Since the heydays of Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), time often elapsed with throngs of horse caravans wading through the endlessly steep road. Across undulating hill chains and meandering rivers of the mountain Range, women of Bulang ethnic group were picking pu’er tea leaves, a distinct form of broad leaf tea in Yunnan, in a verdant agro-forest. Besides the four-foot-wide cobblestone paths, scraggy porters were carrying backbreaking loads of freshly-made tea in this legendary trail, a harsh 2,250km trail stretching from the hillside plantation of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan to Tibet’s capital city of Lhasa, and from there to Southeast Asia, before reaching to the Indian subcontinent.
It was the highest, if not the harshest trail in Asia, for travellers to cross extremely narrow curves just besides the edge of the cliff, and to bear the chilly weather climbing the snow-capped Tibetan Plateau. A group of porters, came rain or shine, embarked on their arduous journey that ascended four deadly high passes before arriving in Lhasa. Some were traversing wind-stripped hilltops that are without any barriers to protect them falling down to 2000 feet; while the others were continuously crossing various-sized boulders and rocky steps that could be in their ankle high. Worse still, snowstorms or torrential rains at times ravaged the trail, or the downpour of landslides posed a menace to flocks of travellers due to the loosen rocks from the muddy path. Yet such treacherous stretch of the route, however, earned its vibrant name “Tea Horse Road” by virtue of the mutual trade of Tibetan ponies and Chinese tea for a millennium.
With increasing contact of the Tobo and Tang regimes, drinking tea became a fashionable habit to the Tibetan religious elites and autocrats, and gradually an essential part of their diet. Here came a Tibetan saying, “rather be without food for three days than to be without tea for a day”. Living in a high altitude region, they regarded tea, particularly pu’er tea from Yunnan, as beneficial for their physical well-bring lest succumbing to Anoxia. Amidst the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the commercial exchanges further bear fruit when the central government recognised the importance of sturdy Tibetan horses for defending warring nomads in the north. Every year, after the establishment of the Tea and Horse Office, huge amounts of tea were transported to exchange for warhorses with the Tibetan tribes.
The rosiest period for this ancient trading route probably dates back to the Ming dynasty (1369-1644). The Ming court established the office of Chakes in all districts, for the sake of utilising tea trade to grasp political control over the Tibetan leaders. Till the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, the better the horses offered to the court as a “tribute” by the Tibetans, the more fragrant and better quality of the pu’er tea would be provided to them. Year after year, the hoof beats of sturdy horses and sounds of clear bells broke the tranquillity of the canyons in Yunnan, which in turn help cement an affiliated bond that stretched across Chinese provinces and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Such prosperity on the Tea Horse Road created the splendid history of Dali and Lijiang ancient towns, the major transfer centres of the ancient road to Tibet or down to Southeast Asia. Today, regardless of the vitality of this thoroughfare of commerce and rich fusion of commodities, the ancient landscape seems to be changing. Over the years, the influx of tourists has transformed once serene Ancient Town into a grid of coffee shops and commercialised storefronts. Sections are somewhat being lost to the massive tourism that involves waving flags of tourist groups for identification, as well as the spread of deafening roars of rock music and raucous screams of ‘ganbei’ from congesting lines of bars during the evening.
Nevertheless, a large number of tourists, like us, are attracted to visit it in every day, searching for its glorious visage of the bygone days. Nestled between the majestic Cangshan Mountains and boundless Erhai Lake in a fertile basin, Dali was a crucial transiting port by virtue of its strategic location and agricultural abundance as early as Song Dynasty. Besides a cluster of Bai folk houses with grey-green roof tiles and traditional flared eaves, a variety of crystal jade and woven handicrafts are laid chockablock on both sides of the pedestrian street. Within the guarding walls with a history of over 1200 years, this Old Town is still endowed by the bustling of people across the bluestone-paved paths, just like the flourishing bygone days for commercial “tea and horse” trade.
After a two hours ride to Lijiang, there we saw Bai girls wearing traditional clothes, dancing in delight and welcoming tourists from different walks of life at the entrance of Lijiang Ancient Town, with accompany of Dongba drums by a group of Naxi youngsters. Two-storeyed houses are in rows, all with carved roof beams and flowery decorations in the arched gateways, overlooking the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from the north. Brick lanes with red lanterns from the Square Street, which is the heart of the Old Town, are extending in various directions to form an inextricable network in every corner of the town. Qinglong Bridge, paved with square slender slates that were built during the Ming Dynasty to facilitate horse caravans in crossing the river, is now the only gateway to Shuhe Ancient Village, a sister town of Lijiang.
Strolling along the 800-year-old waterways of the world-famous Old Town district was like stepping back in time. As the major producer of leatherworking in the region of the trail, Shuhe is the earliest residence of the Naxi minorities in Lijiang. Surrounded by gentle weeds and brushes, a sea of timber-framed houses with porcelain tiles are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square, including gorgeous courtyards with mural paintings that depict multifarious lifestyles of Naxi groups along this legendary Tea Horse Road. Once it might have been a pivotal station for the passing muleteers and ethnic minorities, such fragrant pines and traditional architectural designs reminded me of the elegance of this ancient town.
Over the millennium, the courage and determination many porters embarked on in this perilous trail, the faith they held deep into their heart during endless weeks of a journey, and those blood, tears and sweat they devoted to withstand unpredictable weather did prompt them to surmount all stumbling blocks. After miles of hiking, when their eyes finally spotted the Potala Palace at a further distance, when they saw baskets of their pu’er tea for sale, and when they reached the monks for commodities exchange in Lhasa’s Barkhor Street, everything formidable was worth it at the end. ♦