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The Ancient Tea Road – from Yunnan to Lhasa

The Ancient Tea Road, in Chinese: chama gudao (Chinese: 茶马古道), partly identical with the “Ancient Silk Road” and also referred to as The Ancient Tea-Horse Road, is one of the most important landmarks in the Asian trade history.

The ancient tea horse road. (Photo source: article author)
The ancient tea horse road. (Photo source: article author)

Hardly a road at all, but more of a trail, the tea-horse road connected the southern Chinese province of Yunnan via Burma and across India with Bengal and Lhasa in Tibet, being home to a lively trade and never-ending stream of caravans in both directions for the period of a whole millennium. It derived its name from the two goods dominating the trade on it and being responsible for its coming into existence in the first place: Yunnanese Pu Erh tea and Tibetan horses. While the Chinese needed horses from Tibet, mainly for military purposes, the Tibetans, due to the harsh climates in their home country used to a fat-rich nutrition, needed the tea to be able to digest their heavy foods and control cholesterol levels in their bodies. [See disclaimer below.]

So far, this might sound like an everyday Wall Street event, but this only applies to the theoretic principle. In practice, being a trader on the tea road was even quite a bit tougher than facing the often quoted challenges of a modern commodity broker’s life: 2400 miles, crossing some of the world’s harshest terrains, largest streams (e.g. the rivers Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween), highest mountain ranges (the southern foothills and parts of the Himalaya up to Lhasa), through harshest climates, ranging from the heat of the southern Chinese lowlands to the freezing temperatures of the Tibetan highlands, all by foot or on a horse or donkey’s back, and packed with a precious, but nevertheless heavy load of up to 90kg of Pu Erh tea, pressed into the regular cakes or bricks form still known today. And as if those natural obstacles wouldn’t have been enough, hordes of bandits posed a constant threat everywhere on the way. Few people today seem know that this is how Pu Erh tea got its typical pressed form in the first place: the tea cakes or bricks were much easier to stack and represented significantly less volume than loose leaves would have done.

Not exactly a walk in the park… a whole year it took the caravans leaving from Yunnan’s tea capital Pu Erh to reach Lhasa’s infamous horse market and get back home and to their families, only to soon start over anew. The tea road, with its near-countless ethnicities, languages, traditions and religious and cultural backgrounds involved, made sure it left its stamp on every person who ever went on it to make their living, or make their fortune, or all too often not make it at all. Many of the tea traders and carriers at some point in their lives settled along the tea road, taking on a trade that related to the same, such as providing services in regard to horses, equipment, food, and accommodation. The hostels along the tea road, called caravanserais, were melting pots of different ethnics, cultures and trades, and the resulting multi-ethnic populations are still characterizing the regions along the tea road today.

Only in the 1950s, with the introduction of modern means of transport, such as trucks and air traffic, and improved road networks and modern, caravans got fewer and fewer, and the trail lost its key function in Asian trade, and tea trade, for that matter. Today, though individual segments of the Ancient Tea Road are still used for regional trade, there are no caravans anymore making it all the way from Yunnan to Lhasa, and the caravanserais have vanished or been changed to a restaurant, hotel, museum, or tourist attraction of some kind, while modern times journalists, film makers and historians still find people being in their 80s or 90s now, who have once been working on the tea road, and keep telling the stories from the old times, in order to keep the best of them alive at least in our memory.

Disclaimer: Any references to medical benefits from tea is presented for purely entertainment purposes. This is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your physician for your particular needs.

See more of  Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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5 responses to “The Ancient Tea Road – from Yunnan to Lhasa”

  1. I have seen several reports of tea adventurers, who went on that trail in recent years, so I believe there must be some infrastructure available to do so.

  2. Hey,

    Beutifully written and informative article. I was wondering where I could get more information concerning the caravaniseries (or newly established hotels and restaurants) along this road, or what remains of it. Thank you!

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