Trading Tea For Horses – The History Behind China’s Ancient Tea Horse Road

For thousands of years an ancient road, traveled by both humans and horses,
connected Southwest China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces with the Tibetan
Autonomous Region.  Called the Tea Horse Road, the rugged, unpaved road
stretched for more than 4,000 kilometers, bringing together various Chinese
ethnic cultures such as the Dai, Yi, Han, Bai, Naxi, and Tibetans, all who traveled
along the historic road.
It was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907),
when Tang princess Wen Cheng wed Tibetan
king, Songtsan Gambo, that tea was first
introduced to the Tibetans.  Not only did they
find it invigorating, but the hot tea also added
warmth and supple- mented their meager diet
that was near void of vegetables.
Both Tibet and Mongolia were skilled in
horsemanship and breeding strong, healthy
horses, while the Chinese Tang emperor was
in need of strong horses with which to supply
his army with fast and reliable transportation.

So, the Chinese traded supplies of tea with
Tibet and Mongolia for a supply of strong,
healthy horses.  It was this exchange of tea

for horses that began the historic “Tea for Horse Caravan Route,” that began in China’s
Sichuan and 
Yunnan provinces and extended to Lhasa, Tibet.
At the height of trading, 200 to 300 yak caravans, along with
horse caravans left Sichuan each day, setting off to Tibet and
Mongolia.  Tea, salt, and sugar was shipped to Tibet, while
horses, cows, furs, musk, and other local products were shipped
back to

China.The route the Tea Horse Road followed was extremely danger-
ous at times, traveling over China’s Hengduan Mountain and
Tibet’s rugged Himalayas, with narrow paths
skirting along the sides of the mountains, as
well as scaled stretches across bare, wind
swept plains.  Harsh weather and river cross-
ings over deep, turbulent waters were es-
pecially dangerous, with many lives lost by
both humans and animals over the many long
months it took to complete the trip.

Eventually several other routes were devel-
oped, running from western China, with
southern routes to Tibet, and a western
route from Sichuan across central Asia to
Mongolia and Siberia.

The town of Puerh in China’s Yunnan
province was an important distribution
and collection point and the beginning
of the Tea Horse Route.  Oddly enough, no puerh tea is made in the town of Puerh.  The
Tibetans prefer

puerh tea above all others, using it to make their butter tea.Instead of following the Chinese way of tea drinking, the
Tibetans concocted their own original brew.  Yak butter,
yak milk, and salt are added to brewed

puerh tea to
make an energizing, enriched kind of tea “soup.”
In order to

preserve the puerh tea while on its long
journey along the Tea Horse Route, a method was de-
vised of steaming and compressing the tea into a bowl
or brick shape.  Known as Tuocha tea, it is sometimes spelled Tuo Cha or Tuo tea, mean-
ing block of tea.  Tuocha tea can also go by the name beeng cha or fang cha, depending
on its shape.
China’s Yunnan-Myanmar Highway, their only international
thoroughfare fell into the hands of the

 Japanese during
WWII, and was cut off from use.  This meant the ancient Tea
Horse Road was once again called into service, becoming a
major trade route, extending from Lijiang in Yunnan province
to Kangding in Xi kang, on to Tibet and even further into 
The Tea Horse Road began to decline after the 1960s with the
opening of the Yunnan-Tibetan and Sichuan-Tibetan highways,
but some sections of the famous road remain open and are
still used for transport purposes.

Today the ancient Tea Horse Road is at the forefront
again with the development of tourism in China’s
Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Over the years tens of thousands of horses and yaks
created the enduring path and even though some
traces of the ancient road are fading away, over the
centuries it brought together and linked many different
ethnic groups living near the road, adding to the diversity  of China, and is still valued
today for its cultural and historical elements.

Recently a Chinese expert was researching the Ancient Tea Horse Road and found a
complete map of the road that was drawn more than one hundred and fifty years ago
by a French missionary.  The map shows the road running through a series of towering
mountains, with rivers that flow in between, running from north to south.  There were
basically six main routes.  They were:
Route 1.  Begins in Xishuangbanna and Simao, home
of pu-erh tea via Kunming to other provinces in China
into Beijing.

Route 2.  Begins in Puerh (via Simao, Jinhong, Menghai to Daluo) in Yunnan Province
into Burma, then from Burma into

Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.Route 3.  Begins in Puerh via Xiaguan, Lijiang, Zhongdian into Tibet, then from Lhasa

Nepal and India.Route 4.  Begins in Puerh via Jiangcheng in Yunnan into

Vietnam, then from Vietnam into Tibet and Europe.Route 5.  Begins in Puerh via Simao, Lanchang, Menglian in Yunnan into Burma.

Route 6.  Begins in Puerh via Mengla in Yunnan into Burma.