only China, but people's all over the world covet: a medicinal fungus that grows out of one particular Tibetan caterpillar that is said to cure everything from infection to cancer. Traveling along The Tea Horse Road’s routes, those covered by highways and those not, are some of the only ways to obtain this coveted creature only found on the Tibetan Plateau. And once in Tibet, one will find that tea is still found in Lhasa as well as the once-coveted horses bred no-where else. The Tea Horse Road's effect on the communities it touched appears to be long lasting. Once called the "Eternal Road," it is clear that the road's significance will remain in cultures and communities throughout China and Tibet for a long time to come.
Final Words – The Eternal Road
The Tea Horse Road is arguably one of the most culturally influential paths in the world. It bore not only necessities but also histories and cultures from peoples that would otherwise would have never had the opportunity to interact. With the creation of the path, also came the creation of Pu-erh, a type of tea that is coveted, collected, and revered by peoples across the world.
The Tea Horse Road changed the lives of hundreds of thousands over the years that it was operational and it continues to fascinate tea lovers, historians, and travelers alike. Today, the road is revered by those who seek its spiritual significance as many of the communities it reached were spiritual centers. We at Yezi believe that the road should be revered by all for the powerful societal connectivity it brought and continues to bring.
Since the 6th century, tea has brought people together. Today, that is still very much the case. Although, the Tea Horse Road no longer serves as a trade route, its purpose will, we hope, live on forever in the lives it has affected. We hope that this coming New Year, the Year of the Horse, will bring people together to share knowledge, culture, and stories, one cup of tea at a time.