Ancient Tea Horse Road

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Jul. 28, 2021

The Tea and Horse  Road of Southwest China, aka the " Silk Road of Southwest China" – but called Chamagudao in Chinese (cha-ma-gu-dao = Tea-Horse-Ancient-Road) – is an old trade route that stretched east to west and south to north across southwest China. This 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.

Where the Tea Horse Road was Located

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. 

The Harsh Conditions on the Tea Horse Road

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. One small misstep could mean certain and immediate death for both man and beast.

The part from Ya'an in Sichuan province to Tibet is the most dangerous. It measures 2350 kilometers in length, spanning 56 separate stages.  This section 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.

The weather condition is severe. relentless monsoonal-seasonal rains that swell rivers and cause boulder-and-earth mudslides 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. 

Why the Tea Horse Road Began

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 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 capital, Chengdu.

What was Traded on the Tea Horse Road

As its name implies tea and horse are the main products traded on the route.

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" 

The road started from Ya'an and Pu'er in Western China's Sichuan and Yunnan Province respectively-there was a northern section and a south section of the road. 

Tea from Ya'an in Sichuan Province

The area around the city of Ya'an is the home of tea drinking and tea making. There were two main tea types that were exported from Ya'an to Tibet: Yellow brick tea, which was a cheap but strong tea (the leaves were ground into a powder) that was popular among the poorer classes. It 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. 

Tea from Pu'er in Yunnan Province

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. 

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.  

Important Roles on the World War Two

The ancient Tea and Horse Road 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. 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.

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