The dazzling Tibet-Sikkim border is situated in rugged mountainous terrain, some of the most difficult in the world to navigate. It sits more than 4000 meters above sea level and snow makes it nearly impossible, even with modern equipment, to traverse except in the warmest four months of the year. On both sides of the border locals have historically been hostile to foreigners, and now the Chinese have restricted the area so that very few people ever get to see the pass from the Tibetan side. China Expat went there to find out the real story behind an ancient trade route: the Tea-Horse Road.
With their long borders, primarily along the edge of Tibet, China and India have coexisted in one form or another for thousands of years. By the time Mohammed was born, tea and Buddhism already flowed across their Himalayan boundaries and defined both of their cultures. Yet despite close proximity, India and China have significant geographical and cultural obstacles that separate them.
Nepal and Bhutan, two other ancient cultures, serve as buffers. And sandwiched between these small countries is a strip of land connecting Tibet to the Indian state of Sikkim at the Nathu La Pass. After re-opening the highway last year, many see it as a hope for future cooperation. But the real story is the passage’s place in the history of one of the most remote and amazing locations in the world.
Where it began: the Tea-Horse Road
The Nathu La Pass is hardly a new channel for international trade. Indeed, it stands at the end point of China’s ancient Tea-Horse Road or Cha Ma Gu Dao (茶马古道), where goods and culture poured from one country to the next for well over a thousand years. While the route met a small off-shoot of China’s other famed trade route in Lhasa, the nickname “Southern Silk Road” is a bit of a misnomer. Instead, over most of the path merchants led mules loaded with tea and war horses through mountain passes and over gorges via rope bridges. Traders undertook the journey to meet two growing needs.
Sometime in the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Tibetans began widely drinking pu’er tea, and it quickly became a local staple. They often mixed the fermented leaves with yak butter creating a salty, rich tea that is still common today. Beyond the taste, it provided significant nutrition to their meat and milk heavy diet. Tibetans rarely ate vegetables and the tea leaves filled the gap, making it critical to their well-being.
Tibet’s rugged climate and frigid winters do not allow for the growing of tea, so local traders began to look outward for suppliers. Neighboring Yunnan’s climate was ideal for the large-leaved plants needed for pu’er and they grew in great quantity. Local merchants began to traverse the steep mountains of western China to satisfy Tibet’s growing thirst.
While abundant in tea, Yunnan had its own shortcoming. The Chinese military lacked strong horses, critical for fighting hostile neighbors to the north and west. Although some are indigenous to Yunnan’s border areas, the central and eastern parts of the country had virtually none, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Traders from the Tibetan areas seized upon this imbalance and made an excellent profit on the exchange of tea for the stunningly powerful local horses.
The journey was profitable, but hardly easy. Aside from the cost in animals, merchants had to travel the arduous route from deep Yunnan—sometimes as far south as Xishuangbanna—north through Sichuan, and out to Lhasa. Yunnan’s climate varies widely, from the highly tropical Myanmar border to the chilly Tibetan Plateau. Beyond that, the Hengduan Mountains (横断山) are a major obstacle forcing journeys hundreds of miles north to avoid the most difficult stretches. The trip was grueling, but with an insatiable appetite for pu’er tea growing in Tibet, traders loaded up their mules and led war horses along the long trek.
Generally individuals did not make the entire expansive journey from Yunnan to Lhasa (and even more rarely on to India). A system of trading posts sprouted up in cities that now litter travelers’ itineraries: Lijiang, Dali, Zhongdian and Lhasa. Another similar route originated in Sichuan and met the primary road at modern-day Mangkang County near the Sichuan-Tibet border. After joining together, the path continued west directly to Lhasa where locals highly valued the fermented tea leaves.
In many ways the Tea-Horse Road is as much a concept as a distinct physical route. It was never a single path, but rather a patchwork of trails that crisscross the region to facilitate economic exchange. In total there were as many as seven different main trade routes with hundreds of offshoots veining throughout China’s western landscape. The primary two both went to India via Lhasa along the aforementioned path. Among the others, two went south from Yunnan into modern-day Myanmar (one of which also extended to India), and one each to Laos, Beijing, and Vietnam. The heavily traveled routes became increasingly formalized over time and as the government saw advantage in involvement, regulation of prices followed.
The Lhasa Route to India
Tibet was the frequent end point on the extensive journey of tea, but the role of India as a destination was hardly insignificant. Thousands of kilograms made its way to Calcutta and eventually Delhi every year, spurring significant economic activity in the border region. Moreover it is this path out to India, via the Nathu La Pass that authorities now see as the best option to revitalize dormant bilateral trade.
The Lhasa path, which was the primary route, went through a chunk of modern day Sichuan and continued west to Tibet. When people discuss the Tea-Horse Road today, they typically mean this section from Yunnan to Lhasa. At Lhasa a small off-shoot of the Silk Road ended and met the trail from Yunnan and Sichuan.
Ironically, while it is extremely difficult to get western trappings in Lhasa today, six hundred years ago it was a great trading capital. Traders from Xinjiang, India, central China and (formerly independent) Sikkim all flocked to the city to swap their goods. And what a wealth of variety there was! In addition to tea and horses, silk and salt flowed from the north, and dozens of other wares made their way north from India—even including opium and oddities such as Rhinoceros horns. This last trophy from a rare local species fetched a high price, but it also ended up shrinking the population of the animal to near extinction (there are about 2,500 alive today).
Leaving the Tibetan capital there were three general routes out of Lhasa with one each ending in Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan (via Kashmir), and India (via the Nathu La Pass). Most of the goods leaving China were in the form of tea brought over from Yunnan and Sichuan, but traders also exported salt and silk from Xinjiang to the north. Overall the path was a tremendous boon for the regional economy and contributed to the migration of both culture and people.
The ancient road to India is remarkably similar to the corridor that the government is trying to re-establish today. From Lhasa the caravans of tea made stops in Shannan and Gyangze, then went through Yadong just before the Nathu La Pass, and finally on to Calcutta. Once in India, local traders often further dispersed the tea and salt to major markets throughout the country and indeed beyond their own borders. Eventually Indians began growing tea themselves, profoundly impacting the development of both Indian and British culture.
Through Nagaland and Bangladesh
In addition to the two routes to Lhasa that met up in Mangkang (which are essentially the same), there was also a southern trail from Yunnan to India. Traders designed both with the goal of avoiding the Hengduan Mountains on the Tibet-Yunnan border. In contrast to the Lhasa path, the southern route avoided Tibet by going slightly south and west from Yunnan through Burma (modern day Myanmar) and then all the way to Calcutta and Delhi.
While more direct, traders generally avoided this trail for a variety of reasons. For one, it bypassed Lhasa, the biggest market for pu’er, with the strongest demand, and the place that had the most critical goods to trade from the Chinese perspective. The southern route also had fewer established posts, and crisscrossed Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nagaland, an area of India that still had head hunters into the twentieth century. The sheer number of countries and ethnic groups in the area made the southern route extremely hazardous.
Given all of these obstacles, the Chinese imperial army’s need for horses, and the Tibetans’ love for pu’er, it is not surprising that the northern route was more popular. Yet the road through Tibet was treacherous as well, and crossing Nathu La Pass was quite difficult, as it remains today. Tibet was only slightly more welcoming to foreigners than the countries on Yunnan’s western border. Even in the nineteenth century when the English tried to cross into Tibet from Sikkim they discovered that the Chinese wanted no part of them. Yet, the willingness of traders to make this arduous journey speaks volumes about the tremendous value of the goods that they carried.
The Rise and Fall of a Road
During the Song Dynasty (960-1127) the Tea-Horse Road flourished and posts saw up to 2,000 traders per day. Annual volume of tea going to Lhasa—and often beyond—reached 7,500 tons, carried over the laborious 2,300 km trek from Xishuangbanna to the Tibetan capital. Each war horse fetched between 20 and 60 kgs of tea depending on quality and the going rate.
During the formalization of the process the Chinese authorities managed to incorporate the tributary system into the exchanges. Traders happily sent their best horses to shower honor on the Chinese emperors, as the leadership sent back treasures and tea worth many times more. Conversely, local Tibetan leader leaders received annual gifts of pu’er that far exceeded their abilities to personally consume. One account suggests that the Dalai Lama received annual allowances of 2,500 kgs.
Things tailed off a bit during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), but picked up again in the fifteenth century under the Ming Emperors (1368-1644). In this period business became extremely formalized and the government showed a high degree of control. The rulers re-established offices all along the path, strictly standardized prices, and explicitly forbade private trading outside of their rigid system. However, in 1735, the inward looking Qing leadership (1644-1911) decided to end the importation of horses, even as it continued to ship smaller quantities of tea to Tibet.
Although it saw some traffic during the Qing Dynasty and early twentieth century, today the Tea-Horse Road has generally been abandoned except for adventure seekers and archaeologists. Despite political and geographical difficulties with some pieces of the road, there are a number of places that are worth visiting. Throughout Yunnan and Sichuan there are picturesque remnants of the once glorious road.
The Legacy of The Road
Zhondian, Dali, and Songpan in Yunnan and Sichuan still have the pristine setting that merchants experienced during dynasties gone by. In the latter of these it is easy to arrange horse treks through the mountains. The area is heavily ethnically Tibetan reflecting its history. Although it may change in the near future, Songpan is generally still not as touristy as many other places in China—perhaps because buses are the easiest way to get there. The charm of the place is its seclusion, so it is lucky that it still sees fewer visitors than the beautiful, but overly-crowded, Jiuzhaigou. However, be warned: after a few hours of riding your bottom will be sore, and your appreciation for the hardships that the traders faced will increase dramatically.
It is not advised to visit the politically tumultuous Myanmar. More adventurous types do have other options to see the difficult-to-reach sections of the Tea-Horse Road. While the China side of the Tibet-India border is not accessible, trips can be arranged from the southern side. You should definitely contact local tour companies before going out there, but the stunning Himalayas are worth the trouble. Roads slink along the mountain paths, twisting their way up toward Nathu La Pass and beyond.
The sheer difficulty in reaching these distant corners of the world helps us understand the tremendous struggles that ancient traders suffered. Without the benefit of cars, paved roads, or weather forecasts they forged their own way, carving out a niche, and changing several societies in the process. Religion, food, and politics all saw tremendous changes as a result of the efforts of these frontiersmen.
What the Cha Ma Gu Dao did more than anything else was connect different peoples, and give societies a link to something beyond their own villages. So successful were they that it is impossible to imagine western China or India without these ancient exchanges. Tibet, Yunnan, and India are all synonymous with Buddhism and tea, yet neither is indigenous to all three areas. Quite simply, without the Tea Horse Road, there is no modern China.
The truth is, or course, that merchants were not trying to alter the course of history when they made their journeys across this rugged landscape. They simply wanted to make enough money to feed their families. Yet it is impossible to go anywhere in China without seeing the influence of the Tea Horse Road: Buddhist temples, ancient Tibetan war horses at Xian’s Terracotta Warriors, or local tea houses throughout the country.
If you have the chance, go out and explore this wonderful piece of Chinese history. In addition to the fascinating stories behind it, Yunnan and the Himalayas are some of the most beautiful places in the world. You can glimpse into China’s past and see just a little bit about what its merchants dealt with a thousand years ago. And if you’re lucky, maybe this will help you understand China’s city streets today. After all, you can’t begin to understand the present with the benefit of history, and China’s history is the Cha Ma Gu Dao. CE
Special thanks to Ian M Lyons for the Yunnan pictures and Mridula from: gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Check out her fantastic blog on India!