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Death-defying risks for a cup of tea

When the civil war of China ended in 1949, Tibetans carried bags of silver dollars on a long journey along a thousand-year old path through the mountains on an important mission: to ensure their tea supply. Emily Zhou reports

THE PEOPLE OF TIBET and the surrounding high-plateau lands had a problem.

They needed tea. They didn’t just want it, they needed it.

The mountain people ate a lot of meat and barley, and needed tea to balance their diets. Due to the lack of vitamin and dietary fiber in Tibetan recipes, people drank tea, especially Pu’er (普洱茶), to accelerate digestion and lower the level of blood lipids.

In Tibet, a folk saying goes, “Life cannot move forward without tea.” Accordingly, Tibetans became the most powerful tea purchasing group in southwestern China.


But how to get it? It was a famously long and difficult journey across the mountains and river plains to get from the Tibetan plateau to the areas where tea was grown and sold. It would take a year to walk the distance, and that would be impossible anyway, since the winter would make many of the paths unusable

Ancient routes were created to ensure tea got to Tibet. Image by Redgeographics/ Wikimedia Commons

So they developed a special way of getting the tea. They would take a team of people and horses, known as a caravan, and trek through the difficult terrain. These paths became known as the Ancient Tea Routes, or sometimes the Tea-Horse Road. These ancient routes can be dated back to Tang Dynasty, more than a thousand years ago.

A modern Chinese re-creation of the ancient routes


Before 1949, Tibet, Sichuan (四川省) and Yunnan Provinces had few usable roads. Tea caravans faced many dangers, including that of caravans falling off cliffs or stumbling into rivers, because of the harsh landforms. Many of the roads along the journey were covered by sharp rocks and steep slopes, However, tea merchants still opened up dozens of paths through which they could obtain tea.

Generally, Tibetan merchants loaded money or goods on the back of mules, set off from the roof of the world, passed through Zhongdian (中甸) and Lijiang (麗江), then reached the hinterland of Yunnan to buy high-quality Pu’er tea and bring it back to Tibet.

The ancient route included the crossing of the Mekong River. Image by Jaryiahr Khan / Wikimedia Commons


In the 1940s, there was a huge upheaval in China, and a new government was formed in 1949. How did they Tibetans react? They had little interest in politics – but knew that they needed to ensure the supply of tea.

It is recorded that soon after establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, hundreds of Tibetan caravans traveled thousands of miles to Yunnan Province (雲南省) to ensure the supply of tea to the area.

The merchants purchased tons of Pu’er tea, and paid piles of shiny silver dollars so large that even made the wooden cashier counter creak and shake.


Of course, that has all changed now. Recent decades witnessed the rocketing development of infrastructure, after the Chinese government realized that transportation was the priority to achieve economic growth.

Highway through a Tibetan mountain pass: Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

Nowadays when people enjoy the dramatic scenery of white mountains and endless grassland as they drive on wide, flat highways through Tibet and Yunnan Province, it is hard to image how difficult and dangerous it was in the past for the tea caravans.


Lijiang, a famously beautiful town in the northwest of Yunnan, is backed by the Tibetan Plateau which rises to an altitude of more than 3,000 meters and faces the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau (雲貴高原) which is about 2,000 meters in height.

Lijiang was on a key point on the route. Photo by Ran Xie/ Unsplash

Positioned on the terrain dividing point, Lijiang was a must-pass point on the ancient tea routes and became a center of production for Pu’er, the most popular type of black tea.

In the past, during the long journey along the tea routes, merchants found that Pu’er tea packed in bulk easily became damp in parts – and those parts had to be thrown away.

To solve the problem, a family in Lijiang came up with an idea. It could solve or largely reduce the problem by compacting the tea in bricks or cakes, so that there was less contact between the tea and the moist air. Even today, most of the Pu’er tea in the market is sold in this style.

Even today, tea is often sold in bricks. Picture from Aliexpress


Southwest China is the most important settlement for ethnic minorities in China. In Yunnan Province, many of Hong Kong’s 56 ethnic groups can be found, with many differences in religious beliefs and living customs. The formation of the Ancient Tea Routes not only contributed to the cultural exchange and integration between various ethnic groups, but also played a vital role in the economic development and ethnic unity of the southwestern border.

Nowadays, Pu’er tea has been spread to the whole country and even became a beverage welcomed around the globe thanks to these ancient tea routes.

For people in southwest China, as they breathe in the fragrance of a delicious cup of hot tea, the jingles of shiny bells and crisp hoofbeats of mules on the unspoiled snow-capped meadows will still reverberate in people’s minds.

Now read our story on the history and types of tea: Sorry, cafe society, tea-drinkers are still ahead

Image at the top by Jeff Fuchs/ Wikimedia Commons

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