The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Pu’er – Steeped in History

The Ancient Tea Horse Road meanders across ‘The Rooftop of the World’.


Thanks to this perilous passage, the fame and influence of Yunnan’s Pu’er tea spread far and wide.


For thousands of years the Tea Horse Road was the most significant corridor connecting the ancient civilizations of Yunnan and Sichuan in Southwest China with Tibet and finally India.


The road is far older than its name suggests; it became known for its tea and horse trade during the Tang and Song Dynasties, more than a 1000 years ago. But cist tombs found along the route suggest it was of major importance to cultural and economic exchange as early as 2000BC.



120416_48.jpgTown Of Pu'er



The Road begins in the tea trading town of Pu’er. Here, horses loaded with tea would set off on the maze of pathways winding through Yunnan’s major tea-producing regions.



The caravan of men, horses and tea would then enter the Hengduan Mountain range through the eastern foothills.





This is where things became even more treacherous, the men on their heavily loaded horses, carrying what food and supplies they could manage, crossing the steep craggy canyons of the upper reaches of three rivers; the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Nu, while climbing up to two of the highest plateaus in China; Qinghai – Tibet and Yunnan – Guizhou.



120416_38.jpgHighest Transport Passage



Travelling thousands of miles, the tea would cross more than fifty rivers and scores of mountains all towering more than 3000m (9000ft.) skyward.



This is one of the highest transport passages in the world and the weather conditions are extreme. The caravan would be battered by blizzards of snow and ice, burning mountain sun and razor-sharp winds, often all in the same day.




Naturally Fermented Pu'er


Temperatures would soar in the midday sun and plunge to freezing at night. During this long and arduous journey the Pu’er tea naturally fermented, the weather conditions and the heat of the horses influencing the process.


And when it finally reached Lhasa in Tibet the people found that it had developed a dark brown color, an earthy aroma and the taste was smoother and more beneficial as an aid to the sparse Tibetan diet of meat and cheese.




120416_2513808793875.jpgStrong Tibetan Warhorses


In Tibet the tea was exchanged for strong Tibetan horses and the caravan returned to Sichuan and Yunnan.


Records show the tea-horse trade was so extensive that the Han Chinese Government would buy up half of Sichuan’s total tea output, more than 150,000,000kilos, and swap it for up to 20,000 warhorses every year with the Tibetan mountain tribes.






Economic Imperialism 


Every Chinese dynasty of the last millennium recognized the worth of the Tea Horse Road, right up to the Qing dynasty, in power from 1644 to 1911.


The trade for horses had stopped in 1735 but the Chinese rulers were aware of the Tibetan need for tea to supplement their diet.


The Qing used tea to impose an economic imperialism over the Tibetans and offered important gifts of the finest teas to the Tibetan elite: 2500kg to the Dalai Lama and 1250kg to the Panchan Lama were awarded each year of Qing rule.



World War II


During World War II the Tea Horse Road played its most recent major role in world affairs. In 1942 the Japanese army had occupied all the coastal cities of China and Burma and they blocked every road to stop supplies entering China. Yet the tea horse trail stayed open.


Over 25,000 horses, mules and yaks operated along the route working with more than 1200 trading firms to bring everything from sewing machines to cigarettes, whiskies to toilets from India to Old Lijiang Town in Yunnan Province.


Today it seems the Ancient Tea Horse Road is set to become one of the world’s most interesting and breathtaking tourist attractions with its rich history, 20 different colorful minority cultures dotted along the route and some of the most spectacular jagged mountain landscapes on the planet.







Great Adventure Of Mankind


“Few people have realized how vast and unprecedented this sudden expansion of caravan traffic between India and China was, or how important. It was a unique and spectacular phenomenon. No complete story has yet been written about it, but it will always live in my memory as one of the great adventures of mankind. Moreover, it demonstrated to the world very convincingly that, should all modern means of communication and transportation be destroyed by some atomic cataclysm, the humble horse, man’s oldest friend, is ever ready to forge again a link between scattered peoples and nations.”


Forgotten Kingdom, Peter Goullart