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Tea and Horse Caravan Road

Everything was indented [a British term meaning that the goods were officially requisitioned against a promise to pay on delivery], contracted or bought outright that could be conveniently carried by yak or mule. Sewing machines, textiles, cases of the best cigarettes, both British and American, whiskies and gins of famous brands, dyes and chemicals, kerosene oil in tins, toilet and canned goods and a thousand and one varieties of small articles started flowing in an unending stream by trail and truck to Kaimpong [present-day Kalimpong in West Bengal, India], to be hastily repacked and dispatched by caravan to Lhasa . There the flood of merchandise was crammed into the halls and courtyards of the palaces and lamaseries and turned over to an army of sorters and professional packers. The least fragile goods were set aside for the northern route to Tachienlu [present-day Garze], to be transported by yaks; other articles were packed for delivery at Likiang [present-day Lijiang ], especially the liquors and cigarettes which were worth their weight in gold in Kunming [capital of Yunnan Province], crowded with thirsty American and British troops...

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– Forgotten Kingdom, J. Murray 1955, by Peter Goullart, Russian-born descendant of private merchants who plied a lively trade in all manner of goods between China and Central and South-Central Asia during the era of the Great Game (1807-1933), while the author himself, though not involved in it personally, was witness to a similar merchant trade along the Tea and Horse Caravan Road during WWII, as the above quote indicates, mainly trade in indispensable civilian goods that no Western army concerned about morale could ignore – everything from kerosene-burning primus stoves to coffee, cigarettes & whiskey to tinned candy, plus countless other sundry items that could make a soldier's existence in the subtropical climate of Southwestern China more tolerable.

The Tea and Horse Caravan Road of Southwest China, aka the " Silk Road of Southwest China" – but called Chamadao in Chinese (cha-ma-dao means "Tea-Horse-Road") – is an old trade route that stretched east to west and south to north across southwest China, including present-day Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region), and down into Nepal and India (see the stylized map below). This set of ancient trade routes eventually came to be renowned for the two main commodities for which the routes were named: tea and horses, though there were other important commodities such as sugar and salt – but curiously, not silk – that were traded along these routes.

Note also that, unlike the western part of the Silk Road, where caravans of Bactrian camels transported silk and other exotic goods westward, the beast of burden for the trek over the mountains of southwestern China, which could be freezing cold and snowy in winter, was the pack horse.*(1, 2) And of course, the horses that were brought back to China from Tibet could serve as pack horses on the trek back to the Chinese hinterland.

The absence of trade in silk notwithstanding, the comparison to the famous Silk Road is naturally quite valid here in the sense that the overland trade routes of Southwest China were a major factor in the economic as well as the cultural development of the region, in much the same way that the Silk Road was an engine for economic and cultural change in the lands it traversed (for example, Buddhism would not have spread to China as early as it did – and thus further to Korea (during the Goryeo (CE 918-1392) Dynasty period), and from Korea on to Japan, though Buddhism first got a serious foothold in Japan after the Chinese Buddhism tracts were translated into Japanese – had it not been for the Silk Road).

The main driver of the trade along the Tea and Horse Caravan Road was, on the one hand, China's desire to import horses from Tibet, and, on the other hand, Tibet's desire to import tea from China: Pu'er tea from the city of Pu'er in present-day Yunnan Province, situated about 100 kilometers north-northeast of Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve; and Yacha tea from the city of Ya'an, located about 1300 kilometers farther north and east in Sichuan Province, or situated about 100 kilometers southwest of the province's captial, Chengdu .

Roughly speaking, these trade routes describe a horizontally-oriented (lying sidewise) "Y", where the two forks of the sidewise "Y" point roughly eastward while the trunk of the sidewise "Y" points roughly westward (the city of Pu'er represents the terminus of the southern fork of the "Y" while the city of Ya'an represents the terminus of the northern fork of the "Y"), as the borrowed map (Figure 1) immediately below illustrates.

The Tea and Horse Caravan Road

Fig 1: The Tea and Horse Caravan Road

Lest the reader get the mistaken impression that the "Silk Road of Southwest China" is just another long trade route stretching across many borders, much like the route followed by the silk traders, it must be pointed out that the Tea and Horse Caravan Road of Southwest China was an extremely arduous route which, in places, was a mere pathway along a narrow mountain precipice requiring the rider to dismount and proceed on foot, and where one small misstep could mean certain and immediate death for both man and beast, as the following glance at the statistics covering the route's slightly truncated northern fork – between the city of Ya'an in Sichuan Province and the city of Lhasa in Tibet – suggests.

The slightly truncated northern fork (see the next section) measures 2350 kilometers in length, spanning 56 separate stages, it involves 51 river crossings, crosses 15 rope suspension bridges and 10 iron-chain suspension bridges, and it climbs and descends 78 mountains, each with a height of over 3000 meters. To this can be added: sudden (freak) and massive rains; relentless monsoonal-seasonal rains that swell rivers and cause boulder-and-earth mudlsides that can bury a horse caravan within minutes; winds – both cold and hot; perilous hailstorms; blinding snow; and in "good" weather, a burning sun (and probably with dangerously high levels of UV radiation) that can scorch the earth by mid-morning and which would often continue unabated until late afternoon. And we haven't even mentioned the poisonous snakes, the blood-sucking leeches, the mosquitoes and the myriad of other biting or stinging insects.

Not that the southern fork – or the trunk section, for that matter – of the Tea and Horse Caravan Road was any less of an ordeal ...

The route originating in Pu'er in Yunnan Province and ending in India, linking up, near the Tibetan city of Mangkam, with the Tea and Horse Caravan Road's northern fork – thus forming the trunk that proceeded across Tibet and into Northern India – passed through the Hengduan Mountain Range with its deep canyons that are home to several major rivers such as the Jinsha (one of the upper reaches of the Yangtze), the Yalong, the Lancang/ Mekong and the Nu/ Salween, while traversing two of China's – and the world's – highest plateaus: the Yunnan- Guizhou and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateaus.

Note that the Hengduan Mountain Range forms the rounded northeastern edge of the deformed land mass that rims the large piece of uplifted land mass that resulted from the Indian Subcontinent's violent collision with the Asian continent (as you probably well know, plate tectonics theory says that the Indian Subcontinent was formerly a part of Africa), forming, in the process, the Himalayas as well as the two aforementioned highland plateaus.

It is here where the "Three Parallel Rivers" – the Jinsha, the Lancang and the Nu Rivers (see the map (Figure 2) below) that otherwise, except for this bottleneck, describe the same curvature as the Hengduan Mountain Range in Yunnan Province – run through deep canyons as they race southward through Yunnan Province and, except for the Jinsha, which becomes the Yangtze, continue on southward into Burma, and, as regards the Lancang/ Mekong River, continues further into/along the borders of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, where the Mekong River divides into nine separate channels that form the Mekong Delta, each of these channels eventually emptying into the South China Sea.

Three Parallel Rivers

Fig 2: The Three Parallel Rivers

The Northern Fork

The northern fork of the Tea and Horse Caravan Road originates in the city of Ya'an in Sichuan Province. Ya'an, whose earliest name, Ya Prefecture (Ya Zhou, or Yazhou as it is most commonly written), was bestowed upon it in CE 604 during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty, became early on in the history of tea-growing a center for mass-produced tea, especially tea earmarked for export to Tibet. The surprising thing about this wording is that we are speaking of something that occurred over a thousand years ago! But then, we really shouldn't be surprised, for the Silk Road trade, including the trade along the "Silk Road of Southwest China", was a sober business, with suppliers who knew the value of what it was they were offering and buyers (wholesalers) who had eager end-user customers.

The area around the city of Ya'an where tea was grown, Mount Meng (written "Mengshan", but sometimes written as Mingshan or even as Mingding, and sometimes a writer switches between "Mengshan" and "Mingshan" in the same sentence (!) – irritatingly confusing! – nor is Google much help, for they are famously incorrect... but here they write it as Mingshan, as do the majority... one is tempted to conjecture that the tea is spelled "Mengshan" while the mountain is spelled "Mingshan", but no, there is no hard and fast rule for that either – exasperating!), is in fact the home of tea drinking and tea making – it is here where chai (the Indian term, though borrowed by the Russians), cha (the Chinese term), and tea originates, and it was all due to a goat herdsman, a certain Wu Lizhen who planted some hardy bushes on a hilltop to provide, presumably, some extra foliage for his goats to nibble on. Somehow a leaf from one of the bushes ended in a cup of hot water and, violá, tea was born! (To learn more about how this got started you can read this article, or this one, which is in fact better, and if you would like to read a short article about the culture/ etiquette of tea drinking in China, here is an excellent, albeit commercially backed, place to start.)

There were two main tea types that were exported from Ya'an to Tibet: Yellow brick tea (Huang zhuancha), which was a cheap but strong tea (the leaves were ground into a powder) that was popular among the poorer classes; and Mengshan/ Mingshan/ Mingding tea, which came (comes still!) in a number of varieties that appealed (appeals!) to more discriminating tea drinkers (one wonders why the route between Ya'an and Tibet (as well as India and Nepal) wasn't dubbed the "Yellow Brick Road" : ) ).

Again, one can only be impressed at this ahead-of-its-time initiative, where the ground tea leaves were pressed into solid bricks since they took up less space in transit in that form, and were easier for the wholesaler to stack, both of which merchandising concepts sound as modern as anything one would encounter in modern merchandising, less the plastic packaging, of course, but there was yet another reason for the tea brick rather than loose tea leaves: it could be used as a form of currency, since the bricks were scored on their backs so as to facilitate their division into equal parts. Teas from Ya'an are sometimes collectively called Yacha tea, but as we can see, Ya cha is just "Ya tea", "Ya" being a reference to the ancient prefecture name.

The route of the "Yellow Brick Road" (the route of the northern fork) was as follows: Ya'an > Luding > Kangding (Garze) and Batang (not to be confused with Bataan in the Philippines, the famous WWII battleground!) on the Sichuan side, then on into Tibet to Mangkam, where the southern fork, arriving northward from Pu'er, linked up with the northern fork, then both forks entered the "trunk" of the sidewise "Y" and proceeded along the route: Zogang > Bangda > Qamdo > Lhorong > Gongbog'yamda, and on to Lhasa. From Lhasa the trunk continued along the route: Gyangze > Kangmar and Yadong, before exiting Tibet. From Tibet, the trunk route continued southward into northern India and eastern Nepal.

Just as with the real Silk Road, there were alternative or "service" routes, such as a route which, instead of entering laterally into Tibet from Batang (toward the nearest Tibetan city of Mangkam), proceeded due north from Batang to the Sichuan city of Dege (alternatively, Derge, but called Teko in Tibetan, and note that the city belonged to the ancient Tibetan Kindom of Dege (one of three ancient Tibetan Kingdoms, the other two being Lhasa and Xiahe) that was formed early during the Chinese Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, when the Chinese emperors withdrew from the "Western Regions", though they would return toward the end of the Tang Dynasty), where the route turned west at Dege and crossed into Tibet, following the route via Jomda and on to Qamdo, then following the rest of the trunk route described immediately above. There would be other, more local "service" routes supplementing the original two main routes as time passed and new population centers – new markets, if you will forgive the anachronism – sprang up.

The Southern Fork

The southern fork of the Tea and Horse Caravan Road originated in the city of Pu'er in Yunnan Province, which is in the heart of Xishuangbanna, home to the famous nature reserve where they also keep wild elephants (note that there is a present-day city just north and east of Xishuangbanna calling itself Pu'er that has nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Pu'er (the city in question recently changed its name from Simao to Pu'er), except for the scent of money, for money doesn't stink, as the saying goes). The route proceeds thereafter northward through Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (aka Shangri La) and Deqen on the Yunnan side, then proceeds northward into Tibet to the city of Mangkam, where the southern fork joins the northern fork and the two proceed thereafter westward along the trunk section of the sidewise "Y" that the Tea and Horse Caravan Road of Southwest China describes as it reaches across Tibet and southwestward into northern India and eastern Nepal.

Fig 3 Tea & Horse Caravan Road

Fig 3: Where the Yangtze River Enters the Majestic Atsanko Gorge

Pu'er tea – alternately spelled as Puer, Pu-erh, Po Lei and Bolay – is a specially processed tea that is dark and has a very unique aroma and much sought-after flavor. The tea is fermented with the aid of special microbes after the tea leaves have been lightly sun-dried ("fixed") and rolled, in a process that is akin to composting. The fermented tea is thereafter completely sun-dried and then typically – but not always (one can purchase them in loose-leaf form) – formed into bricks or other solid forms such as mounds, wheels, etc. Originally they were formed into bricks only, just as the yellow tea of Ya'an was formed into a brick, i.e., in the exact shape of a typical building brick.

The original dark (fermented) Chinese Tea was produced solely in the region of Pu'er in Yunnan Province, but has since become a production tea type and as such can be made anywhere. Today there are many Chinese variants of Pu'er tea, even unfermented "green" Pu'er teas as well as incompletely fermented Pu'er teas where the fermentation process has not been arrested via complete sun-drying, but is allowed to remain a continuing, or ageing, fermentation process much like the maturation process for cheese or for red wine: one permits the production-dated tea to age to the desired degree of fermentation before use.

Atsanko Gorge, Yunnan Province

Fig 4: Narrow Pathway Through the Atsanko Gorge

The original Pu'er tea, however, was the simple, dark, fermented Chinese tea that came from the region of Pu'er (present-day Xishuangbanna) in Yunnan Province and was typically pressed into brick form, whose raison d'être, or rationale, as we have seen, was primarily owing to the advantages of transporting compact cargo along perilous mountain trails on beasts of burden (anything that dangles too much makes it hard to maintain/ recover one's balance, even if "one" is a donkey!) and note that since Pu'er tea was in the form of rolled leaves, rather than a ground powder, it was not suited as a form of currency – Tibetans had the yellow brick tea for that purpose), as this short, excellent, commercially backed history of Pu'er tea also accounts for (and no, we don't receive a penny for sending you there, we only send you to sites that have useful, neutral information!).

It would also seem that the fermentation process of at least some of the Pu'er tea bricks that were delivered to Tibet via horse caravan was allowed to continue to ferment throughout the trip, with the effect that the tea had become even stronger – and perhaps grungier (think of all that horse sweat!) – by the time it reached Tibet, which nonetheless seems to have suited the Tibetan palate just fine (some sources have suggested that the Tibetans brewed other ingredients together with the tea that they imported from China, for whatever reasons, ranging from the medicinal to the flavorful – and this besides the fact that to the finished product was often added thick milk as well as more than a pinch of salt, producing a very rich beverage indeed).

Fig 5 Tea & Horse Caravan Road

Fig 5: Chinese Mule "Cavalries" Patrolled the Burma-China Supply Routes

The Influence of Tea and Horse Trade on China-Tibet Relations

China was keen to purchase the first-rate warhorses that Tibet could supply, while the Chinese were also quite content to balance out this trade as much as possible by supplying the Tibetans with tea, a commodity that the Tibetans, living atop high, cold mountains, came to be ever more "addicted to". With time, the Chinese came to realize that their tea (tea does not grow atop cold mountains, meaning that none grows in Tibet) was more important to the Tibetans than were the Tibetan warhorses to the Chinese, and this dependency could of course be exploited – but only to cement good, brotherly relations, of course! It is a curious fact that the Tibetans had already learned about tea by the time that a Chinese emperor got it in his head to propose tea as a commodity that might interest the Tibetans (the Tang Dynasty Chinese emperor in question might simply have been promoting the image of the illustrious Tang Dynasty when the emperor, on a visit to Lhasa, had one of his servants brew some tea for the Tibetan king; one can accordingly imagine the emperor's stupifaction when he learned that his host already knew about tea – had in fact an ample supply of it!).

The fact is that the Tibetans had long had close relations with Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, their closest Chinese neighbors, long before those Chinese neighbors were what one today calls the Han Chinese (to those who may be under the impression that there exists a pure Han Chinese ethnic identity – as opposed to an "impure" Han Chinese ethnic identity based on a fusion of many divergingly different ethnic threads – a quick read of the first footnote on this page should broaden your understanding of the issue). In fact, parts of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces had earlier been under the influence if not under the direct reign of Tibetan kings, so the Tibetans knew the denizens of Yunnan and Sichuan, and vice-versa, and therefore the Tibetans came to learn about tea early on, long before the Chinese emperor believed that he was unveiling a novelty for the Tibetan king in question.

As brother races, the Chinese naturally wished to be on good terms with the Tibetans, therefore the Chinese court traditionally donated a large annual quantity of the best Chinese teas to the Dalai Lama as well as to the Panchen Lama. The Chinese state, where necessary, carried out the tea and horse trade itself but was otherwise content to turn this task over to private merchants; the important thing was that the trade kept flowing so that the Tibetans would remain content and the Chinese state got the mounts that it needed in order to repel the endless waves of marauding Turkic nomads that encroached on the empire from the north.

China Travel Photo

Fig 6: A Typical Pack Mule Harness Ready to Receive Bags, Baskets, etc.

To give an idea of the extent of the Tibetan import of Chinese tea, one-half of the entire production of 30,000,000 jin (roughly 15,000,000 kilograms) of Sichuan tea was exported to Tibet during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty. In the other direction, the number of Tibetan warhorses imported by the Chinese reached over 20,000 annually during the same period, an especially difficult period for China, when the Jürchens were making gains against Han China in the north – in CE 1115 the Jürchens conquered most of China and set up the Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty as the Northern Song Dynasty crumbled and the remnants fled southward, setting up the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, though in the end, it was the Mongols who swept both the Jürchens and the Han Chinese off the board, as it were.

Not surprisingly, given the growth in the Tibetan demand for tea as the population increased, and given the growth in the Chinese demand for Tibetan warhorses, the peak in the tea and horse trade between China and Tibet occured during the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty, and though the Tibetan demand for Chinese tea continued during the Qing Dynasty, the equivalent Chinese demand for Tibetan warhorses waned after the Ming Dynasty, when the threat from invading Turkic tribes had run its course, since most of these hostile tribes had already entered China and had become more or less Sinicized (the successor to the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was in fact ruled by Jürchens who had – in the interim since the Jürchen Jin Dynasty – changed their name to Manchus).

The WWII Afternote

The ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road of Southwest China experienced a revival during WWII (1939-1945), when the Japanese occupation of much of coastal China and large parts of Southeast Asia made it all but impossible to get military materiel and other military supplies as well as civilian goods into the hinterland of China, where a resistance movement under the leadership of US Army General Joseph Warren Stilwell had been established by the Allied Powers. The ancient, revived Tea and Horse Caravan Road became the civilian equivalent of the famous Burma Road that transported military materiel from Rangoon to Kunming, and which the Japanese regularly bombed, in response to which the Allies (the Americans) set up an air transport alternative, the Flying Tigers, that could keep the supplies moving whenever the Burma Road had been temporarily rendered inoperative. But the Tea and Horse Caravan Road also served a military support role during this period, when some 8000 mules and horses as well as some 20,000 yaks were employed in connection with Operation Caravan.

China Travel Photo

Fig 7: An Allied Military Pack Mule Caravan Ascending a Mountain Pass

Operation Caravan originated in Calcutta then proceeded northward via Kalimpong in the Indian state of West Bengal, and from there on to Lhasa, and from Lhasa on to Kunming in Yunnan Province. The most fragile and most priceless of the civilian items such as whiskey were sent by horse-and-mule caravan from Lhasa along a southern route that passed through Deqen and Lijiang, while robust items were sent by yak caravan via the northern route that passed through Qamdo/ Changdu and directly eastward to Kangding/ Garze, before turning due south as it passed through present-day Liangshan and on to Kunming, the headquarters of General Stilwell and his Chinese army-in-the-making.

China Travel Photo

Fig 8: A Typical Burma Road Scene – Note the Tracks of the Tank Bulldozer

This less conspicuous (to the Japanese) alternative supply route to the Burma Road became such a successful enterprise that it operated even during the monsoon season, when the rivers were swollen and the risk of mudslides was at its peak. But the money was good and the effort was deemed valiant, so there was never a lack of willing carriers and animal tenders, even if the mudslides – or the careless misstep – took their occasional toll on both man and beast as well as on precious cargo.

Fig 9 Tea & Horse Caravan Road

Fig 9: Crossing a River Was a Perilous Endeavor, Both for Horse and Man

The Burma Road and the Flying Tigers have carved their place in history, while the lesser-known Operation Caravan has been all but forgotten, perhaps because transporting candy, toilet paper, cigarettes, gin and whiskey are not quite as noble as transporting rifles, ammunition and disassembled cannons. Still, Operation Caravan, which revived for a time the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road proved that when all-too-vulnerable, modern forms of transportation fail – for whatever reason – the old-fashioned way, as toilsome as it may be, can be relied upon to deliver the goods, both figuratively and literally, as the following quote from the aformentioned book, Forgotten Kingdom, so aptly illustrates*(3):

"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."

(1) Since very little readily available factual evidence appears to exist that can substantiate whether camels were used on the Chinese part of the Silk Road, one naturally wonders what might have been the geographical limits of the camel's use along the Chinese part of the Silk Road if indeed it was used in this connection (we know that the Chinese purchased "Greek" horses from the Ferghana Valley ("Greek" because the horses were presumably descendants of the larger horses brought to Asia by Alexander the Great and his army), and some sources have suggested that the Chinese used these larger horses precisely as Silk Road pack horses).

On the face of it, it stands to reason that the camel was used at least for the arid, desert sections of the Chinese part of the Silk Road – say, from the city of Anxi at the western extremity of the Hexi Corridor (aka Gansu Corridor), near Dunhuang and westward, i.e., the routes north and south around the Taklimakan Desert as well as the westward route that skirted north of the Tien Mountains via the Urumchi Corridor, then continued westward via Yining, Khorgos, Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and on to Samarkand – just as it seems, on first pass, a bit unlikely that the camel was used for the eastward trek all the way to the city of Xi'an, deep into lush, urbanized China.

Note that the city of Anxi was alternately known as Guazhou and Suoyang, the latter a reference to a legend regarding a military campaign led by General Xue Li, aka Xue Ren'gui, where the troops, desperately hungry given that they had long since exhausted their food supplies, chanced upon the suoyang plant (Cynomorium songaricum), a fleshy perennial plant that grows to a height of 2 feet and which is apparently of no nutritional value, but is claimed to be of medicinal value.

According to the legend, General Xue's soldiers, camped at the city of Anxi, ate the abundant suoyang plant for lack of anything else (filling the belly has at least a psychological value!), and, as the legend claims, the plant relieved the soldiers' sensation of hunger, enough so that they could win the battle that was before them. Thereafter the city of Anxi came to also be known by the plant that had saved the day, militarily. (It should be said that Xue Ren'gui was a figure popularized in fiction as well, so where the fiction begins and the reality ends in this legend is left to your judgement, dear reader!)

However, since the Bactrian camel is admirably suited to the wide-ranging climates of this part of the world – meaning that it can tolerate the chill of winter as well as the heat of summer (see the next footnote) – it was theoretically as equally at home in the city of Xi'an during winter (or on the summit ridge of the Pamirs for that matter, also during winter) as it was in the vast expanses of the Taklimakan Desert on a baking mid-summer's day.

Fig 10 Tea & Horse Caravan Road

Fig 10: Bactrian Camel, Water Tanks Full

Therefore the Bactrian camel was perfectly adapted for the trek from Xi'an all the way to the Silk Road hub city of Kyzyl Suu in the elongated valley just across the crest of the Pamirs, westward from Kashgar, Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), in China's "Western Regions" and some 50 kilometers north of Lake Karakul in present-day Kyrgyzstan, where the Chinese caravans handed off their cargo to caravans arriving from the west – most certainly camel caravans as well – while the returning Chinese caravans loaded their empty camels with cargo destined for "points east", the bulk of which might well have been off-loaded in Xi'an, to be distributed from there to the rest of China, though a great deal of the Silk Road merchandise came to be traded along the way, in both directions, which is why the Silk Road eventually developed into a network of alternative routes – service routes, essentially, that received deliveries of exotic foreign commodities while delivering in turn their particular wares to the caravans, be these food provisions or commodities destined for the bazaars of Central Asia or, farther west still, for the haberdasheries and specialty shops of Europe's import merchants.

China Travel Photo

Fig 11: Bactrian Camel, Water Tanks Near-Depleted

Some of these alternative Silk Road "service" routes may have been strictly local while others were regional, though most of them would eventually reconnect at one or another major hub, such as at Kashgar, or at Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan.

Some sources suggest that there were probably few Chinese camel caravans that made the trip all the way from Xi'an to Kyzyl Suu, though some may well have done so, depending on the nature of the cargo, but that the more likely scenario was the smaller caravan, consisting of only a few animals, that trekked from point C to point B, handed off goods to a similar caravan that had also arrived at point B, but from point A – and which would prompty return to point A with reverse-direction cargo – while the caravan that had arrived at point B from point C would return to point C, also with reverse-direction cargo. Of course these "hops" could be of varying lengths, i.e., they were not necessarily between two consecutive points on the stretch of Silk Road in question, while the longer treks, whether from Xi'an to Kyzyl Suu and return or from, say, Xi'an to Anxi and return and from Anxi to Kyzyl Suu and return, most likely consisted of several beasts of burden, whether these were horses or camels.

(2) The Bactrian camel has two humps, as opposed to the one-humped dromedary, but the Bactrian camel also grows a protective layer of hair during winter, replete with thick, woolly underhair, which makes it ideally suited for the winter trek over the Pamirs that divide China and "the stans" (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, not to speak of Turkmenistan farther west, Kazakhstan farther northeast and Pakistan farther south).

(3) The author of Forgotten Kingdom, Peter Goullart, arrived in Kunming in 1939 as a representative for a newly-launched Chinese – New Zealand – American cooperative initiative officially entitled the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association (CIC), aka INDUSCO (Industrial Company?), and whose equivalent Chinese name was Gongye Hezuoshe. Gongye Hezuoshe, or Gongye as it was commonly called for short, was sponsored by none other than the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the Generalissimo in charge of Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang (KMT). Gongye was generously funded by the Government of the Republic of China, who saw in it an excellent initiative for stimulating decentralized economic growth throughout the country.

Gongye promoted itself so aggressively, however, that its English-language rendering, "Gung Ho", came to be synonymous with being overzealous to a fault. Now you know where that expression comes from!

If you would like to read Goullart's book, which has recently been reprinted and can be bought in paperback on Amazon for around $17 (where you can also pick up a badly bruised copy of the 1955 original for as low as $42 or as high as $153), or if you don't mind reading it as a download (the same reprint as offered in paperback at Amazon), it can be purchased from Google Books for around $3. If free sounds better, you can read the entire book online here (or copy it and paste it into MS Word, etc., where you can adjust the font particulars to suit your needs and desires) – and be sure to check out the old B&W photos near the end of the book!

Goullart's book is only tangentially about Operation Caravan/ the Tea and Horse Caravan Road; it is mainly about Tibet and the Tibetan and Nakhi villages of southwestern China, and about the kindness and generosity of Buddhist thought, and of course it is also about the cooperative movement, both of which endeavors Goullart was dedicated to.

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