The Silk Road trade route across northern China is well known, but the Tea Horse Road was another similar trade route in the south. The primary trade goods were tea and horses. Visiting these 10 recommended towns along the ancient trade route would be just as interesting or perhaps even better than touring the Silk Road.
The Northern and Southern Tea Horse Road Routes
There were two main roads stretching from the regions of Yunnan and Sichuan that reached Lhasa. The northern branch of the Tea Horse Road (茶马古道 Chama Gu Dao 'tea horse ancient road') starts in Ya'an, and the southern one starts from Jinghong.
In the 700s AD, the powerful and innovative Nanzhou Empire commenced the southern tea trade route from the area of Xishuangbanna and Pu'er. The Kingdom of Dali became rich off the trade and built the towering Three Pagodas in Dali.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Sichuan became the main source of Tibet's tea, and the northern branch of the Chama Road became by far the most important route branch during the past thousand years.
These routes joined at Changdu in Tibet and ended at Lhasa. From Lhasa, the trade routes forked westwards towards Persia and southwards to Nepal, India and Burma. The Nanzhao Empire was enriched by merchandise, money, and visitors from these far-away regions during the 700s and onwards.
The Southern Branch of the Tea Horse Road Is Better for Touring
In terms of many aspects such as scenery, outdoors adventure, natural beauty, architecture, ethnic cultures, history, shopping and other interests, the places along the southern Tea Horse Road branch are much better, and travel for a great trip is easier, so we recommend following the southern branch to Lhasa for an amazing variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, architecture, and things to do.
On the southern route, there is a big climate contrast, from tropical to arctic, and along it, you'll find among the most beautiful mountain scenery in China, one thousand year old towers, artistic and very ancient Buddhist grottoes, amazing ethnic towns for shopping and cuisine, and among the best shopping for crafts, souvenirs, jade, and the finest of Chinese teas.
A Tea Horse Road trip would be as wonderful from an archeological, cultural, historical and scenic standpoint as following the northern Silk Road from Xi'an to western Kashgar. For shopping and outdoor adventure, it is possibly better than the northern Silk Road.
We recommend these nine towns and cities on the southern tea and horse trade route for unusually good sightseeing, ancient sites, outdoors, shopping, cultures, and points of interest, and on the northern branch, we recommend Ya'an.
1) The Start of Our Trip in Xishuangbanna
You can start your trip from the city of Jinghong in Xishuangbanna Prefecture. It is on the Mekong River, one of the biggest in the world, which once connected Chinese empires with the southern kingdoms.
One can't get much further south in China than Xishaungbanna Prefercture that is distinguished with a comfortable tropical climate, rain forests, elephants and the gentle Dai people. It is one of only a few places in China with a tropical climate.
Jinghong is the main city with a population of 500,000 and has range of hotels and restaurants for tourists.
The main things of interest in the Jinghong area are the nature reserves, the Dai culture and spicy food.
Tai cuisine: If you love Thai cuisine, you'll love Dai food too. It is similar, but more wild. Spicy chili pepper, herbs, and lime juice flavored rice; fermented soybeans, bamboo, mushrooms, wild vegetables and herbs, and fruit from the jungle.
The Xishuangbanna Tropical Nature Reserve gets the highest reviews for the area on Trip Advisor in 2018. Visitors enjoy seeing a rain forest and the cultivated tropical plants and trees, and eating fresh tropical fruit. The Chinese Academy of Sciences sponsors it, and it is about 90 minutes from Jinghong by bus or private vehicle.
Mengyang Nature Reserve
The Elephant Act in Wild Elephant Valley might be excellent for children. It is about a 30-minute drive from Jinghong.
Jinghong Airport is only 5 km (3 mi) from the downtown, and provides convenient transport from many big cities around China. Dali is only an hour's flight away.
Taking a road trip north, at least to Lijiang, would be the best way to enjoy the whole region.
2) Pu'er for Tea
Following the Tea Horse Road by highway, about 2 hours north of Jinghong lies the small city of Pu'er (200,000 population). There isn't much to see in Pu'er, but what makes the town famous historically and in modern times is the tea. It is some of the best tea in China.
The Nanzhou Empire was in control of the Pu'er and Xishuangbanna lowlands during the early Tang Dynasty era (619–907).
Buy some cakes or bags of the tea to enjoy during your journey and to take back as gifts. You can learn first hand why people carried it over vast distances at the risk of their lives.
Pu'er Tea Sustained and Enriched Powerful Empires
Most foreigners have never tasted Pu'er tea. You are missing out on a type of tea that is both delicious and medicinal. It relieves stress and is actually nutritious.
Chinese call it "black tea" (黑茶 hēichá), meaning fermented tea. It isn't oxidized like the kind of dark teas usually drunk in the West. This makes a big difference and makes it one of the healthiest natural health drinks in China.
It is mood altering and relaxing. The reason seems to be that the microbes that ferment the teas leave behind beneficial, slightly sedating, and healthful chemicals. The microbes include different kinds of molds such as Penicillium (common bread mold), various kinds of yeasts, and a wide range of other microflora.
Tibetans mix Pu'er tea with yak or cow milk and/or butter.
- Chinese: 普洱茶 Pu'er Cha /poo-urr-chah/
- Preparation: You can brew it yourself in the same way as you'd brew green tea, but use boiling water instead of cooler water and keep refilling the cup. It tastes better after the first cup.
- Health benefits: The better and more expensive, naturally aged Pu'er tea, has more probiotics, B vitamins, and anti-carcinogen epigallocatechin gallate. It helps people digest meat, sugars, and oil more easily. The cheaper pu'er tea such as Tibetans might drink in the mountains is so high in fluoride that it might harm your health if drunk for long periods of time.
Transportation: There are no direct flights between Pu'er and Dali. Going by plane to Dali might take four and a half hours because of stop-overs. There are no trains.
3) Tengchong's Volcanoes and Hot Springs
Tengchong is the next stop on the Chama Road. From Pu'er, it is 10 and a half hours away following highway G213 through Lincang (4.5 hours) and then highways G214 and S312 to Tengchong (almost 6 hours).
It is a small region with a population of 600,000, including a sizable population of Lisu people and other ethnic groups.
Hot springs are the main attraction. If you like spas, you'll appreciate the hot springs in Tengchong that reach boiling point. The Geothermal Scenic Area hot springs received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2018.
Meals: People can cook meals for you in the delicious hot springs water. Even eggs cooked in the water taste better, and drinking the hot spring mineral water is health promoting.
Outdoors: The region has a cluster of volcanoes that is the largest such cluster in China. But most tourists rate the Volcano Park as only good or average. You can climb up into a small extinct volcano's caldera and see the scenery.
Jade: It is little known, but Tengchong's unusual geology makes it distinguished as the largest jadeite jewelry, crafts, and trade center in Southeast Asia. Chinese people favor jade very highly.
Some craftsmen sculpt jadeite at the huge jadeite market in Tengchong, but to get a taste of the local culture, visit the Hehua (Lotus Flower) Township near the city, which also has a very large jadeite market area.
Amber: Tengchong craftsmen also excel in processing and carving amber from Burma. Dealers from eastern Chinese cities come to Tengchong to secure 'blood amber' (血珀 xuepo), 'tea amber' (茶珀 chapo) and 'golden amber' (金珀 jinpo) for their shops back east. Tengchong's Jade and Amber Bazaar takes place every fifth day and attracts many traders and buyers as well as tourists, and you'll find good deals on good quality pieces if you are skilled or have the help of an experienced guide.
The World War II Memorial and Museum
There was fierce fighting in Tengchong when the Japanese army attempted to advance northwards from Burma to capture Tengchong's mountain pass to Dali and the Chinese headquarters in Chengdu. The Chinese forces defeated them with the help of the American Flying Tigers.
Those interested in WWII history or military aviation appreciate it highly. The museum opened in 2013.
Instead of seeing Tengchong, going by highway past Kunming direct to Dali takes 9 hours. Or from Baoshan, you could go directly to Dali (2 hours).
Dali is famous as one of China's premier tourist destinations. TripAdvisor records high visitor interest and ratings with 3,600 total reviews and several Certificates of Excellence.
Ancient Nanzhao and Dali Capital
The ancient Dali capital city: After the Nanzhao Empire collapsed in the year 902, the Dali Kingdom (937–1253) took over their capital on the Chama Road and grew rich through the pu'er tea trade and their control of the strategic trade routes between Southeast Asia, the Song Empire and Tibet.
Dali was a Bai dominated the kingdom that covered a large area including present-day Yunnan Province, parts of Guizhou and Sichuan, and northern Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.
As explained above, the Tibetans sought after the tea for good reason. The antioxidants and phytonutrients helped them digest their diet of meat and dairy products and stay healthy in their harsh high-altitude homeland. To get it, they paid horses, furs, herbs, precious metals, jewels and other goods in exchange.
The Three Pagodas: The Dali grew so rich that they built one of the tallest pagodas in history about 1,150 years ago, and two others later. They still stand. The towers amaze people still and get a Certificate of Excellence on TripAdvisor in 2018. They demonstrate the wealth and technology of the Dali Kingdom. A good visit takes about 2 or 3 hours.
The Ancient City of Dali near the pagodas is an option for shopping, dining, and sightseeing, but other ancient towns in the area are better.
Shopping in Xizhou: Xizhou is a Bai town noted for the Bai architecture and gardens. It is a better place to shop and dine on authentic Bai food than more touristy Dali. Shaxi further north is probably even better for most tourists.
Cangshan for hiking and outdoors sightseeing is excellent and among the best in China.
Lake Erhai deserves a mention. It is clean and considered one of the most beautiful in China, but in 2018, much construction is happening around the lake. The hiking, boating, and little villages are quite popular.
Transportation: Shaxi is only about 2 hours away on the G5611, and Jingchuan is 1 and a half hours away. The drive amid good scenery is recommended.
5) Jianchuan and Shaxi
The towns of Jianchuan and Shaxi (half an hour from Jianchuan) by Shibao Mountain are less touristy and less visited as well. This as well as astounding ancient sites and nature is why it is recommended for sightseeing, hiking, biking, shopping, and dining.
Precious Stone Mountain
Precious Stone Mountain (Shibaoshan) would be a highlight of a trip to the Dali area. Sideng Market was put on the World Monuments Watch list, and the Buddhist grottoes with intricate carvings and artwork are famous. The Shibaoshan Nature Reserve is a great place to hike in a big forest among the Nanzhao caves and later temples that were built here and there.
Shaxi was a market town on the Chama Road since the time of the Nanzhao, and it is still a market town. On Fridays, there is a big market/fair when everything most tourists might want can be found including dried goods, local crafts, Chinese medicinal herbs, and freshly baked and prepared food. The good authentic ethnic Bai and Yi restaurants and biking in the countryside are good.
Transportation: Shaxi is a little more than an hour away from from the Lijiang by fast car and less than two hours away from the Lijiang airport.
Lijiang matches Dali for variety and is one of the most popular tourist cities in China. With Lijiang Ancient Town itself listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, 11,000 total reviews and about ten scattered attractions all with a Certificate of Excellence on TripAdvisor in 2018, it is the most popular tourist destination in Yunnan.
Lijiang (Dayan), Baisha, and Shuhe were originally Naxi towns. The Naxi and their architecture and culture are quite interesting. But the problem with Lijiang itself is that it is so crowded with tourists and commercialized, you can scarce feel any native ethnic element. It is basically a Chinese tourist town, so for better experiences, visit the Bai and Naxi areas around it.
Lijiang abounds with places for hiking and ecotourism. The Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO World Heritage Nature Park is a huge park/natural preservation area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Nature site, and Lijiang sits on the edge of it. When you are in the Meili Snow Mountains or Tiger Leaping Gorge, you are in the area of the park. Tourism is just opening up to most of it
The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of China's best hiking areas with restaurants and inns strategically placed at stopping points for meals and overnight stays. It is one of the deepest valleys in the world. Backpackers usually say the hike was worth it. The adjacent Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Certificate of Excellence TA 2018) is also worth a visit.
Shopping and Dining
Like Lijiang itself, Shuhe and Baisha get mixed reviews. Most like the shopping and dining and old streets. Others yearn for something more authentic and less touristy, so give these towns lower ratings.
A major advantage of Shuhe over Lijiang is that it is relatively unknown so the streets are much less crowded and food and lodgings are less expensive. You can shop for Naxi woven goods, wood carvings, Naxi-style pottery and silver filigree jewelry. The quality of the products are better generally, so they are more expensive.
If you are in poor health, overweight or don't acclimate well, it might be better to end your trip in Lijiang and consider visiting the northern Chama Road branch attractions. This is because the rest of the trip is at elevations above 3,000 meters. Many have never experienced these elevations. Unless you are already acclimated, even just riding in a car or bus, you'll likely feel sick and nauseous the first day or two, and overly exerting yourself might be dangerous.
From Lijiang, you could take a flight to Lhasa. Total trip including the flight (2 hours) would take you about 6 hours including check in.
7) Shangri-La County (High Altitude and Tibetan Scenery)
Shangri-La (elevation 3,200 meters or 10,500 feet) is good for extended stays of several days.
They are not good for sightseeing while passing through, or rushing in for a quick visit, exerting yourself in sightseeing or hiking and then going onwards, because the elevation and the nature of these attractions require that you rest to acclimate to the region before you enjoy it.
"The Chinese Alps"
If you love mountain scenery, forests, hiking and Tibetan ethnic culture, we suggest you go there. It is only takes 2½ hours from Lijiang to Shangri-La by highway now. A mixture of Tibetan and Chinese people live in Shangri-La.
Shangri-La County was formerly called Zhongdian, but the name was changed to capitalize on the tourist industry. In spite of this, the area isn't hokey. Those who go there usually come away more satisfied than about Lijiang. Shangli-La has a TA Certificate of Excellence for 2018.
Rest and Relax a While
It is best to take it easy in hotels for a day or two to acclimate for about two days before spending time walking and sightseeing in the beautiful mountain parks. If you are planning to go on to Tibet during this Chama Road trip, then this is a good place to acclimate for it.
Health concerns: You'll probably feel sick your first day or your first several days in Shangri-la or Deqin (depending on how quickly you acclimate and how much you exert yourself). The road to Deqin goes over 5,000 meter passes 3 times, and this might be too high for safety for some people. So if you wish, bring oxygen.
For simple scenic viewing, avoid February to September to avoid rains, clouds and the cold weather. For hiking, the summers are rainy, so late August to December is best.
Shangri-La is 4 hours from Lijiang by long-distance bus. The Shangri-la airport is 5 kilometers (3 miles) from downtown, and there are domestic flights from several cities.
8) Deqin — Even Higher Than Shangri-La
Deqin (德欽 Déqīn) is a district of about 70,000 about 180 km (110 mi) from Shangri-la on the G214. About 70% are Tibetans. The 3,550-meter (11,700-ft) elevation might be too high for some people to happily endure for more than a few hours.
It is recommended that you stay a few days, if you can acclimatize, to really appreciate the area.
The Meili Snow Mountains
The Meili Snow Mountains (梅里雪山) are a mountain range near Deqin. It is said that they are the most beautiful high-altitude mountains in China. Tourists love the scenery and finding relaxing getaways in cabins or hotel rooms like in the Alps. Kawagarbo (卡瓦格博峰) is the highest peak and the highest mountain in Yunnan Province at 6,740 m (22,113 ft).
Instead of hiking into the mountains, people often will simply go to stay in hotels around Fei Lai Temple Village to watch the Meili Snow Mountain scenery from their rooms. You can see the galaxy and stars, and on good mornings, you can watch the beautiful sunrise of the play of golden light atop Kawagarbo and then the appearing of other peaks one by one.
For hiking, Deqin can be your base as you take buses to various drop off points. The tiny isolated village of Yubeng is also popular as a base for rugged hikers.
Deqin is 5 or 6 hours by bus from Shangri-La, or about 3 hours by fast vehicle. The road is quite curvy with sharp turns and drop offs.
Unfortunately, the government is forbidding foreigners from traveling to Tibet from the Yunnan area or leaving Tibet by highway. So to see Lhasa, the final stop on the southern Tea Horse Road, we suggest going back to Lijiang and taking a flight from there, or taking a flight from Deqin Airport in Shangri-la (about 2 hours).
After Deqin, the Tea Horse Road continued through many mountain towns and villages on its tortuous path to Lhasa. But none of these towns or the mountain scenery on the way are worth the trouble to leave the Lhasa area for. The whole region abounds with similar views and mountains.
Lhasa consistently lists as one of the top 7 tourist places in China on TripAdvisor. The high elevation (3,600 m, 11,800 ft) requires caution, but if you are acclimated, walk up the Potala Palace (Traveler's Choice Award 2017), and around the shopping streets such as Barkhor, to enjoy the monasteries and ancient sights.
Unlike other Tibetan areas mentioned here, Lhasa requires a travel permit on top of your China visa. We can help facilitate your travel to Lhasa and travel around Tibet. See more on TIbet Travel Permits.
10) Ya'an — on the Northern Tea Horse Route
From Ya'an, the northern route went through other towns and cities, but we don't recommend any town as worth a special visit (see the next section) except Ya'an for the tea and the Bifengxia Panda Base.
Bifengxia has over 20 giant pandas. People can volunteer to clean the pens and feed them. The base is located in a forest with waterfalls and good scenery that makes spending time there pleasant.
There are numerous plantations in the region. You can get delicious Ya'an and Pu'er tea everywhere.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Sichuan became the principle source of tea to Tibet, and the area around Ya'an was the main tea growing region from then on. The region supplied Tibet with millions of kilos of tea annually until modern times.
The Song Empire didn't conquer the Dali Kingdom, but they carried on their own trade in tea from the Ya'an area and bought steeds from Tibet for their war against northern tribes. For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Song would get a single horse. That was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, that was established in 1074.
Porters carried tea on their backs from factories and plantations around Ya'an up to Kangding (2,600 m or 8,400 feet). There the tea was stored in waterproof yak-skin cases and loaded onto mule and yak trains for a three-month journey to Lhasa.
Then the tea-for-horses trade continued through the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), during which 1,400 tonnes of tea were sent in exchange for about 25,000 horses. During the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the tea trade volume reached a peak of 7,000 tonnes.
The Bifengxia Scenic Area is 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Ya'an City and 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Chengdu City. It takes less than two hours to go there from the airport. Air travel between Lhasa and the Sichuan airport takes about 2 hours.
Other Northern Tea Horse Route Locations
From Ya'an, the old route went through Luding, Kangding, and Batang on its way west to Lhasa. These places lack the quality of the places along the southern branch. For the time and effort of traveling, you might as well visit the southern areas.
Kangding has Tibetan monasteries, a glacier, pristine upland pasture, and Mount Gongga, but Ya'an to Kangding is 5 hours by road.
Batang doesn't have much worth the 7 hours by road, and there is no airport there. You are not allowed to travel on to Tibet by road from Sichuan.
Some of these locations are described in our western Sichuan trip report.
Travel China Your Way
Traveling the Tea Horse Road route is so long and complex that going with a tour guide and driver helps make your visit less stressful and more rewarding.
You could just fill in a 4-minute Create-My-Trip form with your interests and requirements, and we will send you a quote and proposed itinerary within 24 hours.
Recommended China Itineraries
We also have well-designed tour plans that cover the highlights of China in ways that experience and customer feedback shows are best. They can all be customized to your interests and travel style.
- 8-Day Shangri-la Exploration Tour — Kunming, Lijiang, Dali, and Shangri-la Highlights Tour
- 4-Day Lhasa Highlights Comfort Tour — Our tour of Norbulingka, Sera and Drepung monasteries, the Potala, Jokhang Temple, and Barkhor Street is arranged to make you as comfortable as we can in the high elevation.