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Home Travel in Yunnan The Disappearing History Ⅴ-- The Ancient Tea-Horse Road
The Disappearing History Ⅴ-- The Ancient Tea-Horse Road
Travel in Yunnan

altAs its name suggests, the Chamagudao (chá mǎ gǔ dào 茶马古道), literally translated as 'Tea-Horse Road' or 'Tea-Horse Path', was a central trade route for exchanging Tibetan horses and the tea from the interior. The corridor came to play a crucial role in the communication and exchange between the cultures of present-day Yunnan (yún nán 云南), Sichuan (sì chuān 四川) and Tibet (xī zàng 西藏), with the route passing through, among a number of important posts, the volcanic ranges of Tengchong (téng chōng 腾冲), the colourful culture and dwellings of the Khamba (kāng bā 康巴) people in Changdu (chāng dū 昌都), the breathtaking gorges of Lijiang (lì jiāng 丽江), through Tibet as far as Burma and India.

The Location of the Tea-Horse Road

altAcross the dangerous hills and rivers of Hengduan Mountain Range (héng duàn shān mài 横断山脉), in the wild lands and forests across “the Rooftop of the World”(shì jiè wū jǐ 世界屋脊), 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 Routes of the Tea-Horse Road
The Ancient Tea-Horse Road has three major routes: Qinghai-Tibet (Tangbo Ancient Road) (táng fān gǔ dào 唐蕃古道), Yunnan-Tibet, and Sichuan-Tibet.


The Yunnan-Tibet route occurred in Tang (táng 唐) Dynasty. It basically overlaps the Yunnan-Tibet motor way today: starting from Dali (dà lǐ 大理) of Yunnan, heading all the way to the north through Jianchuan剑川, Lijiang, Iron-Bridge Town (tiě qiáo chéng 铁桥城), and then going along the river, going to Yulai (yǔ lái 聿赉) via Benzilan (bēn zǐ lán 锛子栏), then Yanjing (yán jǐng 盐井) and follow the Lancang River (lán cāng jiāng 澜沧江) to Maergan (mǎ ér gǎn 马儿敢) [today called Kangmang (kāng máng 康芒), Tibet]. When reaching Zuogong (zuǒ gòng 左贡), it split into two lines heading for Tibet, one goes to Basu (bā sù 八宿), Bangda (bāng dá邦达), Chaya (chá yǎ 察雅) and Changdu; the other Basu, Bomi (bō mì 波密), Linzhi and finally Lasa (lā sà 拉萨).

Yunnan-Tibet route used to have three lines: a) begins at Tacheng (tǎ chéng 塔城) of Heli (hèlì 鹤丽), Bengzilan (bēng zǐ lán 崩子栏), Adeqiu (ā dé qiú 阿得酋), Tianzhuzhai (tiān zhù zhài 天柱寨), Maofagong (máo fǎ gōng 毛法公), ends in Tibet; b) begins from Weixi (wéi xī 维西) of Jianchuan, then joins line a at Adeqiu, ends in Tibet; c) begins in Zhongdian (zhōng diàn 中甸), via Niseluo (ní sè luò 尼色落), Xiandao (xián dǎo 贤岛), Bengzilan, Nulianduo (nú lián duó 奴连夺), Abulaka (ā bù lā kā 阿布拉喀), ends in Tibet. It’s very close to the Yunnan-Tibet national highway today.


The History of the Tea-Horse Road
In the old times, the little passage between Changdu and the outside world was formed by long-time stamping of people and stocks.

In the 7th Century, Tubo (tǔ bō 吐蕃) emerged in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (qīng zàng gāo yuán 青藏高原). They built an iron bridge which connected Yunnan and Tibet on the Jinsha River (jīn shā jiāng 金沙江) over the board of China and Myanmar.

altIn Song (sòng 宋) Dynasty, due to the fact that all borders were lost and no trade was possible, main market for the tea-horse trading moved to southwest China.

In Yuan (yuán 元) Dynasty, the government prompted building post roads and setting up post stations.

In Ming (míng 明) Dynasty, the government continued building post roads.

In Qing (qīng 清) Dynasty, the post organization of Tibet was renamed as "Tang”(táng 塘). Management of Tang stations was further improved and completed.

At the end of Qing Dynasty and beginning of the new republic regime, number of tea dealers soared.

Towards the end of the World WarⅡ, the Ancient Tea-Horse Road had become the main international commercial route in the big southwest rear area.

After 1957, Chinese government built Yunnan-Tibet (diān zàng 滇藏) and Zhong-Xiang (zhōng xiāng 中乡) motor ways. Materials and commodities have been transported to Tibet. That ended the out-of-date way of carrying cargos by man and horses on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road.


The Tea-Horse Road as a corridor of ancient civilizations
This route would appear to have been in use long before it became an avenue for the tea and horse trade during the Tang and the Song dynasties, for it was a very important corridor connecting the ancient cultures of the areas of present Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan. In such places as Ganzi (gān zī 甘孜) and Aba (ā bà 阿坝) distrcts of Sichuan and the Hengduan Mountains of Northwest Yunnan archaeologists have discovered many cist tombs which date from the Shang (shāng 商) (ca. 1600-ca.1100 BCE) and the Zhou (zhōu 周) (ca. 1100-256 BCE) dynasties. These cist tombs are scattered broadly in the canyons and valleys of the upper reaches of the Min River (mǐn jiāng 岷江) as well as the Yalong River (yǎ lǒng jiāng 雅砻江) and Jinsha Rivers. Most of these tombs are located in western Sichuan and western Yunnan, although a few have also been found in Tibet. Although there are slight differences between the cist tombs of the various sites, their main features and cultural characteristics are generally similar. The archeologists have established that the cist tombs discovered in Tibet are closely related with those of Sichuan and Yunnan in terms of their form and the grave goods. Notably those cist tombs found in Changdu and Linzhi (lín zhī 林芝), Tibet, definitely belong to the same cultural system as those in western Sichuan and western Yunnan. The cist tombs in Tibet are for the most part found close to the roads which led directly from Yunnan and Sichuan. Thus it is clear that about 4000-5000 years ago, well before the Tea-Horse Road was opened, migration and communication among the various ethnic groups operated along this road.


The Tea-Horse Road today
While modernization undermined this historic routes commercial significance, the Tea-Horse Road is now attracting attention due to the growth of tourism in southwest China. One reason is the ethnic and cultural diversity of the region. There is a local saying, the languages beyond five square li (lǐ 里) (2.5 kilometers) are different from each other, and the customs beyond ten square li are different from each other? There are more than twenty different ethnic groups to be found along the route. Some famous old towns and villages which once were key stations and markets of the Tea-Horse Road have been listed among the most important international sites for historic preservation. For example, the Lijiang, where the Naxi(nà xī 纳西) people form the majority of inhabitants, was been designated as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 1997. In 2002, Sidengjie (sì dēng jiē 寺登街) village, Shaxi (shā xī 沙溪)Township in Yunnan, was listed as a protected world architectural heritage site by the World Architecture Foundation.


























Moreover, the Tea-Horse Road continues to be a sacred road for many people. The different religions along the road include, for example, the white, yellow and red sects of Tibetan Buddhism; the Bon religion of pre-Buddhism in Tibet; the Dongba (dōng bā 东巴) religion of the Naxi people which combines Bon, Buddhism and its own animism; Han Buddhism and Taoism, as well as the Hinayana belief of the Dai (dǎi 傣) people, and the Benzhu (běn zhǔ 本主) (local gods and goddess) worship of the Bai (bái 白) people. Along the caravan road, there are many sacred mountains belonging to the different ethnic groups. For example, Kawagebo Snow Mountain (wǎ kǎ gé bó xuě shān 卡瓦格博雪山)(6740 m) in northern Yunnan, is one of the most famous sacred mountains of the Tibetan people. Every year many pilgrims from Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, and Gansu come there to worship and circumambulate the mountain with their tents, sheep and horses to ask for blessings from the mountain god. Pilgrims still travel annually to Lhasa to pay their respect to the deities of Buddhism, often still reassuring the road by prostrating their bodies along its length. The road these pilgrims follow is the Tea-Horse Road. In the past, young monks often shared the road with the caravans when traveling to Lhasa to carry on their studies and to advance their careers.

Few people have realized how vast and unprecedented this sudden expansion of caravan traffic between India and China was, or how important. It was a unique and spectacular phenomenon. No complete story has yet been written about it, but it will always live in my memory as one of the great adventures of mankind. Moreover, it demonstrated to the world very convincingly that, should all modern means of communication and transportation be destroyed by some atomic cataclysm, the humble horse, man oldest friend is ever ready to forge again a link between scattered peoples and nations.


Last Updated on Monday, 26 July 2010 10:37