The Tea Horse Road

In the high altitude Tibetan plateau, even mild activity leads to exhaustion. With an average elevation of 14,000 feet, the daily hustle on the plateau depletes energy.  What the Tibetans drink in plenty to compensate is po cha. A creamy cup of po cha or the traditional yak butter tea can quickly rejuvenate a fatiguing soul.

To prepare this yak butter tea, pu-erh tea leaves are first brewed with Himalayan salt.  Large dollops of yak butter and toasted highland barley are added to the brewed tea and the mixture churned till it is smooth. One steaming hot cup and famous Tibetan smiles are back on display.

When tea – (or for that matter, any vegetable) – cannot grow at this altitude, how is it that po cha is so common all across Tibet?

They say the story has its roots in the 7th century.  That was when the Chinese Princess Wen Cheng married the Tibetan King Songstan Gampo. She introduced tea to the royals and the monks. It soon seeped its way into the local populace.

The sheer demand for this hot drink led to the formation of multiple trade routes collectively termed the Tea Horse Road or Cha Ma Gu Dao (cha stands for tea, ma means horse and dao translates to path).,_Sichuan_Sheng,_China_1908_Ernest_H._Wilson_RESTORED.jpg
Tea brick porters

When the local traders from Tibet started their travels to source pu-er tea, they met an audience that craved something the Tibetans themselves had in plenty – horses. The Chinese at that time were engaged in multiple border skirmishes. The Song empire boundaries to the north and the west were threatened by enemies. Although the Chinese bred horses, they were aware that the horses of their enemies were faster and hardier. To redress this imbalance, the Song emperors began trading the teas of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces for Tibetan mountain horses. Rugged and robust, the indefatigable Tibetan horses were a welcome addition.

The trade route itself – Cha Ma Gu Dao – made for a grueling journey. The trip could take anywhere from three to six months and the path would traverse diverse weather conditions – from the extreme heat and humidity of the “Raining town” of Yaan where it rained an average of 200 days a year to the biting cold of the passes of the snow-capped mountains of Tibet.  It was a treacherous journey for the porters carrying the tea bricks.  Each porter toted anywhere between 75 and 100 kg of tea bricks. At the Lhasa town, about 65 kgs of tea would fetch one horse.  The porters themselves would be paid in rice – equal in quantity to the tea bricks they carried

The trade grew rapidly.  By the 13th century, close to 4 million kgs of tea was travelling to Tibet every year and 25,000 to 30,000 horses were cantering over to the Chinese side.

Tea Horse Routes from Pu’er, Yunan and Ya’an, Sichuan to Lhasa, Tibet

It would be the 20th century before tea portering would come to an end and a functioning highway replace the men and mules. Once the highway started handling the trade, it would not be long before the Tea Horse Road was forgotten. But not for long.

The gurgling streams, tranquil lakes and thinly populated hamlets of the Yunnan county in general and the natural beauty of Zhongdian county in particular underlie this change of name to Shangri-La.  Many a traveler and backpacker heads to this town and learns about the Tea Horse Road.

As we ply on our individual Tea Horse Roads trading our time and effort for a living, a well made hot cup of tea is a solace – a journey to our own Shangri-la.


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