After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. With myriad varieties ranging from fruit to herbal, black to green, Chinese to Indian; there’s an abundance of choice for any discerning tea drinker. Used as a soothing drink by some, a digestif by others, tea has been used as a medicinal remedy for centuries and has many social and ceremonial uses.
One legend about the origin of tea dates back to as early as 2737 BC when Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, was waiting for his servant to boil some drinking water. Sitting underneath a Camellia sinensis tree, some of the leaves dropped down into the pot. Curious, the Emperor decided to try the infusion and thus tea was discovered.
True or not, China was almost certainly the birthplace of tea as we know it, and the first record of tea consummation in China dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) when tea became the national drink of China. The beverage soon became popular around the world; Buddhists took the drink to Japan and the Dutch and Portuguese introduced tea to Europe. Tibet was a keen customer for Chinese tea, with such a cold, mountainous terrain hot drinks were much coveted.
This gave birth to the Tea Horse Road, a network of paths that wound through the mountains of Yunnan Province in Southwest China – then the major tea producing region in the world. The 2,253 km (1,400 mile) long Tea Horse Road stretched from Yunnan to Lhasa, Tibet – one of the harshest trails in Asia.
Porters would transport the tea stacked high on their backs along the long, winding pathway, often carrying more than their bodyweight – the more they could transport, the more they were paid. Tibet wanted tea, China needed horses (to fight the barbarian hill tribes to their north) and thus the trade route was named chamadao – the ‘Tea Horse Road’.
Carrying an agonizing load equipped with inadequate footwear, clothing and food, it’s a miracle that men were able to scale the 2,253 km route and live to tell the tale. The trek offered natural hazards like snow storms and icy pathways as well as danger from thieves and bandits along the way. With such a sizable load on their backs, it was even necessary to stop every seven steps, resting on a crutch that doubled as a walking aid.
The full length of the pathway is virtually impassable now and was last used circa 1949 when the building of a highway made trading more convenient – and much, much quicker. It is possible to visit some of the towns situated along the route however.
Our Explore Ancient Yunnan tour for example takes travelers to Shaxi, one of the major stops on the historic route. Of course, if you’d like to include a stop in any town along the route, simply let our expert local Travel Specialists know and they’ll be delighted to tailor a tour to feature a stop in one of the historic villages.