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The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Across the dangerous hills and rivers of Hengduan Mountain Range (spanning from the west of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to the southeast of Tibet), in the wild lands and forests across "the Rooftop of the World", a mysterious ancient road winds and wonders. It is one of the most heart quaking roads on this planet. For thousands of years, numerous caravans had been quietly traveling along it. Standing on the Road, you can still see clearly the some-70cm-deep holes in the stone plates by stamping of horse hooves. And it seems they have numerous stories to tell. The aged Mhanee altars on roadside are engraved with all sorts of religious scriptures and mottos. This, is the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, one of the world's highest and most precipitous ancient roads which carries and spreads 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 the other materials were transported by Mabang (caravans), and thus the pathway was called the Tea Horse Road.

Tea Horse Road Routes

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: Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road and Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road.

Ancient Tea-horse Road Map

Sichuan-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.

Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road

The Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road was formed roughly in the late part of the 6th century. It began from Simao (思茅/a main tea producing area) to Lhasa, crossing Pu'er in Xishuangbannan, Dali , Lijiang, and Shangri-La, continuing to Nepal, Burma and India. Therefore, it was a critical trade route connecting to Southern Asia.


The Tea Horse Road originated from Chamahushi (茶马互市/Tea Horse Market) which was the traditional ‘tea-for-horse' or ‘horse-for-tea' trade between the Han and Tibetans. In the Song Dynasty, some places in Sichuan, such as Mingshan, had a specialized agency of government named "Chamasi" (茶马司) to manage and supervise the tea-horse trade. The rising of the tea-horse trade boosted the economy and enriched the culture of the western area; meanwhile, it promoted the development of the transportation road.

The ancient Tea Horse Road was the longest ancient trade road in the world, which was more than 10,000 kilometers in length. Few people could finish the whole journey in the ancient times. Every station along the road could be an end or the start of one 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 transportation tools or 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 the inland areas and Tibet. Through Kangding, the domestic commodities, such as silk and tea, were sold to the West and, in turn, the goods from Southern Asia, Europe and America flowed to the inland areas of China.

The ancient Tea Horse Road was spectacular. However, for Mabang, it was a dangerous and risky journey. (Mabang: horse group carrying the goods. It was the special mode of transportation in the south-western area in ancient China and it was also the main way of transporting goods on the Tea Horse Road).

The transportation situation was poor in the south-western area because there were lots of high and precipitous mountains, zigzagging roads and rapid rivers. Therefore, vehicle or waterway transportation was nearly impossible. Under such circumstances, Mabang was the only means of transportation and made the ancient Tea Horse Road special. In other words, the road was created by humans with their feet and horses with their hooves.  

The roads created by Mabang, connecting with life passages from one valley to another, from one village to another, became the ties of the south-western area. Those stations that Mabang once stayed at to do business later became towns or cities. Today's Lijiang is a well-preserved ancient town, known as the important surviving ancient town on the Tea Horse Road.    

The End of the Tea Horse Road

The ancient Tea Horse Road, equally as important as the Silk Road, has been deserted for many years. With the rapid development of the modern transportation means, the road has been replaced by the Sichuan-Tibet road and Tibetan roads. 

Explore the Tea Horse Road

The ancient Tea-horse Road winds through China's vast west area, along which are diverse tourist resources including a wide variety of widelife, colorful ethinic culture, splendid imperial monuments and religious traces. Traveling along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road is a trip to return to the nature, a trip of the harmony between men and the nature, a trip of spiritual neutralization for urban people, and a trip of adventure and discovery. See our Yunnan Tours to see the ruins of this ancient business route.

Continue to read History of the Tea Horse Road