CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Asia's Eternal Road | China Heritage Quarterly

Asia's Eternal Road

Jeff Fuchs

The author is a traveller, writer and modern-day adventurer. His book The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers (Penguin-Viking, 2008) offers a vivid account of the tea passage from China through the Himalayas via Tibet. He was granted the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan trade routes. Fuchs and his trek partner Michael Kleinwort have also completed a month-long expedition along a nomadic salt route, becoming the first Westerners to have done so. He lives in Zhongdian 中甸/ rGyal Thang rDzong (now renamed 'Shangri-la' 香格里拉), the county seat of the Tibetan Autonomous County of Diqing ( 迪庆藏族自治州) in Yunnan, which will be the focus of a future issue of this publication. Click here for details of Jeff Fuchs' work, and a selection of images from his travels.—The Editor

If tea wasn't offered, a relationship wasn't offered
—Himalayan saying

An Ancient Source

A series of specters reach through a thick blue mist above throwing everything within eye-view into soft focus. Even forest sounds are muted in the dense humid air. Bamboo groves bend in unison and green pervades all. Beside me the fleet-of-foot Li-do creeps in and out of view. He is the kind of gentle guide that allows one to take in an environment without having to introduce every new site, but suddenly he does stop and simply smiles gesturing to a rise of the damp floor of the forest.

'They are there', is all he says.

Fig.1 A Hani tea harvester makes her way through a tea tree forest where not one tree is less than five hundred years old. Respect for traditional methods of harvesting and production (pesticide free) has allowed ancient traditions to remain the most effective. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

We are in a Pulang stronghold, an indigenous area crammed into the southwestern wedge of Yunnan province along Burma and Laos. The Pulang have long craved their silent mountain abodes, which is perhaps what has kept their remarkable relationship to Asia's eternal green commodity from a greater audience. It is one of the globe's primordial sources of tea growth and production.

Remote, humid and utterly quiet, the forest around us seems to have been shielded from manufactured noises or visuals. Off to our left, the rise that Li-do refers to appears as a wall of those spectral shapes crawling through the horizon.

Fig.2 An ancient tea tree near Menghai in Xishuangbanna that is close to a thousand years old stands as a testament and guardian to an ancient bond between the tea forests and its people. Many indigenous of the area claim the health of both people and tea trees are inextricably linked. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

The 'they' he speaks of are ancient trees that bend and arc metres up. Li-do's face comes close as he speaks softly, as if not wanting to disturb one particle of what lies before us. It feels very much as though we have entered a holy land.

'Our trees', he sighs. When we finally do get close enough to actually make out details of the forms, these ancient tea trees are fully unveiled. Understated, the trees appear muscular and craggy, their leaves dripping and enormous—nothing hints of their ageless value, nor of their incredible journeys into the most remote and daunting of lands, the Himalayas, which are thousands of kilometres away.

It was from this sub-tropical land of heat and mist, amid Li-do's ancestor's forests and others like it, that tea made its way along one of the great and largely unsung journeys of the planet up and onto the Tibetan plateau. Packed into bamboo husks, and tree bark, tied aboard mules, horses and humans, tea from here was whisked off into the distant kingdoms of the fierce Tibetan clans. The route, which in time gained the title 'The Ancient Tea Horse Road' (Cha Ma Gudao 茶馬古道), would become legendary to only those that travelled and benefited from its precious cargo. Tea from this humid base would be the prime tribute, trade item, and panacea for thirteen uninterrupted centuries, and would become lovingly known to the Tibetans as ja kabo (bitter/strong tea).

We stride back to Li-do's town in the east-west stretching Pulang Mountains. The Pulang (also known as Pu) and Dai people are credited (but rarely acknowledged) with being tea's original cultivators and producers, in time passing their precious skills onto the Hani, Lahu and Wa peoples. Their commitment to the tea trees carries far beyond economics. Within the forest walls and enclaves there has always been an animistic edge to beliefs and for many, the ancient trees are part of the living weave of the culture.

Later, sitting within the simple unpretentious surroundings of Li-do's elevated home we sip the tea that travelled, and still to this day is a local remedy for everything from fevers to blood sugar disorders. Tea here is no less than everything.

Vegetal and potent, the tea we sip—Pu'er to the outside world (some say named in homage to the 'Pu' people)—is served with a kind of informal elegance that would seem foreign to the world of tea ceremonies. Lido squats above a fire, grabs a fist full of desiccated leaves and drops them into a huge bubbling pot. Less than a minute later (without a first rinse, a sniffing cup or any other formal trinkets) lemon yellow liquid is arcing into a stained tin cup. Lido introduces a 'spring' harvest from the ancient tea trees, which will fetch a hundred fifty dollars a kilo in the thirsty tea markets. The tea and its inherent (and desired) astringency is almost pulverizing in its intensity.

Fig.3 The bricks and moulded tea forms of Yunnan made their way to all points of the compass along trade routes. Wrapped in bamboo, bark and even skins, the tea would travel upon the backs of mule and men alike. When Yunnan was finally taken into the Yuan Dynasty fold by the ruling Mongolians they too brought back the powerful teas to their steppes. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

Appearances here, regarding lifestyle or tea, mean nothing, explains Lido. A good tea comes from good land, from old trees with good drainage and from an understanding and ' respect of the trees'. It is this lack of excess and terminology that lends itself to something authentic, something utterly timeless. There are no sprays in these regions, no over-harvesting of the crops—here things have changed little in centuries. It is a refreshing bit of truth that here the old ways are the only ways.

Sips into our afternoon session of tea, another previous conversation oozing with authenticity about the same tea sputters into my mind; a conversation had almost four thousand metres higher, in the highest of highlands during an expedition along the famed Tea Horse Road.

An Ancient Courier

Fig.4 It was by talking to the remaining traders and muleteers that a more complete picture of the Tea Horse Road, and tea's crucial value became clear. Little has been done in terms of taking down the oral narratives of the participants along the Tea Horse Road, but it is their insight that gave the tale lifeblood. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

'If one had tea, one had power'. These words come from a sun-scarred face in a small hut that shudders under the brunt of the wind at close to five thousand metres in the midst of the Himalayas. No green astringent tea here, but rather pungent butter tea (known locally as pu ja—Tibetan tea) served in worn wooden bowls. The ancient man who utters these words is a leather-skinned elder named Neema, near the town of Lhari'gong east of Lhasa, along a long-forgotten strand of the Tea Horse Road. In his time he worked as a muleteer along the almost mystical route and his 'time' spanned over eighty years. Tea (ja in Tibetan) and its mention here amid ragged peaks and high altitude deserts, may seem out of place, but, for thirteen centuries there was no more coveted nor valued commodity, even here in the highest of highlands.

The word for muleteer in Tibetan leaves no doubt as to the physical attributes for the job of transporting the 'great gift', as tea was locally referred to as. La'do in Tibetan is made up of two words, la meaning hand, and do (pronounced like dough) meaning stone. Hands of stone were needed for ushering goods across the top of the world. No story of overland tea travel would be complete without these men who risked all, and often lost all. Neema notes simply, but with pride that 'the job of transporting tea and other goods was not for the weak.'

These 'couriers in the sky' knew well the worth of their precious green cargoes. Within market towns muleteers and traders alike kept their eyes on the informal ledgers that held the current trade value of tea. Neema spoke of figures he remembered: 120 kg's of tea being 'trade-able' for a horse of superb quality, whereas 50 kg's of tea would get a horse with a pulse, and little more. Even up until the 1940's tea was a far more coveted currency than cash. Tea had an immediate trade value upon arrival to any market town, however remote, whereas as Neema points out 'cash was simply cash'.

Neema's lined and ravaged face, shared something with distant Lido's features in the Pulang forest. They both had the stamp of living a life under the full brunt of the elements etched onto them—a universal appeal. Both too, had a love and awe of a simple green leaf. Separated by almost four thousand kilometres, from entirely different cultures, they both speak with a similar reverence for the tea that traveled. At one point Neema says that he cannot imagine the lands where such tea comes from, but that he feels a great link with the lands and people that supply such a gift.

Fig.5 Portions of the Tea Horse Road still exist and require the loyal services of the underated mule - no caravan was complete without them. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

Tea, an early luxury of the Tibetans, was funneled up from the ancient tea forests (known as ja'yul to the Tibetans) along paths ascending ever-higher into the mountains. It would travel thousands of kilometres, through stages, where beast and muleteers alike were upgraded to deal with the increasing risk and altitude. Tea's value increased, as did the distances and perils. Neema explained tea's value to the rough and ready Tibetans with a saying, 'Tea was a more lasting gift than a son', leaving no doubt as to its worth to a people known for rawhide toughness and fealty to their clans. There was no more a sacred offering to a guest in the cold folds of the Himalayas than a bowl of salted butter tea; the twin ingredients of salt and tea being virtually priceless.

An Eternal Road

The tea known earliest to Tibetans was from deep in Yunnan's south, which was independent of China until the thirteenth century. Tea journeys by caravan that took up to four months, would impart their own influence upon the tea, creating a most unique result. Large leaf camellia assamica green tea was dried, steamed and packaged as unfermented tea into bamboo husks and oblong bricks. During the taxing journey north, the combination of changing altitudes and humidity, the body temperatures of beasts of burden and time itself would create teas that upon arrival in the great market towns on the plateau would often be dark fermented teas of pungency. In the seventh century, during the Tang dynasty and the time of the powerful Tubo kingdom in Tibet, tea was already moving into the Himalayas. The newly unified peoples of the plateau offered a potent risk to the Tang's eastern flank. Tea would become tribute, a gift, an informal plea for peace… and over time it became the greatest imported foodstuff into the Himalayas.

Fig.6 A Hani woman within the kingdom of the ancient tea trees. Many of the indigenous are still highly animistic and are highly superstitious (and protective) of the sacred plants that have provided a source of income and medicines for over a millennium. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

What stuns and impresses about the Tea Horse Road beyond the un-paralleled risks involved in transporting goods over some of the most perilous terrain on earth, is the way that it linked some of the most remote cultures on earth with a desiccated green leaf. The route touched more than a dozen cultures, and two-dozen language groups. It also was a testament to man and mule in a never-ending struggle and dance with the elements, bandit-ridden lands and the will to keep a commodity on the move.

The Ancient Tea Horse Road, was much more than a route transporting tea and horses. The name of the route in Tibetan (Gya'lam or 'wide road', or Dre'lam meaning 'mule road') perhaps describes a more complete picture of the route: whatever had a value was transported.

Tea, though, was the favored commodity and its transport was of such consequence that there were bounties put onto (and executed) bandits' heads who dared disturb its ceaseless flow into the mountains. One old Lado explained how creative thieves would in desperation attempt to pilfer tea bricks and tubes at night, from the various bamboo containers and replace them with the exact same weight in sod or earth. 'Tea thieves' were often hunted down and executed on the spot as an example. An unwritten 'law of the road' was that nothing and no one was to disturb the flow of tea into the mountains.

Fig.7 The 'ghost-town' of Tenda in eastern Tibet folded up, with its inhabitants scattering when the Tea Horse Road finally ebbed out in the mid-1950's. Towns existed to service the tea caravans, and in return they were paid in tea and when the traders ceased to come, many such towns simply died. The Tea Horse Road can be seen coming in from the left. (Photograph: Jeff Fuchs)

For most traders the ultimate destination was Lhasa—long a major market centre— but the Ancient Tea Horse Road by extension and various feeder routes pushed further. Routes streamed south into India and Nepal's Himalayan kingdoms of Sikkim and West Bengal, and as far west as the Middle East. Trading clans and their kin from Kham in eastern Tibet can to this day be found in northern Pakistan; leftovers of a time of trade.

So vital was the road and its purpose, that traders often referred to the Tea Horse Road as the 'Eternal Road'… nothing less than an eternal road would suffice for the eternal leaf.