Legendary Tea Roads: The Ancient Tea and Horse Road to Tibet

The craving for tea, which had become the cup of the imperial court and of the literati during the Tang Dynasty, spread fast to the neighbouring kingdom of Tibet and later on to the Mongol Khans. The stimulating effect and the digestive properties of that hot and refreshing drink had immediately been recognized by the rulers of these high mountain populations, but tea growing was impossible in their own realms of high altitudes and rough climate. Historians report that Princess Wencheng, one of the Tang Emperor’s Taizong nieces, who was given as bride and dynastic match to the King of Tibet in 640 AD, brought 30 horse loads of tea with her as part of her rich dowry. Wanting to ensure regular supply, thoroughbred horses from the Qinghai pastures were immediately identified as compensating goods for the Chinese Emperor’s army. Although part of the Chinese empire’s immensely long border had already been enclosed with stretches of the Big Wall, there was continuous warfare required to ensure territorial security.

Within a century, the tea and horse road had developed into a well-trodden trade route. Mule and horse caravans and also groups of tea carriers transported the precious cargo from the tea-growing areas in Yunnan and in Sichuan to the Tibetan plateau, to Lhasa and the many other big monasteries and their villages and townships. The trip would take between four and six months. Resting places providing food and shelter had sprung up all along the way during these more than ten centuries of continuous trade travel, taxed and controlled by the state administration up to the Qing dynasty. Fortunately, some testimonies of those ancient ways have been preserved, which report that these roads were steep paths along the cliffs and had rope bridges over torrential rivers. Many of these roads have steps carved in the rocks and some still show the holes bored by the sticks on which the human tea carriers rested their huge back loads every 1000 meters or so. So impressive and so romantic was the “Old Tea and Horse Road” that books and documentaries continue to praise it as a proud achievement.

Since the Emperor had a trade monopoly on tea, the crop regions and the various teas that travelled on that road were fully identified. Compressed into bricks for easy maintenance and standard weight, the teas had to keep well during the long transport on animal or human back. Processed as dark teas or hei cha, the tea bricks were made from the current year’s leaves, which had undergone special processing for allowing them to further mature during the long travel. There used to be three main quality grades: for the bonzes and superior Buddhist clergy the tea bricks were made of fine tea leaves only, for the other monks the teas included some twig material, the village people with little cash gladly bought the lowest grade, which was made of coarser leaves and contained a higher share of twigs. Most of these teas were made in Yunnan Province, with Puer City/Simao as the starting point for the trip and in Sichuan Province, where Ya’an was the starting town.

To keep these memories alive, a beautiful remake of the starting place of the Yunnan Tea Road trunk was inaugurated in Puer City in June 2013 during the 6th  International Tea Convention. In Sichuan, patrimonial conservation became a priority for Li Chaogui, owner of the Ya’an Tea Company, after he had acquired the company in 2000. Ya’an Tea specialized in supplying important volumes of tea to Tibet for more than two centuries. Enthusiastic about these teas, which provide many benefits to health, Li Chaogui has decided to maintain part of the attractive old style packaging and to revive these Tibetan Teas not only for the home market but also internationally. Furthermore, he carefully collected the traditional manufacturing and transport tools for a small private Tibetan Tea Museum in Ya’an. He also investigated the archives in order to write the first book about Tibetan Tea, which was made available in English in 2010. He feels proud for contributing to the upkeep of this heritage and hopes to make it attractive also for the younger generations.

Today there are asphalt roads, concrete bridges and a high speed railway from Beijing to Lhasa. Since 1950, there are no more borders between China and the Autonomous Region of Tibet, but the traditional teas are still drunk churned with salty butter, giving the body strength for the high altitude, the thin air and the cold climate.

The Ten Thousand Li Tea Road to Russia

Operating from the mid 17th century up to the inauguration of the Trans Mongolian Railway in 1961, this tea road started initially from Fujian and the Wuyi Mountains, where many famous teas were sourced. When the Taiping Revolution brought civil war to the South of China in 1851 the tea production for Russia was relocated to Central China with the Hankou Oriental Tea Port in Hubei province becoming the major tea hub. The caravan route from Hankou (today’s Wuhan), to Moscow was about 10,000km long and tea travelled mainly on camel back and through the traditional ancient land corridors along the ancient Silk Road, and then turning north west via Mongolia and Siberia. This trip took about 16 months one way and the road was always busy. Subject to commercial treaties signed by the Russian Tsar of the Romanov Dynasty and the Chinese Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the teas were exported and furs, iron and silver were imported from Russia.

From 1860 onwards Russian Companies were authorized to settle in Hankou— the first ever commercial establishment of foreigners on Chinese soil. Several Russian companies therefore started to operate tea production and storage and to create their own brands for the Russian market. Technology progressed and gradually modern transport shortened the length of the caravan trip, namely the inauguration of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1900 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which offered the choice of a maritime route.

After the disbanding of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new and complex political establishment introduced many new and independent states to Central Asia. Targeting more foreign exchange and investment fluidity China’s President Xi Jinping has taken the initiative to revive the long history of fruitful trading between the two former empires. In September 2013, he launched the “One Belt and One Road”–OBOR–strategy proposal with the purpose of rejuvenating the ancient trading routes and further opening up the markets in a mutually beneficial manner.

The president highlighted this market opening and market-linking strategy while addressing the inauguration ceremony of the 2015 annual conference of the Forum for Asia in China’s Hainan Province. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will provide financial support to relevant projects, and so far 52 countries and regions have joined or applied to join.

Furthermore, a committee of historians has been asked to submit a request to UNESCO to register the Ten Thousand Li Tea Road as World Heritage. In that context, Wuhan has been restored as the future Central China Tea Hub. Currently, the biggest tea storage facility is under construction in the former Oriental Tea Port on the banks of the Chang Jiang/Yangtse River. It is scheduled to open its doors by the end of 2016.

Also noteworthy, is the recent announcement by China Daily of the first direct railway transport that left from Wuhan, China, on April 6, 2016, headed for Lyon, France. The trip was a distance of 11,300km and took 16 days. That trip duration favorably compares to a maritime transport which requires between 50 and 60 days for the same journey.

Today, tea from China is still a major import item for the Russian market. However, it travels faster with new means and modern logistics, but still along the traditional corridors and passes all across Central Asia’s not always hospitable high mountain ridges, deserts and steppes.

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