Across the dangerous hills and rivers of the Hengduan mountain range (spanning the west of Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces over to the southeast of Tibet), invading the wild lands and forests across "the Rooftop of the World", a mysterious ancient road winds and wanders. It is one of the most heart-quaking roads on this planet. For thousands of years, numerous groups of travelers have been quietly traversing the road.
Standing on the road, you can still see clearly the some-70cm-deep holes in stone slabs caused by the stamping of horses’ hooves. And it seems they have numerous stories to tell. Aged Mhanee altars on the roadside are engraved with all sorts of religious scriptures and mottos. This is the ancient Tea-Horse Road, one of the highest and most precipitous ancient roads in the world, which for centuries has carried and spread civilization and culture.
The ancient Tea-Horse Road was a trade route mainly through Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. In ancient times, people in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces exchanged tea for horses or medicines with people in Tibet. The tea, the medicine and other commodities were transported by mabang – groups of travelers with horses, the special mode of transportation in the south-western region of ancient China – and thus the pathway was called the Tea-Horse Road.
The Tea-Horse Road linked Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet, stretched across Bhutan and Sikkim, Nepal and India, and then reached Western Asia and even the Red Sea coast in Western Africa. Generally speaking, the ancient Tea-Horse Road was divided into two major roads: the Sichuan-Tibet Tea-Horse Road and the Yunnan-Tibet Tea-Horse Road.
The Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road appeared in the Tang Dynasty, starting from Ya'an in Sichuan to Lhasa via Luding (卢定), Kangding (康定), Batang (巴塘), and Chamdo in Tibet (昌都), extending to the outside countries of Nepal, Burma and India. The complete length of the Sichuan-Tibet road was over 4,000 kilometers, with a history of more than 1,300 years.
In the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Qinghai-Tibet road was the main pathway to transport the tea to Tibet from the inland areas. In the Ming Dynasty, the Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road was formed officially, which helped the commercial towns and cities along the road to expand and promoted exchanges between the inland areas and Tibet.
The Yunnan-Tibet Tea-Horse Road was formed in the late part of the 6th century. It began from Simao (思茅, a major tea-producing area) and led to Lhasa, crossing Pu'er in Xishuangbanna, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La, and continuing to Nepal, Burma and India. It was thus a critical trade route connecting China to Southern Asia.
In the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD) dynasties, the Qinghai-Tibet road was the main pathway for transporting tea to Tibet from inland areas. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Sichuan-Tibet Tea-Horse Road was officially recognized, and this helped the commercial towns and cities along the road to expand and promoted commerce between inland areas and Tibet.
The Tea-Horse Road originated from chamahushi (茶马互市, tea-horse markets), the traditional ‘tea-for-horse' or ‘horse-for-tea' trade between Han and Tibetan people. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), some places in Sichuan, such as Mingshan, had a specialized government agency named "chamasi" (茶马司), to manage and supervise the tea-horse trade. The rise of the tea-horse trade boosted the economy and enriched the culture of the western area; while at the same time promoting development of the road.
The ancient Tea-Horse Road was the longest ancient trade road in the world, more than 10,000 kilometers in length. Few people in ancient times could finish the whole journey. Each station along the road could represent the end or the start of a business. At that time, the biggest trading transfer station was Kangding (康定) in Sichuan.
Kangding was the place where mabang (caravaners) from the west needed to change their means of transportation or where they just traded with local people. In 1696, the Emperor of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi, approved of the ‘tea-for-horse' or ‘horse-for-tea' trade in Kangding, which made the place become a major commercial center between inland areas and Tibet. Through Kangding, domestic commodities, such as silk and tea, were sold to the west and, in return, goods from Southern Asia, Europe and America flowed to inland areas of China.
The ancient Tea-Horse Road was spectacular. For mabang, however, it was a dangerous and risky journey. The transportation system was poor in the southwest because there were lots of high and precipitous mountains, zigzagging roads and rapid rivers. Normal road or waterway transportation was nearly impossible. Under such circumstances, mabang was the only means of transportation and made the ancient Tea-Horse Road special. The road was created by humans with their feet and horses with their hooves.
The roads created by mabang, connected communities in neighboring valleys and villages, and became the communication links for the southwestern area. Those stations where mabang stopped to do business later became towns or cities. Today's Lijiang is a well-preserved ancient town, known as an important survivor from the Tea-Horse Road.
The ancient Tea-Horse Road, just as important as the Silk Road, has been deserted for many years. With the rapid development of modern transportation, the road has been replaced by the Sichuan-Tibet road and other Tibetan roads.
The ancient Tea-Horse Road winds through China's vast western area, in which are diverse tourist resources including a wide variety of wildlife, colorful ethnic culture, splendid imperial monuments and signs of religious practices. Traveling along the ancient Tea-Horse Road is returning to nature, a trip for harmony between humanity and the environment, a trip of spiritual refreshment for urban people, and a trip of adventure and discovery. See our Yunnan Tours for ways of seeing the ruins of this ancient business route.
Continue to read History of the Tea Horse Road