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18/02/2013

Facts of Tea and Horse Road

For thousands of years, there was an ancient road treaded by human feet and horse hoofs in the mountains of Southwest China, bridging the Chinese hinterland and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Along the unpaved and often rugged road, tea, salt and sugar flowed into Tibet, while horses, cows, furs, musk and other local products came out. The ancient commercial passage, dubbed the "Ancient Tea and Horse Road", first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and lasted until the 1960s when Tibetan highways were constructed. Meanwhile, the road also promoted exchanges in culture, religion and ethnic migration, resembling the refulgence of the Silk Road.

The road stretched across more than 4,000 kilometers mainly in Southwest China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which are most-visited tourists' destinatons contained in private tour of China. Just as the Silk Road, the Ancient Tea and Horse Road disappeared with the dawn of modern civilization, but both routes have played very important roles in the development of China. Different Chinese ethnic cultures, such as the Dai, Yi, Han, Bai, Naxi and Tibetans, have met, fused and developed along the historic road.

The road ran across the Hengduan Mountains and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau -- an area of the most complicated geological conditions and most diversified organisms. Besides its cultural and historic value, the road was also highly appreciated by adventurers and scientists.

Tea and horses blazed the way

According to Tibetan classics, people of the Tibetan ethnic group in western Sichuan Province and northwestern Yunnan Province had access to famous types of tea from the Central Plains during the Tang Dynasty. In the Song Dynasty (960-12t79), people of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces exchanged tea for Tibetan horses.

On one hand, the effects of tea in promoting digestion and eliminating grease from eating too much meat lured many Tibetans. Not only the nobles, but also the general populace took delight in drinking tea. On the other hand, horses were also very important for the Han people. The result was the flourishing of the tea-horse trade.

According to some who had once traveled along the Ancient Tea and Horse Road, Pu'er tea is most favored by the Tibetan people. Since the butter tea made of Pu'er tea is highly esteemed both in taste and color, it was named after its producing area -- Pu'er County in Yunnan Province, which is one of the cradles of China's "tea culture". During the Tang Dynasty, Pu'er tea was grown in areas flanking the Langcangjiang River. It was described as having a bitter taste at first, then sweet.

During the World War II, when Myanmar fell into the hands of the Japanese, the Yunnan-Myanmar Highway -- then China's only international thoroughfare -- was cut off. The Ancient Tea Horse Road, extending from Lijiang in Yunnan, to Kangding in Xikang, and then to Tibet and even further into India, was revived and became a major trade route. With the opening of the Yunnan-Tibetan and Sichuan-Tibetan highways in the 1960s, the road declined. Some sections of the famous road, however, are still used for transport purposes. Today, the road comes to the fore again with the development of China tourism in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, as well as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The road passes through subtropical forests and picturesque lakes and turbulent rivers, such as Langcangjiang, Nujiang, Minjiang and Yarlung Zangbo. Heading west from the Hengduan Mountains, one has to cross many peaks -- each towering 4,000-5,000 meters above sea level. But tea and horses have blazed a trail despite the challenges posed by mountains and forests. Roads devoted to the tea-horse trade linked ethnic groups living in areas near the roads, making them members of the great Chinese nation.

Two major routes

A Chinese expert researching the Ancient Tea Horse Road recently found a complete map of the road drawn more than 150 years ago by a French missionary. The map reveals that the road traversed a series of towering mountains, with rivers flowing in between from the south to the north. Roughly speaking, there were two main routes:

Route One:

Begins in Xishuangbanna and Simao, home of Pu'er tea (via Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian, Benzilan and Deqeng) in Yunnan Province to Zugong, Bamda, Rewoqe, Zayu or Qamdo, Lholung, Benba, Jiali, Gongbogyangda, Lhasa(a must-see for Tibet tours), Gyangze and Yadong in Tibet, before continuing into Myanmar, Nepal and India.

Route Two:

Begins in Ya'an in Sichuan Province to Qamdo via Luding, Kangding, Litang and Batang before merging with Route One into Lhasa.

Tens of thousands of traveling horses and yaks created a definite path with their hoofs on the once-indiscernible road. Today, although even such traces of the ancient road are fading away, its cultural and historic values remain.

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