For scholars, the trade routes that linked southwest China with southeast Asia and India are a matter of fact and, for some, a lifelong work. The route is probably one of the most fascinating zones of cultural, economic and political contact between Tibet, China, India and the dozens of different peoples that call these regions and nations home.
The Horse and Tea Trade Route
As the name makes clear, tea and horses were the major commodities traded along this route from the Tang to the late Qing Dynasties, from around 600 AD to the 20th century. Trade and travel definitely took place along this route for several thousands of years before the Tang, as archaeological sites in Tibet and in the city of Chengdu demonstrate, but for us, this period is the most significant.
During the Tang Dynasty, China was perhaps the wealthiest place on earth and the route from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, west to Lhasa and south to Kunming, Yunnan Province was one of the wealthiest routes in the world. The route extended farther south to Burma, then cut west to Calcutta (and Assam) and from Lhasa it cut south through Nepal into the Ganges Valley.
Salt Town and Trading Posts
Within China proper, the route actually passed through numerous salt towns, like Zigong in Sichuan and Shaxi in Yunnan. These salt towns became trading posts, flourishing in their time. Shaxi has an extensive temple network built during the Tang, Song and subsequent dynasties that features carvings of Indian monks doing yoga, Tibetan lamas haggling for tea and a temple dedicated to the divine feminine, built around a leaking fissure in a cliff that strongly resembles a Yoni.
Zigong drilled for salt using the natural gas in the area and stumbled upon the most sought after resource of the modern era: natural gas and oil. They constructed massive pipelines, stretching for hundreds of meters, that pumped gas into the salt wells and brought the salt to the surface to harvest. Both towns grew rich.
Richest Tea Producing Mountains in the World
Two other regions, more pertinent to our common subject matter of tea, also grew rich: the mountains around Ya’an in western Sichuan and the mountains around Simao in western Yunnan. These two mountain ranges are the last wave of the Himalayas lapping at the rich lowlands of China. They are low lying, for Himalayan standards, and very lush.
The Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan are some of the richest tea producing mountains in the world. The growers there primarily deal with green tea and its derivatives (e.g. Yellow or Jasmine flavored). The teas from western Sichuan found their way into Tibet, where they were highly prized and bought in exchange for silver and horses, through the border towns of Kangding and Songpan.
Yak Butter Tea
Kangding is the gateway to Ganzi Prefecture, home to the mighty Khampa tribe of the Tibetan people. The Khampas are known for their deep spirituality and tendency to turn on a dime and become fierce warriors. They are independent nomads and out on the steppes under the bright stars with nothing to do but gaze ahead, and wrapped up in furs, they liked to drink yak butter teas and squeeze their women close. For yak butter tea, they needed the farmers of the lowlands and low lying hills. So tea coolies humped bricks of tea (the origin of tuocha is logistics) across rivers, over mountains and through cold blowing valleys to Kangding and beyond.
Songpan is the gateway to Aba Prefecture, peopled mostly by the Jiarong tribe of the Tibetan people. They live in mountain aeries that look down upon bejeweled valleys like Jiu Zhai Gou and Danba. While sitting by the fire and watching the smoke from a pipe rise in a lonely plume to the heavens above, the Jiarong liked to sip on their yak butter tea as well.
The Tang and Song Dynasties
The Tang and Song nobles on the other hand, wanted silver for their concubines and horses for their generals. It was a time of awakening in China. The great Empress Wu Zi Tian did what Elizabeth would do 1000 years later and rule her people as an untouchable Goddess, in the likeness of Guanyin, the Buddhist deity. Golden domed temples flourished across China as the beliefs that originated in India and gained momentum in Tibet, finally found fertile ground to become plump in China.
Victories in the north against the Tartars, Mongols and other peoples gave the Imperial Throne immense power and confidence. Some of the greatest works of art in Chinese history came out of this period, the Tang and Song Dynasties, before the arrival of Kublai Khan and his Mongol horsemen in the 12th and 13th century.
During this period, artisans gathered together on mountains and drank white, green, scented and aged teas while composing poems, painting ageless watercolor landscapes and generally being at the peak of their civilization. The essence of tea became not only a topic of discussion, but a serious scholarly matter. Many of the techniques still used today to create certain oolong, pu’er and green teas came out of the efforts of artisans during this Golden Age of Chinese history.
It is also interesting to note that for most of this period, the Tibetan and Chinese kingdoms were at peace. In fact, many princesses crossed the same route the old tea coolies trudged, on their way to seal alliances through marriage to a far off, unknown and unknowable man with strange customs and ridiculous habits.
The Golden Age
The Tibetans often point to this period as their own Golden Age as well when their armies threatened Chang’An, the Tang capital (present day Xi’An), and their nobles drank the best tea China had to offer. Tea, salt, silver and horses – these things, and whatever else a traveling tinker may have had in his boxes, helped link the Naxi, Bai, Khmer, Bolo, Tibetan, Han, Qiang, Hui, Yi, and Muslim peoples of western China. In towns like Simao, Shaxi, Deqin, Xichang, Lugu, Muli and others too numerous to count, the different peoples live together as they have for a thousand years.
However, most recently, with the clear domination of one group, tensions are high. But in my travels through southwest China, I find that tea is not just medicine for the body, but also a tonic for ills of the heart and mind. In every home I entered, no matter which tribe, which region, which dialect, the very first thing that is placed in front of me is a cup of tea. It’s a sign that I am to be at ease and be healthy. It is a sign of respect, because good tea is not easy to come by. It’s a sign that The Horse and Tea Trade Route is a living, breathing thing, connecting peoples since the first tea grower met the first horse tamer, and a road that continues to connect people to this day.
Sascha Matuszak is a German-born American writer and is currently based out of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.