Tracing China’s ancient Tea-Horse Road
This ancient trade route starts in the subtropical lowlands of Yunnan in Xishuangbanna prefecture. (Bill Wassman/LPI)
From the steamy, subtropical lowlands of Xishuangbanna (“shee-shwang-bah-na”), to the crisp highlands of the Tibetan plateau, China’s Yunnan province has been a link between tea growers and drinkers for more than 1,200 years.
Years ago, tea growers and horse traders met in markets along Yunnan’s Tea-Horse Road, an old trade route also called the South Silk Road, between Xishuangbanna and Tibet. Today, you can travel the ancient route and find remnants of the caravan road in old market squares, patches of cobbled lane and still-thriving tea plantations.
Trace the ancient Tea-Horse Road by beginning where, in theory, it all starts: with the tea trees in southern Yunnan. Then move northwest along the old route until you reach Zhongdian, or Shangri-La, which is one of the last stops in China before the Tibet Autonomous Region and is nearly 10,000ft higher than Xishuangbanna. Most towns are populated by ethnic minorities who played individual roles in the tea-horse trade, such as growers and middlemen. Today, many of these minorities still dress in their traditional clothing and speak dialects far removed from Mandarin. Interacting with them is a highlight of any trip to Yunnan.
Here is a breakdown of some of the villages and sites along the way:
Xishuangbanna prefecture encompasses the subtropical lowlands of Yunnan. Its rolling hills are spotted with small Dai villages surrounded by acres and acres of tea. This is the land of Pu’er, a particularly favoured tea that is fermented and shaped into bricks or pancakes for easy transport by mule.
Dali Old City sits at 4,000ft, with vertical peaks rising behind it like a green screen. A major conduit market town on the route, Dali is the cradle of Bai civilization and you will notice their signature whitewashed buildings with flower-painted borders. This ethnic minority group acted as middlemen between tea growers from Xishuangbanna and horse traders from Tibet.
The climb continues to Shaxi, another major trading hub designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. Cobbled streets, old horse stalls and small courtyard guesthouses that were once used for muleteers are all being preserved in Shaxi as it prepares for tourism. It is one of the most intact and beautiful sites along the Tea-Horse Road, with its market square framed by a performance stage and powerful statues guarding a temple; the square is still used by locals in the evenings for traditional dancing.
Traders rarely made the entire journey along the Tea-Horse Road, instead trading goods at markets along the way. Lijiang, also on the Unesco World Heritage List, was one such town. It is a stunning place if you can get past the theme park-feel and the crowds of tourists. But with its ancient canal system filled with rushing water from the snow-topped peaks in the distance, topped by arched stone and wood bridges, and reflecting moody red lanterns in the evening, Lijiang’s personality is difficult to resist.
What is still locally known as Zhongdian (or, in Tibetan, Gyeltang) was officially changed to Shangri-La in 2001. At nearly 10,000ft in elevation, Zhongdian swirls with the smell of wood and coal smoke permeating its cold, dry air. Here, ruddy-faced Tibetans stand out from the Han Chinese, as does their architecture: square, three-storey homes with bright scrollwork trimming them. Tea is mixed with yak butter for a high-calorie drink in this shivery climate.
Just outside the old city is the Songzanlin Monastery, a golden, multi-storied complex where Tibetan Buddhist monks make clockwise circles outside, and juniper smoke and Tibetan prayer flags burst against the blue sky.