South of the Clouds: Yunnan’s ancient tea-horse road

In November, Gadling traveled with WildChina throughout Yunnan province. The theme of the trip was “the ancient tea-horse road,” and it followed a trading route that runs from Yunnan’s tropical lowlands up to the Tibetan plateau and eventually in to India.

As the name implies, the “road” was a caravan route along which tea and horses were traded, though salt was also a major commodity. Lesser known than its glamorous older sibling, the Silk Road, the tea-horse road was nevertheless an important trade route. Though defined in the singular, the tea-horse road was actually a series of small trade routes; it was rare for traders to travel the entire route.

Tea, still grown and fermented for travel in Yunnan today, was carried north, while mules and horses from Tibet plodded south. Small traces of the original trade still exist: condensed bundles of tea packed into bamboo pipes at a rural market, an old square in a village where horse stalls still sit behind a guesthouse once used by muleteers (those who traveled the route with mules), and even a few people who worked in the trade before 1949.

Though the route extends all the way to India, we focused only on locations in Yunnan. First we visited Xishuangbanna prefecture, at the south of the province. Here, Pu-er tea is grown on small trees whose size belies their age: many are several hundred years old. We then traveled to Dali, a conduit market town where tea traders and growers traveled north to meet Tibetans who had journeyed south. The Bai minority group still live in and around Dali and were middlemen between the tea and horse traders.

After Dali came Shaxi, a market town where we met the son of a muleteer who was killed by bandits. Everyone in Shaxi once depended on the tea-horse trade, as it was an important stopover town along the route. Today, Shaxi’s market square still fills every Friday with Yi villagers who dress up and travel for fun, trading, and food.

After a quick stop in Lijiang, another conduit market town filled with rushing canals and cobble-stoned streets, we climbed up to Shangri-la. A town packed with prayer flags, restaurants serving yak meat, and the distant lure of giant mountains, Shangri-la (also called Zhongdian) at times feels more Tibetan than mainstream Chinese. A few sad horses lingered near a marshy lake, decorated and waiting for tourists to reenact the glory days of the trade route with horse rides.

By no means the end of the line for traders, Shangri-la was nevertheless an appropriate ending point for our trip. We’d gone from summer temps in sub-tropical Xishuangbanna to near-freezing at 10,000 feet, and it was time to go home and warm up with a nice cup of tea.

Read more about our travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all my own.