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.

Modern icons

Vladimir Tatlin: Counter-relief, 1914

Two years ago, in October 2014, they inaugurated one of the most recent iconic buildings of Paris, the exhibition hall of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The building, which resembles the Sydney Opera House, towers like a huge ship with its large glass sails among the trees of Bois de Boulogne, the old amusement park of Paris. At the moment, the sails are dotted with the patches of color of Daniel Buren’s installation Observatoire de la lumière, which lends a somewhat temporary retro feeling to the composition instead of the timeless effect of the original white sails. But the building is still an unmistakable calling card of one of the greatest contemporary architects, Frank Gehry. His marks are the complex spatial construction, the multitude of curve planes intersecting each other, and the dancing lines, which he applied in some of the most influential works of the past decades, the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao (1997), the Walt Disney Concert Hall of Los Angeles, (2003) or the Dancing House (1996) of Prague.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton during the present (Oct. 2016 – May 2017) Buren installation, and originally, in the summer of 2015 (source: pinterest)

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A feature of Frank Gehry’s buildings is that they organize not only the surrounding space, but also the wider social space, and are able to catalyze the economic and cultural revitalization of whole quarters, or even cities. The extraordinary exhibitions of the Fondation Louis Vuitton are also major international events. Such as the present Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin Collection, running from last October until March 5 of this year.

Born in a wealthy Moscow merchant family, Sergei Shchukin started to collect the works of contemporary French painters in 1897. In twenty years he created with an excellent flair one of the best collections of contemporary art, which included, among others, fifty works by Picasso, thirty-eight by Matisse – who personally helped to arrange the salon of Shchukin’s palace in Moscow –, sixteen by Gauguin, thirteen by Monet, and eight by Cézanne, whom he estimated above all. It must have been an incredibly intense experience to enter this palace, in whose halls, and even corridors and dining room two hundred and fifty eight such pictures covered the wall. From 1908 on, Shchukin also opened his collection to public Sunday visits, and in the following years it had a huge impact on Russian avant-garde art.

“Russian avant-garde artists in those days had come round to the view that our greatest artistic school was not the academy of fine arts in Saint Petersburg but the Gallery of S. I. Shchukin … Seeing the work of illustrious French artists for the first time, those splendid painters, the impression was quite simply mind-boggling … Not everyone could understand Picasso, although everyone recognized the enormous power of his talent … His principles of constructing the painting, the dismembering of the object by means of shifting and his other experiments, thus gradually became more comprehensible to us.” (Ivan Kliun)

Picasso: Violin, 1912 summer (in the Shchukin Collection since 1912 winter)

Nadezhda Udaltsova: Violin, 1916

The term “icon” in the title is very appropriate, for several reasons. It fits a building that is to become a modern icon of Paris. It characterizes the contemporary Russian reception of these images, interpreted, in the atmosphere of the rediscovery of the old Russian icons between 1905 and 1914, as modern icons, and as Shchukin himself compiled Gauguin’s religious paintings into a personal iconostasis in his dining-room. And of course, each of these images has since then become an icon of modern art. Each of them has its own Wikipedia entry, and many of them received a separate book. Do you recognize them on the basis of the following details, photographed yesterday on the exhibition?

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Ivan Kliun: Musician, 1916

Iconos modernos

Vladimir Tatlin: Contra-relieve, 1914

Hace dos años, en octubre de 2014, inauguraron el edificio icónico más reciente de París, el centro de exposiciones de la Fundación Louis Vuitton. El edificio, que se asemeja a la Ópera de Sydney o al Museo Guggenheim de Bilbao, recuerda un inmenso barco con grandes velas de cristal que navegara entre los árboles del Bois de Boulogne, el viejo parque parisino. En este momento las velas están tachonadas de parches de color por la instalación de Daniel Buren, Observatorio de la luz, que le da una accidental nota retro en lugar del efecto intemporal de las velas blancas originales. Pero el edificio sigue siendo tarjeta de visita inconfundible de uno de los más grandes arquitectos contemporáneos, Frank Gehry. Sus señas son una compleja construcción espacial, la multitud de planos de curvas que se entrecruzan, y las líneas danzantes que vemos en algunas de las obras más influyentes de las últimas décadas: el mencionado Guggenheim de Bilbao (1997), el Walt Disney Concert Hall de Los Ángeles, (2003) o la Casa Danzante de Praga (1996).

La Fundación Louis Vuitton durante la actual (Oct. 2016 – Mayo 2017) instalación de Buren, y en su estado original, en verano de 2015 (fuente: pinterest)

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Una característica de los edificios de Frank Gehry es que no solo organizan el espacio circundante, sino también un espacio social más amplio, y son capaces de catalizar la revitalización económica y cultural de barrios enteros, e incluso de ciudades. Las extraordinarias exposiciones de la Fundación Louis Vuitton son también eventos de relevancia internacional. Así es esta actual de Iconos del Arte Moderno. La Colección Shchukin, abierta desde el pasado octubre hasta el 5 de marzo de este año.

Nacido en una rica familia mercantil de Moscú, Sergei Shchukin empezó a recoger obras de pintores franceses contemporáneos en 1897. En veinte años creó, con excelente tino, una de las mejores colecciones. Entre sus obras, cincuenta de Picasso, treinta y ocho de Matisse –que personalmente ayudó a organizar el salón del palacio de Shchukin en Moscú–, dieciséis de Gauguin, trece de Monet y ocho de Cézanne, que él prefería sobre las demás. Debía ser una experiencia fabulosa entrar en aquel palacio en cuyas salas, y hasta por los pasillos y el comedor, doscientos cincuenta y ocho cuadros de tanta categoría cubrían los muros. A partir de 1908, Shchukin abrió su colección a visitas públicas dominicales, y en los años siguientes provocaría un enorme impacto en el arte ruso de vanguardia.

«Los artistas rusos de vanguardia de aquel tiempo habían llegado al consenso de que nuestra escuela de arte más grande no era la Academia de Bellas Artes de San Petersburgo, sino la Galería de S. I. Shchukin ... Viendo por primera vez la obra de aquellos ilustres artistas franceses, de aquellos pintores espléndidos, la impresión era simplemente alucinante ... No todos podían entender a Picasso, aunque todos reconocieran el enorme poder de su talento ... Sus principios de construcción de la pintura, el desmembramiento del objeto mediante cambios y sus otros experimentos; así, poco a poco se hizo más comprensible para nosotros.» (Ivan Kliun)

Picasso: Violín, verano de 1912 (en la Col. Shchukin desde invierno de1912)

Nadezhda Udaltsova: Violín, 1916

El término «icono» en el título de la exposición está muy bien elegido por varias razones. Se ajusta a un edificio que se va convirtiendo en un icono moderno de París. Caracteriza la recepción rusa contemporánea de estas imágenes, interpretadas en la atmósfera del redescubrimiento de los viejos iconos rusos entre 1905 y 1914, como iconos modernos, y alude a cómo el propio Shchukin recopiló las pinturas religiosas de Gauguin en una iconostasis personal colocada en su comedor. Y, por supuesto, cada una de estas imágenes se ha convertido desde entonces en un auténtico icono del arte moderno. Cada una de ellas, por ejemplo, tiene su propia entrada en la Wikipedia, y muchas han merecido libros enteros que las estudian. ¿Las reconocerías a partir de los siguientes detalles que fotografiamos ayer mismo mientras recorríamos la exposición?

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Ivan Kliun: Músico, 1916

Fuegos de enero • Fires of January

«Solo una débil luz brilla con luz trémula, como un punto minúsculo en un enorme círculo de tinieblas. Esa débil luz no es más que una señal que el alma apenas tiene el valor de percibir, con la duda de que la luz misma no sea un sueño y el círculo de negrura la realidad.» (Vasili Kandinski) “Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality.” (Wassily Kandinsky)

«¿Has examinado la anchura de la tierra? Cuéntamelo, si lo sabes todo. ¿Por dónde se va a la casa de la luz? ¿Dónde viven las tinieblas?» (Libro de Job)“Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this. What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside?” (Book of Job)

Sa Pobla, Mallorca, la noche de / the night of Sant’Antonio

Río Wang tours in 2017

The tours of río Wang have grown out of this blog at the request of our readers. For the fourth consecutive year, we are organizing tours to regions that we know well and love, and which are not found in tourist office advertisements, or even if they occasionally are, they do not delve so deeply into the history and everyday life of these places, the tissue of little streets, interior courtyards, cafés and pubs only frequented by the locals: to the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Iran, the Far East.

Our journeys are no package tours, but rather friendly excursions. Almost always there is someone who admits to never having wanted to take part in a package tour, but he or she could not resist the offers of the blog. And in the end he/she recounts with relief, that it was absolutely no package tour. That we consider a really great compliment.

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The publication of this year’s tour calendar has been preceded by a lengthy correspondence, in which we harmonized with the several hundred readers who have subscribed to the río Wang mailing list, whoever wants to go where within the wide range of offers, and whoever prefers which dates. Meanwhile, for some tours the maximum number of participants – about sixteen, the capacity of a small bus – has already been reached. So if you want to participate in the shaping of the tour calendar in the future, and want to be sure you do not miss the most popular tours, sign up for the mailing list at

In the wake of last year’s tours, we continue to discover the Caucasus, and we reach one of the most beautiful and hardest-to-reach regions, the valleys of Tusheti in Georgia. In Iran we also get to know a new and little-known region, the beautiful mountains of Kurdistan, and the Iranian Jewish pilgrimage sites. In the Mediterranean we continue in Tuscany the Traveler and Moonlight tour, begun last year in Umbria. We go to Sardinia for Carnival, and to Sicily for Easter. We visit the Catalan Pyrenees, the cradle of Romanesque art, and tour the mountain villages of Mallorca. With our Albanian tour we begin to discover the Balkans, and with the Cyprus journey at Pentecost, the Greek world. We repeat our popular Odessa tour, during which we also go through the Ukrainian cradles of Hasidism. After Prague, we continue our series of secret city tours with Berlin. Finally, the greatest leap of this year will be China, whose discovery we plan for several occasions. On the first, we will tour one of the most beautiful ad most archaic regions, lying under the Tibetan mountains, Yunnan, the homeland of Chinese tea and most small Chinese ethnic groups, the land of breathtaking mountain ranges and thousand-year-old little towns.

We regularly hold introductions, history and art history lectures and travel reports. We also send news about them in our newsletters.

You can register or inquire about our tours at In response, we send out a detailed program with all the necessary information. According to our well-tested custom, the flight tickets (if we fly) are individually purchased by you, the rest is organized by us. The following participation fees usually include one bed of a two-bed room (with breakfast), the bus rental and the guide; where there are more expenses, I specify. In case you want an one-bed room, I will write you the supplemental fee. Where the participation fee is indicated approximately, it will depend on the number of participants and the corresponding final hotel expense.

January 16-23: The feasts of Mallorca. To many, Mallorca is a German tourist paradise, but this is only limited to the narrow southern beach. In reality, this island is a beautiful, archaic and unknown world, as we described in our earlier invitation and joint travel report, with medieval villages and abbeys, Arab gardens and olive plantations, a still vivid medieval Jewish quarter, traditional small trattorias, stunning mountains and coastline. January is the best month to visit the island, not only because there are no tourists, but the air is warm, and the oranges are ripe, but also because this is the season of the three largest popular feasts: the temptation of St. Anthony celebrated with all-night dancing and a pig roast; the blessing of the animals, and the feast of St. Sebastian, when thousands of demons march with fiery chariots through the old town of Palma. • Full house

February 24 – March 3: Carnival in Sardinia. The isolated inner part of Sardinia, the Barbagia, is one of the most archaic regions of the Mediterranean, a stunning mountainous region, with villages preserving age-old traditions, and with thousands of prehistoric stone constructions. Their Carnival parades also go back to roots of thousands of years. On these we participate in a few villages, while we also tour the mountains, medieval churches and small mountain towns of the region. • Participation fee: ca. 550 euro • Three free places left

March 8-12: Unknown Venice. “My father limited his visits in Venice to two buildings: St. Mark’s Basilica and Harry’s Bar”, writes John Julius Norwich, the great monographist of the city. Modern tourists are not much different from that. However, during this weekend we go further, and we tour Venice from alley to alley, house to house, from the Lido to the still extant Jewish quarter, and learn about the history of its everyday life. Check for details the announcement of last year’s Venice tour, and browse our posts on Venice. • Arrival individually, by plane, train or car, participation fee (accommodation with breakfast, one-day boat pass, guide) 350 euro

March 24-26, April 6-9, July 6-9: Berlin. Long weekends to get acquainted with Berlin’s iconic sites and less known parts, contemporary architecture and exotic quarters. We will tour the historic core of the city, the recently built centers, the trendy entertainment districts and the hidden small worlds. We will pay special attention to the sites of the cultural blossoming of the 20s, the Russian and Jewish immigration, the post-war division and the alternative scene of the 80s and 90s. • Flight individually, participation fee ca. 300 euro

April 11-18: Easter in Sicily. We take a minibus around the coastal cities and less known mountain towns of the island, the intact Jewish quarters and the monuments of Arab-Norman architecture, as well as the ancient Greek temples fitting harmoniously in the landscape. We take part in the traditional Holy Week and Eastern parades and ceremonies, which are celebrated with a particularly archaic splendor in Sicily. • Flight individually to Catania, participation fee 580 euro. • Our Easter tour is full, but due to the high level of interest we organize a second Sicilian tour in December, for the feast of Santa Lucia: register soon!

May 23-30: Odessa and the birthplace of Hassidism in Podolia. We have already done this long and highly successful tour a couple of times. We start by bus from Budapest, to pass through Southern Galicia, the city of Czernowitz, the beautiful medieval fortresses of Khotin and Kamenets-Podolsk (World Heritage Sites) and the oldest, in some places still vivid Hassidic shtetls, finally arriving at the emblematic city of Russian and Jewish culture, from where we retrun by flight to Prague. Whoever does not wish to immediately continue on his way home, will also be able to participate in a half-day alternative Prague sightseeing tour. Our posts on Odessa are summarized here, and here you can browse our posts on Galician, Hassidic and other Jewish topics. • Participation fee (which also includes all dinners, a special dinner in a traditional Odessite music pub, and the bus) 600 euro; the flight back from Odessa to Prague ca. 100 euro. • Full house

June 1-8: Cyprus. Most people only know the southeastern corner of the island, the beaches of Larnaca and Aya Napa. However, the interior of Cyprus, the small towns and mountain monasteries preserve thousands of years of history. We will see these in our week-long tour, during the Orthodox Pentecost. We will get acquainted with the fascinating, vivid world, hidden memories and coffee houses of the divided Nicosia, visit the painted monasteries of Troodos Mountains (World Heritage Sites), and Paphos, which this year is Europe’s Capital of Culture. We also go over to the northern, Turkish side, where we tour the most beautiful and most pristine regions of Cyprus, the small port towns, the Venetian mountain fortresses, and the impressive Gothic cathedrals of Famagusta. • Flight individually to Larnaca, participation fee ca. 550 euro.

June 26 – July 4. Georgia, Tusheti. This is the third year we come back to Georgia, always making small changes in our path. This year we visit the old town of Tbilisi, the cathedrals of Mtskheta and Jvari, and then we journey up the Georgian military highway. From there we approach by off-road vehicles one of Georgia’s most archaic and most difficult-to-reach regions, the valleys of Tusheti under the border ranges of the Greater Caucasus. On the way back, we visit the cableway town of Chiatura, and the monastery of Katskhi. Our collected entries on Georgia and the Caucasus can be read here. • Flight individually to Kutaisi (e.g. Wizzair from Budapest, ca. 200 euro), participation fee (which also includes the off-road vehicles and all dinners) 600 euro. • The first tour is full, but due to the high level of interest we organize a second tour in July or August: register for it quickly!

August 25 – September 1: Barcelona and the Catalan Boí Valley. We visit the cradle of European Romanesque art along the valleys of the Pyrenees, where every village and church is World Heritage Site. We begin in Barcelona with a visit to the city and of the impressive Romanesque frescoes and carvings collected in the national museum, then we go up to the Pyrenees by bus. This tour is the first one in a planned series, in which we tour the richest regions of European Romanesque architecture, to be continued next year in Southern France. • Flight individually to Barcelona, participation fee ca. 550 euro.

September 4-11: From Sarajevo to Albania. Our first Balkan tour through a beautiful mountainous regions and small historic towns, in the final moments before mass tourism discovers this part of the world. We visit Sarajevo, make excursions in the mountains of Montenegro and Albania to fortresses, small towns and monasteries. • Flight individually to Sarajevo, participation fee ca. 500 euro. • Only a few free places left

September 19-26: Jewish and Kurdish Iran. After visiting Hamadan, the tomb of Queen Esther and Prophet Habakkuk, the most important Jewish pilgrimage sites in Iran, we go up to the stunning mountains of Kurdistan, where we visit thousand year old traditional villages, and world heritage sites. Through the Bakhtiari mountains we descend to Isfahan, where we visit the Jewish quarter with its seventeen working synagogues, not mentioned in any guidebook, and we also meet the local Jewish community. • Flight individually, participation fee ca. 700 euro • This tour can be connected with the following one:

September 27 – October 6: The feast of Ashura and the historical cities of Iran. After a year, we come again to Iran for the feast of Ashura, the most important Shiʿa religious feast. As in last year, we participate in the feast in Kashan and Nushabad with our local friends. We visit the former Zoroastrian town of Abyaneh, then we tour the axis of the most important historical towns along Yazd, Isfahan, Pasargade, Persepolis and Shiraz. From there we come back with domestic flight to Tehran. • Flight individually, participation fee ca. 900 euro.

October 10-17: Tuscany. Last year we toured twice with great success the path of Antal Szerb’s 1937 cult novel Traveler and the moonlight, from Venice through Urbino and Umbria, Gubbio, Assisi and Arezzo to Siena, identifying and enjoying the sites of the book. This year we continue our way to the west, to see what would have seen Mihály, the protagonist of the story, had he not given up wandering at the end of the novel. We will encounter Etruscan and Roman remains, mountain towns, stunning pieces of early Renaissance painting, and the magnificent sight of the Tuscan hills. • Travel: by bus from Venice. Participation fee (including all dinners) ca. 700 euro • Only a few free places left

November 5-18: China, Yunnan province. This year we start to get acquainted with China, with whose language and culture I have dealt with for over twenty-five years. Our first journey leads to one of China’s most beautiful and most archaic region, rich in historical monuments and natural beauties, the province of Yunnan, lying under the Tibetan mountains, the home of Chinese tea and the villages of most small Chinese ethnic groups. Scenic tea fields and rice terraces, mountain canyons and untouched historic towns (it is worthwhile to see the photos of my Chinese-language Yunnan guide, bought there some ten years ago). • Flight individually to Dali, Yunnan, participation fee ca. 1000 euro.

December 6-10: Hidden Rome. During the reprise of the highly successful Rome excursion in March, we tour the Renaissance and Baroque old city in the bend of the Tiber, visit the most important churches, palaces and squares, the two-thousand-year-old Jewish ghetto, the hidden corners untouched by fin-de-siècle urban planning, walk along the medieval pilgrimage routes, and make an excursion to the campagna. In the course of five days I try to offer in concentrated form all that I have learned during the year I spent in Rome and my later visits, and also leave time for the cafés, the trattorias, and sitting on the church steps at siesta time, without which you cannot really get to know Rome.