The road of tea and horse


A week ago at this time, on Sunday morning I sat on the beach in Mallorca, and while the group was having coffee, I leafed through the elegant Spanish travel magazine Passion, whose copies there are on most coffee shop tables. The first article was dedicated to the number one tourist destination in Spain: Mallorca. The essay Walking around Mallorca was introduced with the photo of the island’s northern peninsula, the Formentor Cape. I only had to look to the right to find out how in step with fashion we are. I saw this, indeed:


But it was the second article which really demonstrated, how sensitive the tours of Río Wang are to the latest tourist trends of the world. This one talked about an exotic destination, virtually unknown to Western travelers: the road of tea and horse. This path is winding beneath the Himalayas, between the mountains of Yunnan in southwestern China, in the source area of Mekong and Yangtze. For centuries, the caravans shipped along it the tea pressed in bricks from China’s best tea producing region, southern Yunnan, to the north, the tribes of Tibet, and brought back in return the excellent mountain horses to the south, the courts and garrisons of China. As the article writes in detail:

“It was never as famous as the Silk Road, but at one time, when tea could cost more than this delicate fabric, the winding Ancient Tea Horse Road, in Chinese Chamadao 茶马道, became an important trading route. Although the itinerary would vary, it ran over nearly 4,000 kilometres, from Yunnan and Sichuan, in China, to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. On it, porters would carry tea leaves on their backs in great bamboo bundles, forming human caravans through some of the most complicated orography in the world, passing over the Hengduan Mountains, dozens of rivers, canyons, stone and rope bridges, and encountering bandits and avalanches.

The eagerly sought goal, glimpsed nearly five months after setting off, was the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, when they could at last set down the heavy burdens which generally speaking weighed around 100 kilos per person, depending on each individual’s body weight. The caravan of porters was known as bā, and each one of them could bring a maximum of twelve horses back. To organise the bundles and facilitate the transport, the tea was pressed into cubes of bricks using cylindrical stones that weighed over 30 kilos, and which are still used artisanally today. Often, the tea order had to be taken to India too, lengthening the harsh journey to up to a year, going through the Himalayas.

Tea first reached Tibet in the year 641 when princess Wen Cheng, of the Tang dynasty, married the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. In a cold region such as this, Tibetans developed a taste for this instantly hot drink and since then, they have drunk on average 40 cups a day mixed with yak butter and a little salt and accompanied by what is a staple food for them tsampa, which is barley flour toasted on the fire. The low temperatures have always made it necessary for Tibetans to ingest very calorific foodstuffs, such as dairy and meat produce. Since they have no vegetables, tea appeared to be a magical solution for cleansing themselves and facilitating digestion, as well as helping them wake up and being consumed in their meditation temples. Tea was so successful in Tibet that by the 13th century China was transporting tons of tea every year in exchange for 25,000 horses.

The tea horse road, largely unknown to the West, was considered one of the most dangerous routes in the world. Nowadays both residents – for commercial reasons – and tourists captivated by its history travel along it once more, with variations in the path, and no longer on foot, but on four wheels.”



And now, one week later, on Sunday morning, I’m sitting on the airplane towards Yunnan, to prepare the autumn tour of Río Wang, on which we will follow the road of tea and horse from the southern tea plantations to the Tibetan foothills through emerald green valleys, dizzying canyons and thousand-year-old towns, where time stopped many centuries ago. I cannot yet post a photograph of mine under the respective picture of Passion, but in the next few weeks I will abundantly make up for it.