The Tea Horse Road is an ancient trade route that came into being from the tea trade via horses from the tropical areas of southern Yunnan to the snow-covered plateaus of the Himalayas. When we mention the Tea-Horse Road, we are not talking about one road, but a network of separated trails divided into the Qinghai-Tibet route, the Yunnan-Tibet route and the Sichuan-Tibet route. We will take a deeper look into the Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road.
The Yunnan-Tibet Trail can be sourced back to the late sixth century AD, and it has been one of the most famous ancient channels of international trade with the West in Chinese history, surviving through the Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The route starts from Yiwu in Mengla county in Xishuangbanna and Pu'er City, the main tea producing areas in Yunnan, and passes through today's Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La prefectures, to finally enter Tibet and continue to Lhasa. Some tea also got exported to India and Nepal, which also was a very important trade route between ancient China and the rest of Asia.
Because Tibet is a high-altitude alpine region, with an average altitude 4,500m, the Tibetan staple foods consist of Zanba (roasted barley bread), dairy, butter, beef and mutton. In alpine regions, people have a high-calorie and fat diet, with little vegetables because it is hard to grow them. Too much fat is not easy to decompose in the human body, but tea can help break down fat, and not only that, but it is also beneficial in hot and dry weather, so Tibetans created the habit of drinking butter tea. The Tibetan environment, however, is not suited to produce tea. On the other hand, in Mainland China, the imperial army required a large number of horses for their battles against northern invaders. But horses, ponies, mules and donkeys were in short supply in China, while the Tibetans bred many good and sturdy equines well fit for China’s wars. As a result, the "tea-horse trade" came into being. And thus, a continuous trade flow developed between the deep valleys of the Hengduan Mountains; of horses, mules, furs and medicinal materials from Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and of tea, cloth, salt and daily utensils from Sichuan, Yunnan and the mainland. With the development of social economy, these ancient trade routes have become increasingly prosperous, forming a "Tea-Horse Road" that continues to this day.
This trail you see here is only a meter or so wide. Imagine walking a trail like this from the tropical forests in the south to the snow-covered Himalayan plateau, and even continuing to India. Many people at that time did not even believe that this insignificant path could lead all the way to distant India. Many even doubted the whole existence of the road.
But there is evidence. The Tubo (ancient Tibet) and Nanzhao (ancient Dali) kingdoms had several major wars at the border of Tibet and Yunnan in the year 794. Here arises the question: these famous wars unavoidably cost a lot of troops, how did the soldiers arrive here? Is this evidence of some mysterious ancient passage or trail?
When speaking about the ancient tea-horse road, it is impossible not to mention the legendary caravans that travelled the ancient road. In those ancient time, travelling was dangerous and not something the common folk would easily consider. There were no roads, and people had to make their own way through the dense primal forests, facing the dangers within them such as mosquitoes and snakes. Then they would have to pass through the deep canyons and towering, snowy mountains of Western Sichuan, Northwest Yunnan and Tibet. Vehicles and ships are of no use in these regions, and goods can only be carried by mules and horses, yaks and humans. There was no medical care on the way, and hunger and cold were the biggest threats to both the animals and people in the caravans. It was a risky business, and many travellers of the caravans would not make it back to their home town alive.
One caravan often consisted of more than a hundred horses, some having as many as two-hundred. It took over one year to cover the round trip. Now, centuries later, the five-centimetre-deep footprints of horseshoes can be seen on the stone slates of ancient trails that have survived the tests of time.
The leader of the caravan was called "Maguotou", meaning literally translated “Horse-pot-head”. The Maguotou was the core figure of the caravan, responsible for handling all the official and unofficial affairs of the caravan. Each Maguotou managed more than a hundred horses and more than twenty horsekeepers. It was said that the Maguotou’s were very well paid for their work. But the horsekeepers’ job was also very though. Depending on their capability, each horsekeeper took care of four to twelve horses, and the more horses he cared for, the higher the reward was. Compared with other work at that time, Maguotou was one of the most profitable jobs. This is why even though it was a dangerous undertaking, many people were keen to become Maguotou or horsekeepers. Even until this day, old people say with a smile that the descendants of the Maguotou’s still live a rather prosperous life.
There were dozens of ancient trading posts along this ancient road, whose functions were to make sure the tea from Yunnan would complete the process of entering Tibet. The trading posts were a hub for the caravans to rest and arrange or distribute goods. Shuhe is a famous trading post on the ancient Tea-Horse trail that is well preserved until this day.
As a major town on the ancient Tea Horse Road and a transit station, Xizhou also became a central hub for the trade. People gathered here to exchange their goods and share their diverse cultures. Caravans came and went. The sound of horse hooves brought with it great prosperity to the economy, the development of industry and commerce and wealthy lives for the people in the places on the route.
A long time ago, there was a bustling night market on Sifang Street of Shuhe ancient town. People came here for shopping, eating and entertainment. Life was slow and comfortable. The prosperity of the Tea Horse Road led to the prosperity of Shuhe Town.
Bright sunshine, spotless white clouds, a pure and clear blue sky, thin air, unending rolling snow mountains and quiet lakes. In this Buddhist’s holy land, there are many temples and devout believers. Walking the streets of Lhasa feels as if you travelled through time and space, and arrived back in the ancient Tang Dynasty. That small group of dusty caravans brought colour and joy to this holy place. There are rows of houses that are thousands of years old, seemingly the real masters of the city, quietly guarding history.
"I had a dream last night, a distant and ancient dream. A dream of a solemn ancestral temple, devout monks, simple villagers and foggy lights of an ancient village dotted among the mountains and snow. I dreamt of a caravan that came from distant lands to rest and recover here, the horse hooves light and brittle and bells ringing like whispers."
Description of Dukezong old town, from Lost Horizon – James Hilton
Every time the caravan embarked on a journey, it was a journey of life and death. But it was the magnificent natural landscape along the ancient tea horse road that stimulated people's inner strength, courage and patience, and set off the enlightenment of people's souls, and helped them to understand the true meaning and greatness of life.