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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The article 'Tracing China’s ancient Tea-Horse Road' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.