The Tea Horse Road: An Ancient Trade Route

5 minute read

The different pressed tea bricks at MAA were all made in China for export. Aayushi Gupta writes about a tea brick made for export to Russia, and Shuzen Kong writes about one destined for Tibet. Although tea bricks were exported to Russia and parts of south and southeast Asia, for many centuries the main destination was Tibet. The means for transporting them were trains of horses (ponies and mules) and human porters, and the network of trails and roads to Tibet became known as the Tea Horse Road, in Tibetan, Gyalam (Wide Road) and in Chinese, 茶马道 (cha ma dao) and. Back in 2008, I became interested in this trade network as a documentary photographic project because of its multi-layered narrative. Gyalam (Wide Road) or 茶马道 (cha ma dao) was the longest trade route in the ancient world, and its layers are not just topographical, but social, cultural, historical, and political.

I should explain that as a photographer who prefers to specialise in documentary reportage, and with strong connections to Asia, I like large, book-length projects that I can spend at least two years on. With the encouragement of my publisher friend Narisa Chakrabongse, this project became the 240-page Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet (2015), published by River Books. The route most associated with this trade is that from the far southwest of Yunnan north to the Tibetan Plateau, and this became my focus for more than two years.

Why Tibet? The simple answer is high oxidative stress from the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau (Lhasa, the capital, lies at 3700m), coupled with the limitations on growing fruits and vegetables. In the 7th century CE, Tibet’s power and influence rose suddenly and, for China, unexpectedly. Under King Songtsän Gampo (604–650 CE), Tibet was united for the first time and began military expansion. One result was Tibetan incursion and conquest south and east into what is now Yunnan, but what in the 7th century CE was the independent kingdom of Nanzhao. The south of Yunnan, where the Mekong River begins to flow southeast and then east, is acknowledged to be the centre of diversity of tea, Camellia sinensis, and it is likely that Tibetan expansion brought Tibetans into contact with a drink that would soon become central to their diet.

Two monks are sitting on the floor. One of them is holding one of his hands up, and a bowl with the other. He is wearing sunglasses. The other monk is smiling and looking down. There is a large teapot in the foreground of the image.

Figure 2. Two monks drinking tea at Ganzi Monastery. Photographs: Michael Freeman.

Their taste for tea began as a refined pastime among the Tibetan elite, but spread socially downwards at the same time as the way it was consumed also evolved. It began as a healing tonic, especially valued for its antioxidant properties, but as it became more available it turned into a dietary staple. It began to be prepared with salt and ghee (clarified butter from the dri, the female yak) and eaten with tsampa(roasted barley powder). Tea enhanced the livelihoods of the Tibetans in a harsh environment and supplemented the nutritional deficiencies of a high-fat dairy diet. For them, butter tea is valued for providing the body with dangs-ma (essential nutrients) that nourish the vital and physical energies.

A woman is sorting some tea leaves. She is wearing bangles on both her hands.

Figure 3. Sorting Tea. Photographs: Michael Freeman.

Starting in the 7th century CE, the original source of tea was the broad-leaf assamica, differentiated from the small-leaf sinensis found throughout the east of China. The tea mountains of southern Yunnan produce a particular tea that came to be known as 普 (Pu’er), named after the prefecture that became the central point for its distribution. It has the characteristic of what the Chinese call 黑茶 (hei cha, dark tea): the immediate processing to which tea leaves are subjected straight after picking, to ‘fix’ them and prevent deterioration. But it does not, in the case of 普 (Pu’er), completely deactivate the enzymes. It continues to oxidise and ferment, and this ageing used to take place on the months-long journey on horseback. The full length of this route is around 3,000 kilometres, and it began in and around the first collecting point, the town of Pu’er.

A man and some horses are walking down a stony path. Some of the horses are carrying luggage.

Figure 4. 茶马道 (Cha Ma Gu Dao, Tea Horse Road). Photographs: Michael Freeman.

But tea was only one side of the equation. The other was the continuing search for war horses to protect China’s northern frontiers against peoples who were more culturally attuned to horses and could make better military use of them. The new Tibetan Empire’s relationship with China involved dialogue and contact with the capital Chang’an (now Xian), and the emperor Taizong. In particular, the horses from Kham in eastern Tibet made good war horses, and could match those of the Mongols. At the start of the Tang dynasty in 618 CE, when the tea trade was beginning, the state had only three thousand horses inherited from its weak predecessor, the Sui. But by the time of the Emperor Gaozong (649–83 CE) just four decades later, the numbers had increased to 706,000 horses. These horses had to be paid for, and by the middle of the first century CE China had lost its monopoly on silk, which had stood it in good stead for perhaps two millennia. How fortunate, then, that tea became such a valued commodity for China’s neighbours. The state assiduously promoted this, and under the Song took control over the trade via the Tea Tax Bureau and the Tea and Horse Trading Office.

A monk is handing a tall pile of tea packaged in bamboo leaves to another monk standing on something.

Figure 6. Monks sorting packages of Pu-er tea at Ganzi Monastery. Photographs: Michael Freeman.

In its day, Gyalam (Wide Road) or 茶马道 (cha ma dao) was an enterprise that touched the lives of many, beginning with the tea farmers on the southern mountains. The men who travelled the road and gave it its spirit, led hard and sometimes bitter lives. They included 马锅头 (Ma Guo Tou, Head of Horses and Pots) or the caravan leaders, Muslim guilds which descended from the invading armies of Kublai Khan, སྦྲུལ་ (lados) or Tibetan muleteers adept at negotiating the dangerous high passes of the plateau, and porters who struggled with 100-kilo loads strapped to their back, shod only in straw sandals as they climbed the freezing heights of Erlangshan. At the time of photographing the book, a few were still alive, and I photographed them, though the trade itself effectively came to an end during the years of the war with Japan, followed by the civil war. Tea now travels by truck on roads, of course, but in the more remote and mountainous parts of Yunnan and western Sichuan horse caravans are still being used, at least 10 years ago they were.


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